Saturday, March 1, 2014

Studying Up: A Review of Alice Marwick’s Status Update

“When we up in the club, All eyes on us, All eyes on us, All eyes on us”
“Scream and Shout,” Will.i.AM
“Each one began to look at the others and to want to be looked at himself, and public esteem had value.  The one who sang or danced the best, the handsomest, the strongest, the most adroit, or the most eloquent became the most highly considered; and that was the first step toward inequality…”
“On the Origins of Inequality,” Jean Jacque Rousseau

Of late, when I’m reading a book, I’ll tweet about it.  Here’s what I said a moment before starting Alice Marwick’s Status Update:


I’m sure this is not the most scintillating tweet you’ve run across but it does illustrate a number of things about tweeting while reading.  First, I had included Alice Marwick’s twitter handle (@alicetiara) in the tweet which would notify the author that I was reading her book.  Although I’m sure I’m not the only one to have done this, I don’t think it’s a common practice on Twitter.  Who, after all, wants to tap into people who are life-streaming their reading of a book?  Even if the tweets are good, wouldn’t it be the case that (as the saying goes) “the book is better?”  Maybe.  But I do it anyway in the hope that the author will tweet something back and enrich the reading experience.  I also do it because of something Walter Ong, said about books in Orality and Literacy:

The Delphic oracle was not responsible for her oracular utterances, for they were held to be the voice of the god. Writing, and even more print, has some of this vatic quality. Like the oracle or the prophet, the book relays an utterance from a source, the one who really ‘said’ or wrote the book. The author might be challenged if only he or she could be reached, but the author cannot be reached in any book. There is no way directly to refute a text. After absolutely total and devastating refutation, it says exactly the same thing as before.

Ong, who died in 2003, didn’t know about Twitter.  But had he lived a few more years it’s possible he would have had the impulse to revise the above.  With Twitter the author can actually (occasionally) be reached, and the vatic quality of the book diminished.  By tweeting directly at the author, in the presence of one’s followers, one is, at least in some very diminished sense, attempting to subvert the vatic one-sided communication inherent in a book and move toward the give-and-take of an oral face-to-face culture.  Of course, if the author doesn’t reply to your tweets (and Marwick never responded to mine) then the vatic quality remains.  Score “1” for Marwick and a big “0” for me.

It might seem crass to keep score (even if I’m only joking about it) but it underscores one of the central points Status Update is making:  in Marwick’s view, social media users (or at least the users she studied in the Bay Area) tweet not only to exchange information but to increase their social capital.  And in striving to increase their social capital they also participate in modeling and practicing the type of activities that support neo-liberal economies that thrive on hustle.  Building on an argument first forwarded by Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron in “The Californian Ideology” Marwick contends that people involved in the Bay Area “tech scene” ascribe to a set of neo-liberal beliefs that give foundation and legitimacy to Silicon Valley entrepreneurial business practices.  On the surface, Silicon Valley presents itself as a counter culture that is epitomized in the figure of Steve Jobs who had more than a few hippy predilections including a vegan diet, youthful wanderings in India, and a [perhaps mortal] faith in the power of alternative medicine.  But while Silicon Valley may take on revolutionary and counter-cultural vestments, it’s more fundamental commitments are to neoliberalism and its celebration of individuals who compete freely with one another by selling and promoting themselves through markets.  While these cultural contradictions have been described by others besides Marwick (see for example Fred Turner’s, From Counterculture to CyberCulture), she throws in a kicker by arguing that these same contradictions have been embedded in so-called “Web 2.0“ social media platforms.  She observes that many people in the Valley believe that these platforms carry out democratic and egalitarian ends by facilitating connections and by spreading information.  While social media may do these things sometimes, in Marwick’s view, its more salient function is that people learn to use it for self promotion, for enhancing status, and for displaying oneself to others.   So in tweeting,  I too might have been “subjecting” myself to these same questionable models of social behavior.

As I was absorbing these points, I happened to tweet about them:



At the time, my tweeting seemed like a benign act.  I’d merely transferred my habits of annotating books from the physical marginalia of the printed page, into Twitter.  But if you apply Marwick’s theoretical framework to this act it takes on a darker more disturbing character.  To be sure I’m performing a Status Update (e.g. “Hey followers! I’m on page 6 of Marwick’s book and she’s making a pretty cool point!).  But I’m also probably engaging in a more competitive and performative act of updating (and promoting) my status (e.g. “Hey followers! Check out the erudite books I read!  Retweet it and maybe your followers will start following me).

