The problem is solutionism


In this week’s issue of Nature, I review two new and perceptive studies of the internet’s cultural and political effects: Evgeny Morozov’s To Solve Everything, Click Here and Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future? Morozov offers a critique of a phenomenon Daniel M. Fox gave name to back in 1995: “technocratic solutionism.” Lanier dissects the net’s existing structure and shows how it has skewed our social and economic arrangements.

Here’s an excerpt from my review:

Although Morozov is right to stress the way in which technological determinism can warp political debates, he ends up going too far in the opposite direction. He claims that “the Internet”— his quotation marks — is largely a rhetorical construct, a sort of popular myth, and that it lacks any inherent qualities that might shape the behaviour of its users. Digital technologies, he asserts, “are not the causes of the world we live in but rather its consequences.” This is a naive view of large-scale networks, and it lets Morozov sidestep difficult questions about the way the Net, like the highway system and the electric grid before it, moulds our economy and culture in its own image.

Lanier offers a more searching examination of the Internet’s defects in Who Owns the Future? The Net’s workings, he argues, have been shaped by an ideology that, although well-intentioned, has deformed our commercial and social relationships. By mistaking free information for freedom, the network’s designers and defenders have inadvertently created a system that centralizes power and profit. Companies like Google and Facebook take in billions of dollars by hosting online exchanges, while the people who actually create whatever is being exchanged — words, ideas, works of art — often get nothing. The joy of participation, they’re told, should be compensation enough.

As digital networks come to regulate more of the economy, Lanier sees a perverse dynamic taking hold. Wealth concentrates around those who control the servers and databases, whereas risk spreads outward to the masses. He points to the banking crisis of 2008 as an example. By erasing local market boundaries and controls, computerized financial systems helped funnel riches to a handful of bankers and traders — yet when the system collapsed, it was ordinary citizens who paid the bill.

Nature subscribers can read the whole review here.

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