I made an exception from my usual Monday routine of training kickboxing and BJJ tonight and attended a talk hosted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and given by Evgeny Morozov as part of a tour for his latest book, To Save Everything, Click Here.
After the talk’s conclusion, a lot of people whispered about how he was a petulant bully (I will say that he was not a patient listener, jumping and hissing to speak before audience questions had been fully asked), but altogether, I believe he did an ample job of raising discussion and awareness around the issue of technological solutionism.
Two notions Morozov mentioned struck me in particular:
1) The Centralizing Force of Automation
“Who fact-checks the fact-checker?” Morozov asked. I recall the Latin phrase originated by the Roman poet Juvenal, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”, and immortalized, courtesy of Alan Moore’s Watchmen influence, as “Who will watch the watchmen?” Morozov mentioned the emergence of 3rd-party web browser add-ons and extensions which purport to detect and fact-check assertions made in online news articles and posts by highlighting questionable lines. They go toward the admirable goals of keeping readers instantaneously informed and writers honest. However, Morozov invoked that the add-ons themselves typically scan and unabashedly rely on only one source, whose objectivity and accuracy is not challenged, hence evoking the entertaining scenario of layers of add-ons, each of which relies on a central source of a specific political lean.
Chances are, most people will just install one add-on layer and call it a day for functionality’s sake, relying on that singular oracle thereafter for an extended period of time. Thus, doesn’t this automation of fact-checking serve to trim, simplify, and centralize knowledge acquisition? One can install an extension that rather than challenges, confirms existing beliefs and biases. Moreover, as Morozov remarked, the comparison sources are typically reports from Washington think-tanks and government organizations that would likely affirm the status quo over the unconventional
Convergent trends can likewise be seen in the cases of researching on Wikipedia, whose ease of access erects an effort-barrier hindering exploration of other sources, and Google searches, which give you personalized, individualized SERPs (search engine result pages) that the company believes would best suit you, per their algorithms.
2) “You do not want to have flags that do not burn.”
I have less to address in regards to this point, but the provocative power of the image of flags burning ingrained that Morozov quote in my memory. Monitoring technology that makes it easier to catch criminals before the manage to execute their perpetrations has the side effect of also stymieing civil disobedience efforts, which often require violation of the law. Morozov made an attractive argument for the necessity of leaky state security enforcement in maintaining societal health. Just as kayaks circumstantially benefit from scupper holes, sufficient holes need to be present in a national security apparatus to give save communicative passage for whistleblowers and countercultural movements.
3) Gamification of Social Causes and Crusades by Digital Incentives
With feet dipped in the trappings of game theory, cognitive psychology, capitalist theory, and cultural anthropology, this is too bloated and sprawling a matter for me to want to review and discuss in this post.
With all of his technologically pessimistic rhetoric, I tried to keep my mind open to counterpoints to his critique of digital solutionism. And so a thought popped into my head about a possible asset of the phenomenon’s wake during the course of the talk: the elements and features prompting user contribution on websites that we have come to expect represent an opposing pull against the centralization and the obscuration of information gathering. In my mind, this “user contribution” is chiefly represented by:
a) Comment threads, discussions after articles in which users with differing knowledge bases debate each other about the veracity of the piece as a whole and its catabolic individual points. (Before you say that all internet comments are stupid, I will offer my nonobjective personal experience that comment quality has consistently kept to a high standard on a number of sites that I visit, exemplified by The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, NPR, and Scientific American, aided by effective moderation.)
b) And user voting, likes, click-recommendations. In my mind, they fulfill a redundant role to comment threads in their shared ability to allow readers to check and provide input on an article. Obviously, voting does not allow for nuance, detail, and clarification in the way that comments can. Nonetheless, the ease and convenience of a single click gives a chance for those who don’t have the time or energy to respond in writing to weigh in on the legitimacy of an object. And when nuance is a luxury rather than a necessity, as it is, for example, in such situations like download content authentication, where something is either bad/filled with viruses/corrupt — or not, the efficiency of voting over commenting makes it arguably a superior reviewing mechanism. Finally, at a meta level, voting enables rating and all-too-persuasive mob support (or disapproval) of comments.
The redundancy of comment threads and voting is important for the ability of each component to check and reinforce the other. Even if one feature is initially more useful for a certain context, as comments are for the questioning of science journalism and voting for Torrent file verification, the second can positively or negatively complement the information indicated by the first impression.
Then again, going back to Morozov’s side, this duality can also be gamed and manipulated by a singular source. A spammy or astroturfed comment can be propped up by bot votes. A counter for a counter for a counter. Ultimately, who definitively knows anything, really, when it comes to intellectual discourse and debate?
Upon leaving the conference room in which the talk was conducted, my field of vision was overwhelmed by an overdone painting of the Tower of Babel which covered a whole wall. It provided some loose irony, as I made an association from the common language of algorithms underlying Big Data to the biblical parable.