The English original of Evgeny Morozov's essay on technology and neoliberalism from the Feuilleton secton of the Sueddeutsche Zeitung on October 10th 2013. The German edition of his latest book "To Save Everything" ("Smarte neue Welt") has just been published.
In 1981, the American writer Raymond Carver published a short story collection with one charming title: "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." To the delight of fellow fiction writers, Carver's answer was anything but conclusive. Can one do better asking a similar question about technology? Is a critical stance towards technology even possible if one doesn't seek an answer to this question? What is it that we really talk about when we talk about technology today?
To listen to Silicon Valley and its cheerleaders, to talk technology today is to talk innovation, progress, emancipation. By analogy, to talk anti-technology is to succumb to a reactionary, anti-progressive view that offends the very spirit of Enlightenment. It is to be a Luddite and an enemy of human betterment.
This framing explains why the contemporary opposition to the policy imperialism of Silicon Valley is so ineffective and impotent; most of its critics seem to exist on intellectual life support, penning soulless screeds that predict the inevitable but never-arriving end of civilization. But there's also another consequence: once these digital “disruptors” have installed themselves as the true heirs to the Enlightenment project – they are organizing all the world's knowledge, aren't they? – Silicon Valley can invoke any modern achievement – from vaccination to space exploration – to justify a slew of pseudo-revolutionary projects with a far more ambiguous moral pedigree.
As arguments go, we are in truly bizarre territory here. That dentistry has been beneficial to civilization tells us very little about the wonders of data-mining. And yet, once both of them are lumped together as “technology,” we rarely reflect on such logical inconsistencies. You must either love technology or hate it. The media, delighted as they are to pit the technophobes against the technophiles, are all too happy to muddle the waters with their own alarmist slogans.
But if we want technology criticism to persevere – and what choice do we have when sensors, algorithms, and databases pervade more and more domains of our existence? – we must anchor the technological debate in something other than a mere romantic fetishization of a world untouched by machines and technology. That mythical, pre-technological world is long gone; worse, it may have never been as pure, just, and adorable as technology-bashers imagine it.
However, acknowledging that a world saturated with modern technologies is not automatically hostile to progressive and democratic ideals should not blind us to the fact that, due to the present historical situation, we are ill-equipped to unlock their emancipatory potential. In fact, the opposite is true: as long as the global political and economic regime is characterized by the dismantlement of the welfare state, the decline of the very idea of public goods, the triumph of tinkering over structural reform, the victory of psychology over philosophy as the favorite discipline of our technocratic classes, we shouldn't expect technology to perform much of an emancipatory function.
So, what is it that we – and by “we” I mean progressive critics who have little patience for the romanticism and conservatism of technology-bashers – talk about when we talk about technology? Certainly, it's not the dialectics of innovation, progress, or enlightenment, as Silicon Valley would prefer to have it. No, for the true and democratically minded critic, “technology” is just a slick, depoliticized euphemism for the neoliberal regime itself. To attack technology today is not to attack the Enlightenment – no, it is to attack neoliberalism itself.
Consider the outlines of a digital world that is rapidly coming into existence. All the achievements of social democracy – public health, public education, public transportation, public funding for the arts – are being undermined by the proliferation of highly personalized app-based solutions that seek to get rid of bureaucratic institutions and replace them with fluid and horizontal market-based interactions.
Under this new regime, our smartphones enable us to track our health – along with our sleeping, eating, and exercising patterns. The apps can tell us how to fix ourselves better than most doctors. But the social costs of such an approach, while still invisible, are not trivial : the app-ification of problem solving reduces health from a political and public issue – a project where clashing visions for improving the world have to compete for endorsement by engaged citizens – to a purely privatized project, where citizens morph into anonymous participants in the marketplace, invited to fix their bodies on their own terms and with their own resources.
In this new environment, appeals to the common good are neither heard nor articulated. In fact, the very idea of the common good becomes obsolete; “health” becomes a purely private affair, to be tackled by individuals rather than collectives. (So much for the organizing power of social networks!) After all, now that Google's organized all of the world's knowledge – it still hasn't indexed the physiological processes inside of us but it probably will at some point – how can we justify not knowing what is it that ails us? Not when all that knowledge is just a click away.
To oppose “technology” in this case is not to oppose science or the Enlightenment– it's simply to oppose the intrusion of neoliberal logic into the domain of health. It's also to acknowledge that an increase in the amount of actionable information does not necessarily entail an increase in the quality of life and can also have the very opposite effect.
Likewise, the current opposition to massive open online courses (or MOOCs) has nothing to do with technophobia. Rather, it is driven by concerns about our ability to imagine and defend a future where education is still seen as a public good that is not fully reducible to market relations. Silicon Valley – and many neoliberals – see the university as a giant waste of resources. The schooling is too long, too expensive, and promotes all sorts of dangerous (read: useless) ideas that are not needed in the marketplace. And the skills that you do need – well, those you can get online, via a series of videos.
Most universities would probably not fail immediately. Many of them, having fallen for the blurry MOOC vision, will stay afloat and embrace self-denial. But for how long? We know what the unhealthy fascination with pageviews has done to the quality of journalism; do we want the same fate to befall education? If so, you can wave goodbye to courses on Latin or the history of astronomy; your only choices would be law, engineering and finance.
What happens to thousands of extremely qualified academics – those not lucky enough to be teaching at MIT, Stanford or the Sorbonne – who are likely to see their lectures replaced by MOOCs from superstar professors? More importantly, what would happen to their research if they lose their full-time teaching jobs? Only the fools of Silicon Valley, with their vulgar utilitarianism that sees no distinctions between disciplines, can believe that creating more opportunities to spread knowledge is always better. If those opportunities hinge upon the destruction of other modes of creating and funding knowledge, then, perhaps, creating an additional MOOC on engineering is not such a great idea.
Similar complaints can be made about services like Uber and AirBnb that are increasingly lumped under the ridiculous label of “the sharing economy.” Their success might tie the hands of public institutions when it comes to regulating sectors like transportation and hospitality services. The ubiquitous connectivity of smartphones and the reliable reputation checks of social networks has sped up the emergence of new information markets; as a result, one can now bypass institutions and their arcane bureaucratic regulations, from various city tax laws to rules prohibiting discrimination and dynamic pricing.
The prophets of the “sharing economy” are not lying: translated into the currency of information, everything could become a potentially liquid asset. You can be making money by renting your cars, apartments, repair tools, books, dreams – thanks to cheap and small sensors and ubiquitous connectivity, virtually anything is game these days. And, as we are constantly reminded, by refusing to play by the rules of the sharing game, we are only hurting our own pockets.
A smartphone thus becomes a buzzing real-time calculator of what our life is worth – and of what it might be worth if we make the right trades at the right time. To think that this is anything but an extension of neoliberal logic to the most private corners of our existence – what the historian of economic thought Philip Mirowski calls “everyday neoliberalism” – is naïve. “Technology” is just a sweet euphemism here.
If technology criticism wants to stay relevant today, it has no choice but to stop playing the rhetorical game that has long been won by Silicon Valley. To talk technology today is not to talk about alienation, the decline of critical thinking, or the rise of shallow commentary on Twitter. This is a futile, dead project even if cranky cultural critics on both sides of the Atlantic seem so keen to revive it.
Today, a robust critique of technology should, first of all, be a critique of neoliberalism itself. Such recalibration might not do much by itself but it would at least force the apologists of perpetual digital disruption to come up with explicit arguments as to why public health or public education are no longer worth fighting for. And, with some luck and provocation, the public – or whatever is left of it – might not like what it hears.