While the second parenthetical is purposefully left unsaid when people tweet, seasoned Twitter users are aware of it.  And since we tolerate these types of messages and produce some of our own, we’re turning ourselves into subjects that model neoliberal ideals of virtue.  Marwick didn’t reply to this tweet either.  I can only speculate as to why but here are two possible explanations:    If she had internalized neoliberal subjectivity she probably wasn’t responding because her status wasn’t enhanced by connecting with me. Alternatively (and more positively), she didn’t respond because she didn’t want to participate in an interaction that gave further credence to neo-liberal models of the self.

In subsequent chapters on lifestreaming and self-branding Marwick argues that the performative self isn’t just a discrete behavior that people in Silicon Valley adopt while using social media.  Instead, it’s a behavior that pervades entire lives whether they are working, playing or socializing.   In the aggregate, Status Update is a compelling description of how some people in a particular time, and a particular place, inhabit and navigate through a neo-liberal world.

It’s worth emphasizing the fact that Marwick is talking about a particular time and a particular place.  Like any good ethnographer she tries to clarify the limits of her ethnography and the boundaries beyond which her analysis doesn’t reach.   But as readers, we want to know if the study scales.  Can Marwick’s observations be taken as a synecdoche of how the rest of us use social media?  Have the rest of us succumbed as completely to a neoliberal ethos as the Valley has?

Part of the answer to these questions lies in reviewing how others have studied culture.  In traditional ethnography anthropologists had a tendency to “study down.”  They took their craft to the ends of the earth, and instead of studying the colonizers, they studied the colonized.  Marwick has done the reverse.  She is mostly studying up.  She uses the rather regal twitter handle “@alicetiara,”   she hobnobs at the invitation-only conference Google Zeitgeist, she flies to the expensive South by South West conference, she cabs to “an opulent hilltop event space” for a Facebook party, she agonizes over what to wear in front of the step and repeat at the Webutante Ball.   This isn’t to say that there’s something inherently wrong in studying up.  Elites too deserve study and the requirements of participant observation (as anthropologists call it) probably justify the amount of time Marwick devotes to glamming it up with the tech glitterati.  But studying up, just like studying down, has its limitations and they are on display here.

First, the elites that Marwick studies are mostly in the business of promoting, selling, marketing and writing about technology.  Even though she’s married to an engineer, she spends little time talking about how actual programmers and engineers feel about their position in the mode of production.  Status Update in other words, focuses on the consumption of technology rather than its production.

Second, Status Update portrays a world where everyone is on the make, where everyone has become outer directed, where the authentic self is eclipsed by the edited self, and where everyone has become so consumed by self-presentation that nothing is left but an edited self.  This hyper edited self actually seems to be the subject that Marwick currently inhabits.  She’s @alicetiara instead of @alicemarwick.   She is circumspect in replying to tweets.  Her “mentor,” “champion,” and “collaborator” (as she states in the acknowledgements) is Danah Boyd who actually goes by the overtly edited moniker danah boyd.  Marwick “agonizes” over what to wear.  To be fair to Marwick it’s possible that we’re actually all pretty outer directed and that we all seek acclaim from others.  In the Discourse on Inequality  Roussau postulates  that this is simply a facet of becoming civilized.  So even if we don’t subscribe to neoliberalism, maybe Status Update is a mirror that reflects all of us.  And maybe Marwick is just being a little more honest then the rest of us about the fact that she’s outer directed. Still, it’s unlikely that we are outer-directed to the same degree.  That seems pretty clear when I associate with my plainly dressed programming colleagues, a good portion of whom occupy the top introverted quadrants of the Myers Briggs test.  It’s not like we don’t occasionally like to bask in the limelight.  But programmers wouldn’t be programmers if they didn’t derive some of their most enjoyable experiences from talking to machines rather than performing in front of others.  Pace Will.i.AM we don’t generally like to have “all eyes on us.”

