To Save Everything, Deliberate it Endlessly?

Evgeny Morozov’s book To Save Everything, Click Here is a worthwhile tour de force of technology criticism that will have you double-taking on everything you hold near and dear about the Internet. The book’s basic premise is that of a polemic against the ideas of “solutionism” (i.e., the tendency to apply efficiency-oriented, engineering fixes to societal problems) and “internet centrism” (i.e., the treatment of the internet as an infallible, ever-positive force on humanity). He covers a gamut, raising flags of caution and moral suspicion on everything from openness and transparency, to algorithms in the media, predictive policing, the quantified self, nudging, and gamification, among many others. Sardonic and bombastic as it sometimes reads, it’s quite well-written, wittingly exposing some useful critiques of our modern techno-lust culture.

As Morozov deftly points out through his many examples, once we realize that designed technologies embed values and moral judgements, we can begin to make decisions about our designed environment and society that reflect the values and morals that we deem respectful to humanity, not just for corporations or other stakeholders. He’s on the side of the people! It’s really about human dignity in the way our designed world influences both individual and collective behavior. This main thread of thinking reminds me of Batya Friedman’s work on value-sensitive design, which attempts to account for human values in a comprehensive manner throughout the design process by identifying stakeholders, benefits, values, and value conflicts to help inform design decisions.

Unfortunately the internal consistency of the book comes under some tension during the last couple chapters, when Morozov tackles the issues of nudging, the information diet, and his own solution to encouraging more deliberation and reflection.

Morozov positions nudging as “solutionism by other means.” He argues that to nudge assumes a social consensus, which may or may not in fact exist, both in terms of what is nudged as well as in which direction. The nudge assumes something is askew, which can and should be brought back into harmony. One nudge you might consider is to encourage the public to consume a more nutritious “information diet” (a la Clay Johnson’s book of the same title). But Morozov positions Johnson’s ideas as “a fairly traditional critique of how the public allocates attention to news,” the end result of which espouses the ideal that citizens should stay informed about every possible issue—clearly an impossibility. The reality, if you agree with Walter Lippmann, reads differently: citizens don’t want to know everything about everything, nor do they have time to, which is why they delegate. In critiquing nudging and the idea of the omniscient citizen, Morozov sides with Lippmann: nudging people to be experts on everything is futile.

But this is where we find the tension with what is offered in the final chapter of the book. The “solution” proffered for “solutionism” and “internet centrism” is to replace the “fetish for psychology” with a penchant for moral and political philosophy and a desire to encourage healthy reflective deliberation by everyday users on the designs of technologies affecting society. I do agree with the general desire for more reflection in the technologies we build. But to suggest, as he does, that to do so we should design technologies to encourage users to be more reflective and deliberative is still just nudging. Moreover, his rejection of omnicompetence contradicts his argument for nudging citizens to be more deliberative, since  how could we expect citizens to be expert and care enough to deliberate on everything?  Criticizing nudging and omnicompetence and then offering them as a way forward suggests that Morozov’s real gripe is that the values embedded in nudging as well as the solutions offered by silicon valley, and indeed the internet itself are simply not his own.

Just as not every citizen is part of every public that emerges around an issue, not every citizen needs to reflect and deliberate on every given technology in society. The interested parties will deliberate, then a design will be fashioned, and the rest of society will delegate to that design, or any number of other designs. Putting on my user-experience designer hat, I believe that incessantly confronting end-users with philosophical dilemma will ultimately prove unproductive in many contexts; people need to actually use these things, to accomplish real tasks. Can you imagine the design of an airline cockpit that constantly confronts the pilot with philosophical choices? Crash. It’s true that, in Morozov’s words, “We need to develop a better way of evaluating, comparing, and discriminating across technological fixes,” but the locus for that activity  will often fall on the design-side of the equation. Detailed design rationale can then make this accountable and legible to any interested public that may emerge.

Under some circumstances it may indeed make sense to facilitate additional reflection in users, but what’s lacking in the book is a solid treatment of the limitations of Morozov’s approach. When should we design for deliberation, and when should we design for efficiency? Morozov has shown us some of the things we miss when we over-emphasize design for efficiency, but not, unfortunately, what we may miss by overemphasizing design for deliberation.