Opening our digital door to welcome in tech-Stasi police
Many of the ‘problems’ being sold to us by digital technologies aren’t problems at all
“Our blind acceptance and compliance with technologies means that the people who know us best – what we like, want, prefer, aspire to be – are not our governments but Google and Facebook.” Photograph: Getty Images/iStockphoto
You can now get a pair of contact lens that make the homeless disappear from view. This new technological fix will enhance our lives and make the world a better place to be in. Centuries of political action on homelessness amounted to nothing, yet a Silicon Valley start-up has managed to solve the problem.
You can’t really get contact lens that make the homeless disappear from view, it was a scenario sarcastically imagined by the futurist Ayesha Khanna to help lay bare the tyranny of “Solutionism”.
Solutionism is the now rampant belief that all “problems” have technological solutions. Google glasses, self-driving cars, smartphone apps that monitor the efficiency of our exercise, the calories in our food and the quality of our REM sleep – all smilingly assure us that they will make our lives frictionless and trouble-free in this algorithm-driven new world order.
Welcome to Stepfordia.
It’s our world reduced to a TED Talk – the place where the “look at me” middle class, matriculated world congregate to condescend to us about “making the world a better place” through the appliance of their science.
Famine, poverty and disease? We have an app for that.
Eradicating “imperfection” and making everything more “efficient” might sound nice on a tech-culture podcast that no one ever listens to but inconsistency and incoherence are part of the human condition – and have been around much longer than the smartphone.
And how can we countenance a situation where we outsource our personal life (appearance, diet, relationships) to a phone app that was designed by someone who travels to work on a skateboard?
And just when did giant tech companies, themselves masters in cutting their tax bill to a bare minimum, get to lecture us about behavioural correction?
Not everything in this world is quantifiably solvable – nor should it be – yet we open our digital door to welcome in these tech-Stasi police to monitor and regulate our lives.
In an absurdist twist, there are now apps to tell us to stop using our apps so much. If your phone has to tell you that you’re using it too much, you’re beyond help – whether digital or analogue.
Product and platform have merged into one. Buy one book online and for the rest of your life you receive “If you liked that, you will like this” messages. I didn’t and I won’t.
There is though a substantially bigger issue at play here – a political dimension to Solutionism. Many of the “problems” being sold to us by digital technologies aren’t really problems at all – unless you count the burning need to know how many steps you take each day a problem.
Evgeny Morozov is a leading world authority on the political and social implications of technology. In his book To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism he points out that when a Silicon Valley company brings out a “Smart Fork” app that warns you if you are overeating you may be empowering the citizen to self-track but you are failing to address the need to regulate the rapacious food industry.
These are micro-level solutions to macro-level problems. Smart technologies promote the optimising of individual behaviours while reinforcing socio-political moribundity.
Our blind acceptance and compliance with technologies means that the people who know us best – what we like, want, prefer, aspire to be – are not our governments but Google and Facebook.
And it is here that Solutionism becomes the neo-liberals’ wet dream by offloading the concerns of government (our welfare and well-being) to individuals and their private means.
As Morozov says: “I have no problem with technological solutions to social problems. The key question for me is, who gets to implement them and what kinds of politics of reform do technological solutions smuggle through the backdoor”.
It should be no surprise that services and companies who a few years ago were telling us to stop annoying them with our problems in person and visit their website instead are now instructing us to download their app.
And how gratifying it must be for our political and economic masters to find such little resistance to their “streamlining” measures – seeing as a whole generation don’t take their head out of their smartphones long enough to realise what is going on around them.
And by the way, when that hoax story broke about there now being contact lens available that make homeless people disappear from view, people tried to buy them.
If Solutionism is the answer, we’re asking the wrong question.