Third, part of the purpose of studying up is to examine how the colonizers have subjected (or reshaped) the colonized.  Marwick does a pretty good job of showing how that has taken place in the Bay Area.  But it’s an open question as to how much the ideology of the Valley has colonized the rest of us.  I’m a programmer and I’ve programmed in Utah (sometime referred to as “Silicon Slopes”) for the last thirteen years.  Before that I programmed in Kentucky.   So I’ve met my share of people who live close to the Web and use the term “Web 2.0” in our daily working lives.  Many of us are still earnestly laboring to embed Web 2.0 principles in software.  But most of us aren’t involved in start-ups, or living anywhere near “the scene” (as Marwick describes the Valley), or subscribing in any conscious way to the tenets of neoliberalism.   In particular, when Marwick suggests that neoliberal ideology is part and parcel of whatever people have adopted when they subscribe to Web 2.0 principles and Web 2.0 technologies she is making an association that probably doesn’t have that much traction outside her field site.  The people who use the term most these days are programmers and designers who refer to it when they are trying to describe a rich user interface that is snappy and responsive.  It has a discrete meaning and its principles are subscribed to by programmers and designers of many different political stripes.  Some of them may be neoliberals but others of them are distinctly not.  Status Update however glosses over this more common usage and piles onto the term a set of politics that are not in keeping with the way the term is most commonly employed.  This isn’t to say that Marwick has invented her definition out of whole cloth.  She gets it from the way Tim O’Reilly and other hoi poloi of the Valley have tried to spin the term.  But the dissonance between her definition and the way it is used elsewhere illustrates the fact that her study cannot be easily scaled.   Put another way, Status Update may be a faithful portrait of life in the Valley.  But we should be careful not to let that portrait eclipse how technology is being produced and used in the hinterlands where social media may be being repurposed for other ends.

In studying up Status Update misses a large segment of Web 2.0 producers and consumers and the less narcissistic ways that some of its members have chosen to integrate themselves into late capitalism.  If cyberspace was developed in Silicon Valley (and that proposition might itself be a myth) its power base is diffusing rapidly out across the world.  To document this digital culture we’ll need to complement Marwick’s successes in studying up with ethnographies that “study out” and “study down.”  Until then we won’t know whether or not the colonizers have actually colonized the rest of us.



Thursday, February 27, 2014

Super Lonely Semi-True Internet Stories: The Debate Over Sociability and Social Media Continues

If you keep up with the pundits who make a professional study of social media, you’ll know that some of them (including William Powers, Sherry Turkle and Stephen Marche) argue that social media doesn’t always make us more social. Two years ago, in “Social Media's Small, Positive Role in Human Relationships,” Zeynep Tufekci called into question these claims.  And now again, in “The Social Internet: Frustrating,Enriching, but Not Lonely,” she revisits the issue:

Communications technologies are neither dehumanizing nor isolating when they provide social connectivity. When my phone beeps because my ninety-year-old grandmother in Istanbul is calling, it is anything but dehumanizing. When my high school classmates rally on Facebook to morally, physically, and, if necessary, financially support one of us during a major illness, it is anything but dehumanizing. On the contrary, without the Internet most of us would have disappeared from each other’s communities and lives. And it’s profoundly humanizing when people first meet online and convert those relationships to face-to-face friendships, as about one in five people in North America have done.

These points are well taken: in many and perhaps most situations, the new technologies of connectivity do enable sociability.   But then Tufekci goes on to conclude: "Conceptually, empirically, and, above all, ethically, we have an obligation to end the moral panic that the Internet is making us lonely and isolated."  Does this follow?  Should we stop worrying just because the internet isn't in general making us lonely?  Oddly, in a move that calls into question her own conclusion, Tufekci volunteers many situations in which the internet isn't catalyzing sociability:

…if the “snail mail” annual family bulletin listing the year’s trials and tribulations is now sent by e-mail, or if engagements and pregnancies are announced only on Facebook, Aunt Edna, who’s not online much, may never hear of them. No one means to exclude her, of course, but the new way to systematically contact everyone on a list excludes her because she’s not online.

And Edna, of course, is only one example of instances where our communication devices marginalize people rather than bring them together into a tighter social fold. 
When I drive down the highway and reach for my cell phone rather than paying attention to the road, I’m jeopardizing a particularly important community of attention that keeps me and my fellow drivers in the land of the living and the land of the social.  And when my cell inadvertently rings during a presentation, that too disrupts an important social space.  The cyberasocial (a demographic that Zeynep may herself have coined) are another group whose social prospects also suffer as the rest of us flock online. In raising these problems I’m not suggesting that social media is having an aggregate negative effect on human relationships.  I’m just saying that there are further refinements that we can make as we adapt to our new technologies and that we shouldn't become complacent just because the glass is half full.

