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Evgeny Morozov on Solutionism


For everything that exists, someone has a plan to improve it. In the last 20 years, these plans often leverage a new gadget, and a willing venture capitalist behind it. Plans which have enabled the extension of apps, data collection, sensors, and the business models that accompany them, into every act, every mundane second of life.

For Evgeny Morozov, this “intrusion” should give us pause. He writes,

Alas, all too often, this never-ending quest to ameliorate - or what the Canadian anthropologist Tania Murray Li, writing in a very different context, has called “the will to improve” is short sighted and only perfunctorily interested in the activity for which improvement is sought. Recasting all complex social situations either as neatly defined problems with definite computable solutions or as transparent and self-evident processes that can be easily optimised - if only the right algorithms are in place! - this quest is likely to have unexpected consequences that could eventually cause more damage than the problems they seek to address.

Concluding this perspective, Morozov names the “ideology that legitimise and sanctions such aspirations” as Solutionism.

An ideology which does not focus a critique on the proposed solutions, but on such “solutionists” definitions of the problems. In effect, an ideology of understanding how to benefit from systematically putting the cart before the horse, “reaching for the answer before the questions have been full asked.”

An ideology already present historically, and oft considered. The critique of technoogical fixes to wicked problems, Jane Jacbs frustration with over-confident urban planners, van Illich’s arguments aginst the dehumanizing model of factory education, Hans Jonas disappointment iwth cybernetics, infamous yale anarchist James scott’s concerns on the drive from governments to make people and lands more orderly and therefore more readily, more easily rendered as manageable statistical information.

So the first tendency of such an ideology is to focus on the solution, at the expense of understanding the problem. All too often, this involves beleiving the problem is already resolved, and therefore what is left is undersatnding investable solutions.

Yet Morozov adds another dimension, that solutionists might over assume some problems to be in need of solving at all.

As Morozov writes,

A deepr investigation into the very nature of these “problems” would reveal that the inefficiency, ambiguity, and opacity - whether in poltics or everyday life - that the newly empowered geeks and solutionists are rallying against are not in any sense problematic. Quite the opposite; these vices are often virtues in disguise. That, thanks to innovative technologies, the modern-day solutionist has an easy way to eliminate them does not make them any less virtuous.

If youre immediate reaction is to cast any critique of solutionism as a conservative bent, Morozov anticipates this too. Morozov instead does not argue that many of the problems in center stage for solutionists are unserious - from political transparency to climate change. Instead, he makes a simple plea

the urgency of the problesm in question does not automatically confer legitimacy upon a panoply of new, clean, and efficient technological solutions so in vogue these days.”

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