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.