Tufekci also suggests that when we celebrate face-to-face communication over online, it can “become another way for people with privilege to claim a form of cultural capital that is denied to others.”  To be sure elites worry about these things.  But the laments are hardly confined to them.  In Susan Matt’s history of homesickness in America, she found many American immigrants use Skype and other communication technologies to commune with families left behind.  But while those immigrants valued the connectivity that Skype offered, they volunteered that their ability to assuage homesickness through a phone call home paled in comparison to an actual physical visit home.  I’ll venture to say that Tufekci embodies these sentiments in her own life: she may call her grandma in Istanbul but she also flies there in person a couple of times a year (or at least her Twitter feed suggests as much).


For Tufekci, our present worries are a "moral panic" (and possibly another venue for repressing an under-class).   But to pundits who give more credence to these concerns, a better description is “deliberative adaptation.”  When we release technologies into the world it takes a while for us to figure out how to use them wisely.  And it also takes time to figure out the contexts in which to avoid their use.  We’ve bought cable subscriptions and data plans and smart phones because we know intrinsically that these technologies expand and enrich and sustain our social selves.  Why else (unless we’re simple dupes of social media marketing) would we be spending money on this stuff?  But just because on average they’re improving our social lives, doesn't mean that it’s time to stop learning how to use these devices to our best social advantage.  Pace Tufekci’s protestations, that inquiry is still a worthwhile form of deliberation to be engaging in. 

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Movie Her: Some Discussion Questions


Last week I assigned the movie Her to my one credit class titled "Coding Culture."  Below is a list of questions I fielded to the class after we had seen it:
  • Can humans fall in love with machines?
  • Do people in the future have technology fetishes?
  • Does Samantha pass the Turing test?
  • What is the technological aesthetic of the future?
  • What is the significance of beautifulHandWrittenLetters.com
  • In what sense is Theodore playing the same role as the sex surrogate?
  • Is Theodore mediating love between humans?
  • True of False: Is Theodore packaging up love in the same way as the company that produced Samantha?
  • How much do we want our love packaged?
  • Is Samantha is able to transcend the limits of the embodied self?
  • What technology is naturalized in the movie that has not yet become naturalized today?
  • How do humans in Her treat their mobile devices?
  • What is the primary interface?  Visual or auditory?
  • Why can’t Samantha continue to love Theodore?
  • Would Theodore have been satisfied being one person in a harem of many?
  • Did you notice where it was filmed?
  • How far into the future is the movie depicting?
  • Is this love 2.0?
  • Is Samantha an embodied presence?
  • Does Samanatha have any bugs?
  • Should Theodore have been able to get a full refund after Samantha leaves him?
  • How does Samantha compare to Theodore ex?  
  • What does Siri think of Her?
  • Is Theodore better by the end of the film?
  • Is this a dystopian or utopian view of the future?
  • Is machine love something to be hopeful for?
  • Would machine love enhance or diminish us?  Is it better than anti-depressants?  How do they differ from depressants?
  • What is the difference between a human and a machine?
  • Why does Samantha pause when she talks to Theodore?  Does this make her less or more authentic?
  • Can people only love if they experience other people’s limitations?
  • True or false? "The robot, which at first seems only to be something one chooses because its 'better than nothing' becomes instead 'better than anything.' "
  • Do you sympathize more with Theodore’s ex or with his long-time woman friend?
  • Is Sherry Turckle's title of her book (Alone Together Why we expect more from technology and less from each other) a fitting description of what is happening in Her?
  • What kind of love depends on our partner being an embodied presence?
  • Does Samantha feel?  Or is it just performance?  What is the significance of her pausing?  Does she need to pause?
  • Do computers need to be embodied to be truly human? 
  • How much of a connection can we have with someone else if we don’t have similar limitations?
  • What would it do to our own lives to have Samantha as a companion?  Would it diminish or enhance our lives?
  • What are Sherry Turkle’s objections to robots?  
  • Could robots cure loneliness?
  • Is it fair to think of Samantha purely as a girl friend surrogate?
  • Compare Her to AI to Lars The Real Girl.  How are robots represented in each film?
  • Can we form attachments to non-humans?

