During the summer holidays I decided to read Evgeny Morozov’s To Save Everything, Click Here: Technology, Solutionism and the Urge to Fix Problems That Don’t Exist. My main reason to start reading this book was due to Morozov’s concept of solutionism, i.e. the urge to fix problems with (digital) technological means, even when unnecessary or unhelpful. Is this concept relevant for my research, or for the Digital Humanities? I’ll try to answer that question in this book review.
In the discussions and developments around digital technology, Morozov sees two prominent ideologies that he criticizes with this book. First, chapter one describes the aforementioned solutionism, where technology is employed to solve problems that are not necessarily problems, but rather excuses to use the technologies at hand. Second, chapter two describes Internet-centrism, where “the Internet” is used as a term to describe everything digital, and make all related concepts untouchable, for “the Internet” is a good thing. Moreover, this Internet-centrism describes the idea that the Internet is a revolution in human history, and should be seen as a new epoch in which all other things should be modelled after the Internet (or more specifically, organized like Wikipedia).
In the following chapters, Morozov criticizes the two ideologies unforgivingly, which makes for an enjoying read. However, he regularly cuts corners and appears to criticize cases because he does not want to understand their potential virtues. When addressing solutionism with respect to politics, he writes ““the Internet” is a great solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. The ultimate irony is that Internet-centric solutionists, in misdiagnosing the problem and trying to fix it in a rather perfunctory manner, may breed problems of their own” (p114) – the problem does not exist, yet is apparently also being misdiagnosed. What’s more, Morozov does not shy away from a good Godwin: “no one liked the idea that technology is just an extension of nature more than the Nazis … the Nazis heard the voice of technology: it informed them about gas chambers” (p217). One case of solutionism Morozov criticizes is Mendeley’s goal of measuring scholarly impact with more metrics, i.e. more data, and make science more efficient. Morozov quickly notes this may not be a good thing, and does so by pointing at the discussion around the impact factor, the very problem altmetrics such as Mendeley’s try to circumvent. In all his examples, Morozov employs the same assumption: because the means to address problems are fixed, namely with digital technology, he assumes the means are actually the goal, and there is no real problem at all. I think this assumption is too easy.
Is DH guilty?
His case for both solutionism and Internet-centrism might be valid mostly in the context of Silicon Valley talk, though even there it sounds somewhat prejudiced, but not so much for DH, where information technology is usually placed in a wider context than simply a twenty-year-old ‘era’ of the digital, although ‘digital age’ is a popular term in DH as well. Still, in his criticism of these two ideologies Morozov points to lots of research that raises questions of relevance also for the Digital Humanities. Are DH scholars guilty of pro-innovation bias? In academic literature, only about 1/1,000 articles address the negative or undesirable consequences of innovation (Sveiby, Gripenberg & Segercrantz, 2012), how is this in DH? Is the process of digitising all (or as much as possible) material in archives and libraries a manifestation of information-processing imperative, “the view of information gathering as knowledge discovery along a single, inevitable trajectory of forward progress” (Cohen, 2012)? To answer why we would like to collect so much information or data, Morozov points to the hope that this might lead to the discovery of patterns. Yet, he warns that this hope may be futile, citing research by Austin et al. (2006): “the more we look for patterns, the more likely we are to find them, particularly when we don’t begin with a particular question“, an issue recently wonderfully visualised by Tyler Vigen’s spurious correlations. What can DH expect from the ‘discovery of patterns’ recently popularised by scholars such as Rens Bod (Bod, 2013)?
Deliberation through interface
Despite his strong criticisms, Morozov does not intent to be a technophobe. In the final chapter, he describes his thoughts on how interfaces should work: “properly designed, technological schemes can expand -rather than shrink, as the technophobes would argue- both the deliberative spaces where we think through our shared problems and the number of concrete avenues through which virtue and citizenship can be exercised” (p322). The fight is not against digital technology per se, but against digital technology that limits users in their choices. Especially in the Humanities, scholars should grasp what technological systems do and what their limitations are. In my own research, I’m interested in the role of black boxes, specifically when scholars use search results they cannot fully explain (Kemman, Kleppe & Scagliola, 2014). Can we in DH design systems that really help scholars to deliberate the results of their search queries and their digital analyses?
I like to think we can.
Austin, P. C., Mamdani, M. M., Juurlink, D. N., & Hux, J. E. (2006). Testing multiple statistical hypotheses resulted in spurious associations: a study of astrological signs and health. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, 59(9), 964–9. doi:10.1016/j.jclinepi.2006.01.012
Bod, R. (2013). Who’s afraid of Patterns? The Particular versus the Universal and the Meaning of Humanities 3.0. BMGN – Low Countries Historical Review, 128(4), 171–180.
Cohen, J. E. (2012). Privacy, Autonomy, and Information. In Configuring the Networked Self: Law, Code, and the Play of Everyday Practice (Online.). Yale University Press.
Kemman, M., Kleppe, M., & Scagliola, S. (2014). Just Google It. In C. Mills, M. Pidd, & E. Ward (Eds.), Proceedings of the Digital Humanities Congress 2012. Sheffield, UK: HRI Online Publications.
Morozov, E. (2013). To Save Everything, Click Here: Technology, Solutionism and the Urge to Fix Problems That Don’t Exist. Penguin UK.
Sveiby, K.-E., Gripenberg, P., & Segercrantz, B. (2012). The Unintended and Undesirable Consequences of Innovation: Neglected by Innovation Research. In K.-E. Sveiby, P. Gripenberg, & B. Segercrantz (Eds.), Challenging the Innovation Paradigm (pp. 61–86). Taylor & Francis