Essays on Technology and Culture

The Internet (Probably) Won’t Save the World

I recently picked up Evgeny Morozov’s To Save Everything Click Here. It’s an interesting polemic against the Internet-focused “solutionism” to social problems as espoused by technologists, tech entrepreneurs, and Venture Capitalists. While I’m not sure I agree with all of Morozov’s criticisms of technologically focused solutions, I’m glad to be reading a contrarian’s opinions. They provide some much-needed perspective in a space that is all-too-often caught up in the next new gizmo and the next new deceptively simple technological solution to an age-old problem. Morozov is not anti-technology, let alone anti-Internet. He advocates for perspective—stepping back and adding nuance to a debate that too often is caught up in technology for its own sake, ignoring the potential consequences and pitfalls.

Part of the problem is that it’s so easy for us to get caught up in novelty. If you’re the sort who is wired up to be a geek, and lust over technology, it’s even easier. All the new gadgets, networks, apps, and services appeal to our desperate desire for something new. The early adopter types glom on to the shiniest of new technology, embrace it, and defend it against all comers with religious fervor. We see it play out writ small in the flame wars in technology forums over iOS vs. Android, open vs. closed, and copyright vs. public domain. Few budge from their viewpoints, and everyone is armed with enough anecdotes masquerading as data to defend their stance. This is nothing new, nor is it limited to technology. Examples are unnecessary.

But, compare the rhetoric of Internet-focused solutionists who claim the network will solve all our problems with the pragmatism of Ev Williams and his recipe for a successful tech company: “Take a human desire, preferably one that has been around for a really long time… Identify that desire and use modern technology to take out steps.” That’s it. The great successes of the Internet-era have all built from that formula. So have all the great pre-Internet successes. It’s the history of service-based Capitalism: make it easier for people to do things they want or need to do. History repeats, and technology is no exception. We may look back on these heady days as the dawn of a new epoch, but what sort of epoch has yet to be determined. You can’t look back on something if you’re right in the middle of it.

This is the ultimate problem with making proclamations of technological supremacy. We don’t know anything about what’s happening until it has happened—and we have enough time and distance to figure it out. In the middle of the storm, anything can happen, and the situation can change in an instant. The Internet is a bunch of cables and computers, yes, but “The Internet” is something else, and we don’t know what it really is. We may never know, because it’s constantly changing, and our attempts to impose definition upon it could be rendered useless tomorrow. I think about the people bemoaning the death of the Internet to mobile apps. Was there this much rending of garments and gnashing of teeth when the Web usurped Gopher Holes?

It’s funny that the same voices who bemoan anything that might alter their definition of “The Internet” look at the industries they’ve altered and shrug. “Disruption,” they call it, with no sense of compassion for the people who have lost their livelihoods. The best you can hope for is “teach them to code.” Any technology has the potential for unintended consequences, but the privileged technological elite don’t have to worry about them. Responsible use of technology means making sure as few people get hurt as possible. The “fail fast, fail often” mantra that defines technology companies doesn’t do much for people who lack a net to catch them.

We can use technology, including the Internet as a tool, to better lives, but the very presence of the tool alone will not do it. You can buy the greatest hammer, and the greatest saw, but they won’t build a bookcase unless you pick them up. Data alone is useless, even harmful, without the ability to both understand it and manipulate it. And, yes, some things are better kept a secret. If it’s wrong when the government sees all you do, it’s just as wrong when it’s a private company. Instead of charging into someone else’s idea of future, let’s slow down and try to figure out where we are first. Tomorrow’s not going anywhere.