Monday, November 25, 2013

Panel Discussion in the News

Our panel discussion on internet security and privacy was written up in the Standard Examiner and the Signpost.

Here by the way is the list of questions I brought to the panel in my capacity of moderator.  I didn't actually get to ask all of them of course:

1) Are we being watched?  What precisely is the substance of Edward Snowden's revelations?

2) How much do we need to temper our hopes that the internet can be a positive force for democracy and freedom?

3) Is the problem we are discussing a technological problem or a political one?

4) Is the choice between privacy and security always a zero sum game?

5) What historical abuses exist that might scare people who arent very concerned by the amount of govt. surveillance that is happening today?

6) Is privacy over-rated?

7) Have we absorbed the lessons from 1984?

8) Is the NSA abusing it’s surveillance prerogatives?

9) Is the rule-of-law being abrogated? Do we have an independent judiciary and an open and accountable government?

10) What over-sight or checks and balances exist to ensure that our surveillance agencies are abiding by the law?

11) What is a reasonable amount of privacy?

12) What surveillance actions, in the name of national security is it reasonable for the govt. to take?

13) Should our expectations about privacy evolve as our technology evolves?  Should privacy rights be determined by technological context?

14) Technology is always in the position of making the legal system play catch up.  New forms of surveillance emerge that the law and the courts haven’t anticipated.  Can the public be assured that surveillance wont be used for fishing expeditions, that surveillance data wont be stored in perpetuity, and only accessed as needed?

15) Given the abuses that Snowden/Greenwald have unveiled, is it reasonable for the public to demand a very high threshold for the gathering, storage, and use of surveillance information?
----put in audit mechanisms to sanction and uncover abuse.  But don’t put in place front end barriers
----fantasy that more info leads to greater clarity


16) In eastern european nations regimes looked at the telephone and said, oh, here is an opportunity to find out who is against us!  and then proceeded to put taps on their phones.  Don't we want to reject that?

17) Why should anybody who is not a criminal be worried?  "I have nothing to hide. So why worry?"

---A sensible answer if we could assume that govt. doesn't make mistakes, is always accurate, is always honest, and isn't full of Hoover types.  But are they?

18) Are we allowing our fear of terrorism to trump our desire for privacy?  Conversely, are we allowing our desire for privacy jeapordize our security?

19) Is the choice between privacy and security always a zero sum game?

20) Should we be more concerned about the way govt. is surveilling us, or the way private corporations do?  From whom do we have more to fear?

21) Is it effective to gather all this data?  Is more data necessarilly better?

22) Is Edward Snowden a hero or a traitor?

23) Would a public conversation about the powers of the NSA happened anyway in spite of Snowden?  Hadn't Obama asked

24) To what extent should we expect to see the powers of the NSA curbed (or at least more broadly audited) in the wake of Snowden's revelations?  Does the presidency have a very strong incentive to reform govt. surveillance?  Google and Amazon claim that they are experiencing serious losses due to customers who are uneasy about the Americans govt. power to tap into these services.  Will those losses incentivize the govt. to curtail surveillance more?


25) What can we do as citizens and or hacktivists to uphold the imperatives of security, privacy and the rule-of-law?

Friday, November 15, 2013

Panel Discussion on Security and Privacy in the Digital Age

Here are posters for the upcoming panel discussion I'm organizing for the Technology Outreach Center. The official poster is the top one. I actually prefer the bottom one but people I talked to found the title too obscure:


The second one:



Sunday, November 10, 2013

Sanctuaries for the Mind in the Digital Age: A Conversation With William Powers

Below is an interview I did of William Powers when he visited our Weber State University campus. The interview is published in the Fall 2013 issue of Weber: The Contemporary West.

