Technological solutionism

At the end of March, I read a New York Times op-ed piece, “Machines of laughter and forgetting”, written by Evgeny Morozov. I struggled with it at the time, though I was not immediately sure why.

The author has a book out, To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism. His Times essay argues that “technology can save us a lot of cognitive effort, for ‘thinking’ needs to happen only once, at the design stage”. Morozov would prefer technologies that keep bugging us:

While devices-as-problem-solvers seek to avoid friction, devices-as-troublemakers seek to create an “aesthetic of friction” that engages users in new ways. Will such extra seconds of thought — nay, contemplation — slow down civilization? They well might. But who said that stopping to catch a breath on our way to the abyss is not a sensible strategy?

There is value in trying to build consumer awareness of issues with social and environmental implications. Morozov’s issues include appliances that consume more power than they need to, or web sites that obscure the extent to which they acquire and store personally identifiable information.

But his solutions (power cords that contort themselves to remind their owners that they are in use; browsers that send persistent reminders of things like how many web sites you visited yesterday) don’t necessarily improve decision making. “Devices as troublemakers” may try to remind consumers of an undesirable externality, but the “thinking”, as Morozov calls it, still happens at the design stage. He may like the thinking behind troublemaking technologies a bit more than I might, but it’s still part of design.

I’ve written before that improving workflows of any type relies on our ability to change processes (how work gets done), technology (the tools we use to do the work) and the roles that people play. We need to make changes in a way that balances the relative contributions of each. Optimizing one – making the tools do all the heavy lifting , in this case – will not work, as it presumes that the role of both the people and process components shift only when technology forces it.

Consider a simple example. If you’ve purchased an appliance in the United States in the last two decades, you know that energy-consumption stickers are both visible and standard-issue additions. I wholly get the idea that an inefficient refrigerator costs me more money and ultimately contributes to global warming, but… I also care how big it is, whether it can hold enough food for my family, whether it is more reliable than an alternate model and how long it will last before I need to replace it.

No decision is made in a vacuum. To shift the way a system works, the feedback mechanisms can’t be limited to annoying technological features. Believing that invasive technologies will address our collective failings is just as naïve as expecting that more benign technologies will cure everything that ails us.

If there’s a folly to “technological solutionism”, it’s in thinking that we can build any set of values into the technologies we use and they will carry the day. That won’t happen. We also have to talk about what we’re trying to accomplish and whose help we’re going to need to change things for the better.

An additional note: Around the time that Morozov's essay appeared in the New York Times, he also published "The meme hustler", a 16,000-word assessment of Tim O'Reilly's body of work. While Morozov's writing exposes some flaws in how "big" ideas develop, he declined an offer to speak directly with O'Reilly, a decision he documents at the end of the piece. Morozov and O'Reilly may never see eye to eye, but I think walking away from a conversation weakens Morozov's work. He may see me as part of the "meme-making machine", but I think we'd all benefit from a fuller presentation of the story.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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