Sunday, July 13, 2014

One Cannot Go Against the Word of the Internet

Getting away from religion isn't as easy as many of my fellow atheists like to think, though, mainly because religion isn't a discrete entity that has nothing in common with other human cultural inventions.  Culture isn't made up of discrete entities, though: everything overlaps.  Sometimes you can find clear cases, but they're only part of the picture; the boundaries between the categories aren't clearly defined.  (Even putting it that way assumes that the categories have clear cases at the center, with those pesky permeable boundaries at the edges -- but this picture can only be drawn after a lot of sorting and organization of the instances.)

When I call some idea "religious" in a dismissive and derogatory way, I'm guilty of the same failing: I mean (and should probably say instead) that the idea is woolly, irrational, emotionally derived, etc.  I've often called the geek debates over the virtues of Macintoshes vs. Microsoft "theological," for example, to suggest that they are like the supposed medieval debates over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin (though those debates were probably more rational than Mac vs. PC: the Scholastics were smarter and more rational than today's computer fanatics).  It's convenient to use "religious" or "theological" this way because they've acquired such connotations.  It would be just as accurate to to call anthropomorphizing and teleological thinking "scientific," because these tendencies are just as common among scientists as they are among the conventionally religious, without being universal in either group -- but if I did, how many people would recognize that I was being derisive?  Calling something "scientific" is supposed to be praise.

I'd do better to stick to terms like "anthropomorphic" and "teleological" in such cases.  Anthropomorphizing is what's mainly on my mind today, anyway: speaking of "Nature" or "Science" or "Religion" or "Natural Selection" or "Globalization" or "the Internet" as though they were conscious agents, instead of impersonal abstractions.  I recently read a fascinating new book, To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism by Evgeny Morozov, published this year by PublicAffairs.  Both his critics and his fans notice how much he's read, though I don't believe he's any more learned than, say, Mike Davis or any number of other scholars who write for an educated general audience.  I've already noted several books he refers to that I'd like to read, though -- just what I don't need.  Anyway, it looks to me like Morozov has done a normal and reasonable amount of reading for a book about a big subject; those who marvel at his erudition may not have been aware that there were all these relevant tomes out there -- unless, like some of Noam Chomsky's critics, they're indulging in anti-intellectualism: why does he have to include all those footnotes, and use all those big words?  It's so inappropriate and unnecessary.

To Save Everything, Click Here is about the cult of "the Internet," about the assumption that the Internet is an entity, and in particular that it's a new one.  Morozov quotes numerous evangelists of the Internet who personify it, such as Jeff Jarvis: "I’m a befuddled [sic] over the roots of the curmudgeons’ one-sided debate. Why do they so object to tools being given credit? Are they really objecting, instead, to technology as an agent of change, shifting power from incumbents to insurgents? Why should I care about their complaints? I am confident that these tools have been used by the revolutionaries and have a role. What’s more interesting is to ask what that role is, what that impact is" (Morozov, 56).

Technology, or a given tool, can't be an agent: they can be used by agents, but that's not the same thing.  (Notice too Jarvis's reference to "tools being given credit.")  A word like "medium" would work better than "agent" here.  Much of Morozov's argument is directed against the notion that "the Internet" is an agent in this sense: something autonomous, goal-directed, with its own determining "logic" driving social change in the direction it chooses, before which we must humble ourselves and submit.

One of the best features of To Save Everything, Click Here is Morosov's account of the history of technology and its reception, demolishing the Internet evangelists' claims that the Internet is totally unprecedented.
The debates over electricity were, in fact, as dramatic and bizarre as the debates we are currently having about “the Internet,” its democratic potential, and its effect on our brains.  How else to explain the publication of a book like The Silent Revolution, or the Future Effects of Steam and Electricity upon the Condition of Mankind – in 1852! – which promised “social harmony of humanity” on the basis of a “perfect network of electric filaments.”  Or what to make of the fact that Patrick Geddes, Petr Kropotkin, and other nineteenth-century thinkers believed that electricity would usher in a brand-new age of neotechnics, where, to quote French historian Armand Mattelar, “town and country, work and leisure, brain and hand” would be reconciled?  Or what to do with Nazi engineers like Franz Lawaczeck, a founding father of the National Socialist engineers’ association, who believed that the Third Reich could promote small farms and businesses, thus encouraging a decentralization of society, by generating an abundance of cheap electricity?  This is not to mention the complex and controversial history, itself full of protracted battles and rancorous debates, over the physical infrastructure that made electricity widely available.  Only by papering over and suppressing such history can we see “the Internet” as unique and exotic [44-5].
Morosov also confirms a long-held suspicion of mine about the thinness of young people's technological competence:
Several studies show that, of all age groups, young people tend to be least informed about many aspects of digital culture.  For example, a 2010 study that investigated what users know about online privacy found that “among all age groups, higher proportions of the eighteen--twenty-four-year-olds had the poorest understanding of the privacy policy label and the right of companies to sell or share their data with other firms.”  As one of the study’s authors put it, “The online savvy many attribute to younger individuals (so-called digital natives) doesn’t appear to translate to privacy knowledge.”  In other words, it’s not that young people don’t care about privacy – they do – they just don’t have the digital savvy that Tapscott and Williams attribute to them.  These conclusions are echoed in a recent study from the European Commission that also found young people lacking in many digital competencies.  A 2009 empirical study of students at five British universities found that “it is far too simplistic to describe young first-year students born after 1983 as a single generation …. [They are] not homogenous in [their] use and appreciation of new technologies and … there are significant variations amongst students that lie within the Net generation age band.”  But conducting such studies, of course, is not as sexy as musing on “the digital revolution that is changing every institution in society.”  The latter probably pays better, too [46].
Or again, "technology pundit Kevin Kelly"
notes that “the Protestant Reformation makes for good allegory because it separates power from control; it draws on stories of catechism and ritual, alphabets, pamphlets and liturgies, indulgences and self-help in order to give geeks a way to make sense of the distinction between power and control, and how it relates to the technical and political economy they occupy.”  This is why, in many a geek debate, the state is recast as the monarchy, large corporations as the Catholic Church, startups and programmers as Protestant reformers, and the laity as “lusers” and “sheeple.”  Kelly believes that such stories are popular with geeks because they “explain a political, technical, legal situation that does not have ready-to-narrate stories” [52].
But they also explain that situation in terms that flatter the geeks' inflated sense of elite status and entitlement.

I'm not totally enamored of Morosov; I started to read his previous book, The Net Delusion, and was turned off right away by some dubious statements.  But To Save Everything, Click Here is a valuable survey and critique of what David F. Noble called the Religion of Technology.