Your web browser doesn't have a PDF plugin. Instead you can click here to download the PDF file.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Public Intellectuals, Tech Intellectuals and Evgeny Morozov

Henry Farrell, associate professor of political science at George Washington University, has just published an incisive article about tech intellectuals that is framed around Russell Jacoby's 80's lament about the decline of public intellectuals.  It's also an interesting (albeit somewhat one-sided) take-down of Evgeny Morozov.  There's a whole slew of interesting comments about the piece on the Crooked Timber blog from the likes of Steven Johnson, Nicholas Carr and Zeynep.  Here's my own comment:

Now that Evgeny Morozov is enrolled in grad school I wonder whether that indicates that he harbors some of the same doubts that you have about the quality of his work. And if I was one of the many authors he has trashed I’d probably be pretty sympathetic to the portrait you draw of him in your review: Perhaps he does unfairly skew the arguments of his opponents. Still, I wonder if all of that might be forgiven given the fact that your essay is inspired by Russell Jacoby’s laments about the decline of public intellectuals. Jacoby might have written his work in the 80′s but I doubt things have changed much in academe, or specifically in political science, since its publication. My bet is that the American Political Science Association and its associated journals are still producing desiccating works that are unreadable by anybody but the most dedicated wonks. Which is too bad because politics, and the politics of technology, should hardly be the province of political science alone. It may currently take the agonism (and imprecisions) of Morozov to spark a public conversation about power and how power is redistributed by technology. But that’s a better outcome than relegating those debates to professionals inside academe. (from: http://crookedtimber.org/2013/09/10/internet-intellectuals/#comment-482358 )

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Solutionism, Adversarial Design, and the Politics of Usability

Note: The following review of Evgeny Morozov's To Save Everything Click Here explores the intersection between UX and political theory.  For a shorter review that is targeted at a larger group of educational technologists see my review on Instructure's Keep Learning blog.

In To Save Everything Click Here, Evgeny Morozov, is, by his own admission, the take down artist par extraordinaire.  Do you have a passing regard for Clay Shirky’s belief that the internet triggered the Arab Spring and that the architecture of the internet might serve as a model for government?   Do you perchance think as Nicholas Carr does in The Shallows that browsing the Web diminishes our capacity to think deeply?  Were you largely persuaded by Tim Wu’s history in the The Master Switch?  Do you think that technology actually does exhibit autonomous behaviors as Kevin Kelly argues in What Technology Wants?  I know I do.  In my view they are canonical thinkers on the Web.  But after reading Morozov, I’m a little less sure about their status because he does his compelling best to turn them into hollow idols who have fallen prey to internet-centrism (the belief that the Internet has an essence which gives legitimacy to certain forms of justice) and, to some degree, to solutionism. 

Solutionism, as Morozov describes it, is the attempt to impose tech fixes on social practices that may not need fixing, as well as the concomitant effort to restrict the spaces in which we exercise moral choices.  Morozov best illustrates this by contrasting the Berlin subway system to the New York one.   In Berlin, there are no turnstiles or other machinery that enforce the purchase of a ticket.  Of course, passengers are still expected to buy tickets.   But if you don’t you can still get on the metro and ride it (assuming the risk that a conductor might apprehend you if you can’t show him one).  In contrast, in New York there are turnstiles.  And these are there to prevent you from boarding unless you’ve already purchased a ticket.  Morozov argues that in Berlin the design ensures that you have a moral choice to make (to pay or not to pay?) whereas in New York that choice has already been made for you.  The New York design, is more “frictionless” and efficient since you can’t break the rules.  But Morozov questions whether this efficiency is actually a desirable design since we need to exercise moral choices to be truly human.  

Similarly, Morozov questions Google’s attempt to give us driverless cars. And in a recent Slate essay  he also asks the same thing about personalized maps.  While both of those technologies may help us get to our destinations in greater comfort and with less effort, he thinks that in diminishing our chances of getting lost or taking a wrong turn we’ll be less likely to confront difference. After all with a driverless car who needs to enter the public sphere or take public transportation?  And with a  good map who needs to stop and ask for directions from a stranger?  While confronting difference and experiencing a moment of discomfort or disorientation might not be something that we desire as much as efficiency, Morozov argues that those experiences are worth preserving because they turn us into more civic beings who are better prepared to live with the tensions and differences that are inherent in a democratic society.

Solutionist designs, whether they be turnstiles, driverless cars, or customized maps, may improve efficiency and increase order.  But in Morozov’s view they limit the situations in which we are presented with choices that have moral consequences.  Against solutionist designs, Morozov suggests that we preserve some disorder and turbulence in our lives as a way to expand our opportunity to meet cultures and people who are other than ourselves and to expand opportunities to grapple with moral choices.

The attack against solutionism is made well enough in To Save Everything.  But the relationship between design and solutionism is brought into even better focus in Morozov’s New Republic review of Walter Isaacson’s bestselling biography of Steve Jobs.  Jobs, as most of us know, was not a particularly likeable character and didn’t have the civic dispositions that, for example, Bill Gates has displayed in recent years in his efforts to cure malaria.  But that didn’t mean a political conscience was wholly absent, and Morozov makes note of this conscience.  It’s illustrated in the following passage from Isaacson’s biography where Jobs reflects on the laborious process his family went through in buying a washing machine:

We spent some time in our family talking about what’s the trade-off we want to make. We ended up talking a lot about design, but also about the values of our family. Did we care most about getting our wash done in an hour versus an hour and a half? Or did we care most about our clothes feeling really soft and lasting longer? Did we care about using a quarter of the water? We spent about two weeks talking about this every night at the dinner table. (From Walter Isaacson’s Biography Steve Jobs)

While Jobs was thinking in a manifestly political way about his use and purchase of a technology, Morozov argues that most commodities that Silicon Valley produces don’t provoke similar ruminations.  Apple was an exception to this since in their 1984 commercial and their classic “Hi I’m an Mac and I’m a PC” there’s a distinct—if ultimately duplicitous—attempt to associate the brand with a revolutionary counter-culture.  But Apple’s focus on functional and “pure” design that “just works” (to use Job’s and Jonathan Ive’s own wording)  tend to privilege and highlight the relationship between the user and the commodity rather than the relationship between the user, the commodity, and a larger world fraught with political and social tensions.  As Morozov puts it:

Worrying about usability – the chief concern of many designers today – is like counting calories on the sinking Titanic.  This obsession with usability, with making technology invisible and unobtrusive, has created a world where we are hardly aware of how much energy our households consume.  It won’t take long until we discover that our smartphones, in their quest for usability, also hide an equally disturbing reality: that massive toxic dumps of electronic waste usually find their way to cash-strapped countries. (To Save Everything, p. 336)

In his essays and in To Save Everything Click Here, Morozov goes through a litany of situations where the solutionist ethic (and it’s tendency to obscure and contract the political) is present.  He talks of predictive policing that is making the spectre of Minority Report a reality, automated digital parking meters that fail to help drivers ruminate on the philosophy and politics of parking, and turnstiles, which we’ve already talked about above.  But I think Morozov’s critique is at its sharpest when he eviscerates Kelly McGonigal’s book The WillPower Instinct (Kelly is the twin sister of Jane McGonigal who wrote Reality is Broken).  Like nudge theorists  such as Cass Sunstein, Kelly McGonigal would like to reduce the numberof moral challenges we face as we go through life, and whenever possible, turn them into situations where we make the right choice on the basis of self-interest rather than on abstract moral principles.  As Morozov notes:

In her analysis of willpower, McGonigal, much like her twin sister in her analysis of gamification, completely sidesteps all moral questions and simply treats them as irrelevant.  She argues that we need to stop talking about behavior in moral terms, using words like ‘virtue’ and instead focus on how our individual actions make us feel.  ‘We idealize our own desire to be virtuous and many people believe that they are most motivated by guilt and shame.  But who are we kidding? We are most motivated by getting what we want and avoiding what we don’t want.  Moralizing a behavior makes us more, not less likely to feel ambivalent about it.’ (To Save Everything, p. 342)

Morozov’s critique instantiates a familiar archetype and one that is his mortal disciplinary enemy precisely because it shirks virtue:

The growing appeal of self-tracking, nudges, gamification, and even situational crime prevention…can only be understood in the broader intellectual context of the last few decades. The sad reality is that philosophy, with its preoccupation with virtue and the good life, has been all but defeated by psychology, neuroscience, economics (of the rational choice variety)…..instead of investigating and scrutinizing the motivations for our actions, trying to separate the good ones from the bad, policymakers fixate on giving us the right incentives or removing the option to do the wrong thing altogether.  (To Save Everything, p. 343)

Morozov is also alluding to a larger ideological difference that separates him from his many enemies.  He doesn’t use the term himself, but Morozov is sympathetic to that strain of American thought known as civic republicanism.  Civic republicans hold that people are not strictly motivated by self-interested, market-oriented actions, and that many people like to spend their time thinking about virtue and realizing it through civic and political activity.   Like Morozov, they stand  in contrast to Americans who live by a classical Liberal ideology (with a large L) in contrast,  and who see humans as largely redeemed through activities in the marketplace, through actions that promote self interest, and through a life that places little or no emphasis on what virtue is.  

In a vision that evokes Aristotle and Hannah Arendt, both of whom harbored civic republican sentiments and regarded political action and thought as the apex of human activity,  Morozov wants to combat the Liberal anti-political ideology that is embedded in much of solutionism.   And, as he makes clear in his closing chapter, he sees the best weapon  for this battle in “adversarial design,” a term coined by Carl DiSalvo,  that favors technological solutions that deliberately strive to create spaces for political contestation over ones that simply emphasize usability, efficiency, and frictionlessness.  

Adversarial design is the heart of of Morozov’s answer to solutionism and its discontents.  And it’s appealing to Morozov because it allows the practice of politics to be reinserted into the space that geeks have created to escape politics.   It is a way of injecting state-craft back into the craftsman activities many developers have retreated to. 

I’m thrilled by Morozov’s advocacy of adversarial design because it lends substance to a type of development work that I strive to do and that others are doing.  For example, right now I’m building software that helps students grapple with smart phone etiquette and the social and political consequences that attend its use in different contexts.  Versions of this software  have some nudge effects built into them that reflect my own vision of the good life in a digital age. So I confess that its design (and software like it which include Freedom and Pause ) is not completely politically neutral.  However, its larger purpose is to help student reflect on the way that digital technologies foster connection and sociability and the contexts in which we should use these powers of association.  And it’s fulfilled this purpose within the confines of class since students have appreciated the way that the software provokes them to think about their relationship to technology and to each other.  

As a political theorist and software developer I particularly appreciate Morozov’s attempt to battle solutionism by injecting politics back into tool building.  However, I’m also cognizant of its limitations.   Pace Morozov and and others who hold up the civic republican tradition,  I’m less inclined to think of politics and morality as concerns that confer the deepest meaning on human life.  And since I work in the company of other developers I know that they display similar dispositions.  Call me a philistine,  but most of the time I’d rather be doing something else than being a political being.   Morozov, in his erudition, summons media theorist Michael Schudson to describe this sensibility as the plight of the “political backpacker.”  Backpackers like to go into the wilderness and spend some time cooking and camping for themselves.  But soon enough most backpackers emerge from the wildernesss and are happy to relegate cooking and sheltering to other entities than themselves.  Political backpackers feel analogous sentiments.  Occasional forays into politics make us feel good because they help us to grow as political beings.  But most of us would consider it a curse to spend all or even the majority of our lives in that realm. ( Even Steve Jobs, who obviously got a jag from his very public Apple presentations reported that he was happiest when he wandered into Jonathan Ive’s  private workshop and spent time handling Apple product  prototypes. ) 

We want our technologies to do the same for us as well.  For a better and richer life we want--and have a duty-- to confront our relationship to our technology and consider how it constructs our relationship with others and the world around us.   So our technologies shouldn’t be frictionless all the time.  They shouldn’t permanently shield us from politics.   But most of the time we just want our technologies to exhibit the same behaviors that Job’s and Ive’s have glowingly attributed to Apple’s products:  “it just works!” This then is the design dilemma we face in a nation that wants to be faithful to both its Liberal and Civic Republican traditions:  How do we develop technologies that enlarge our capacity to be political beings while at the same time catering to our more pedestrian and commercially oriented selves? 

Morozov would answer that we should embed a little more of our civic republican traditions into our technologies.  I know from experience working as a software developer that the prospects for doing so are limited.  Morozov, with uncharacteristic humility, knows this too when he says in his postscript:

As confident as I am in my ability to take down unworthy ideas, I don’t think I can do much about solutionism – at least, no more than I can do something about utopianism or romanticism. …all three have a long history of abuse…we can’t rid the world of people who want to ‘fix’ politics….we can’t rid ourselves of solutionism. (To Save Everything, p. 355)


So solutionism is here to stay.  But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to counter its effects by developing adversarial technologies that enlarge possibilities for political agency.  Whatever Morozov’s faults (and the people on whom he levels his withering criticism say he has many) he deserves accolades for giving compelling intellectual credence to this initiative.  Tool-builders  --even Jobs--  shirk the political. And people involved in statecraft rarely venture into programming craft.  But in a democratic society we can’t afford those divisions. Morozov provides one interesting avenue for bringing these activities a little closer together.