Tech Criticism! What is it Good For?

Earlier this year, Evgeny Morozov published a review essay of Nicholas Carr’s The Glass Cage.The review also doubled as a characteristically vigorous, and uncharacteristically confessional, censure of the contemporary practice of technology criticism. In what follows, I’ll offer a bit of unsolicited commentary on Morozov’s piece, and in a follow-up post I’ll link it to Alan Jacobs’ proposal for a technological history of modernity.

Morozov opened by asking two questions: “What does it mean to be a technology critic in today’s America? And what can technology criticism accomplish?” Some time ago, I offered my own set of reflections on the practice of technology criticism, and, as I revisit those reflections, I find that they overlap, somewhat, with a few of Morozov’s concerns. I’m going to start on this point of agreement.

“That radical critique of technology in America has come to a halt,” Morozov maintains, “is in no way surprising: it could only be as strong as the emancipatory political vision to which it is attached. No vision, no critique.” Which is to say that technology criticism, like technology, must always be for something other than itself. It must be animated and framed by a larger concern. In my own earlier reflections on technology criticism, I put the matter thus:

The critic of technology is a critic of artifacts and systems that are always for the sake of something else. The critic of technology does not love technology because technology rarely exists for its own sake …. So what does the critic of technology love? Perhaps it is the environment. Perhaps it is an ideal of community or friendship. Perhaps it is an ideal civil society. Perhaps it is health and vitality. Perhaps it is sound education. Perhaps liberty. Perhaps joy. Perhaps a particular vision of human flourishing. The critic of technology is animated by a love for something other than the technology itself. [Or should be … too many tech critics are, in fact, far too enamored of the technologies themselves.]

[Moreover,] criticism of technology, if it moves beyond something like mere description and analysis, implies making what amount to moral and ethical judgments. The critic of technology, if they reach conclusions about the consequences of technology for the lives of individual persons and the health of institutions and communities, will be doing work that rests on ethical principles and carries ethical implications.

Naturally, such ethical evaluations are not arrived at in a moral vacuum or from some ostensibly neutral position. According to what standards, then, and from within which tradition does tech criticism proceed? Well, it depends on the critic in question. More from my earlier post:

The libertarian critic, the Marxist critic, the Roman Catholic critic, the posthumanist critic, and so on — each advances their criticism of technology informed by their ethical commitments. Their criticism of technology flows from their loves. Each criticizes technology according to the larger moral and ethical framework implied by the movements, philosophies, and institutions that have shaped their identity. And, of course, so it must be. We are limited beings whose knowledge is always situated within particular contexts. There is no avoiding this, and there is nothing particularly undesirable about this state of affairs. The best critics will be self-aware of their commitments and work hard to sympathetically entertain divergent perspectives. They will also work patiently and diligently to understand a given technology before reaching conclusions about its moral and ethical consequences. But I suspect this work of understanding, precisely because it can be demanding, is typically driven by some deeper commitment that lends urgency and passion to the critic’s work.

For his part, if I may frame his essay with the categories I’ve sketched above, Morozov is deeply motivated by what he calls an “emancipatory political vision.” Consequently, he concludes that any technology criticism that does not work to advance this vision is a waste of time, at best. Tech criticism, divorced from political and economic considerations, cannot, in Morozov’s view, accomplish the lofty goal of advancing the progressive emancipatory vision he prizes.

While I feel the force of Morozov’s argument, I wouldn’t put the matter quite so starkly. There are, as I had suggested in my earlier post, a variety of perspectives from which one might launch a critique of technological society. Morozov’s piece pushes critics of all stripes to grapple with the effectiveness of their work (is that already a technocratic posture to take?), but each will define what constitutes effectiveness on their own terms.

I’d also suggest that a revolution or bust model of engagement with technology is not entirely helpful. For one thing, is there really nothing at all to be gained by arriving at better understandings of the personal and social consequences of our technologies? I think I’ll take marginal improvements for some to none at all. Does this amount to fighting a rear guard action. Perhaps. In any case, I don’t see why we shouldn’t present a broad front. Let the phenomenologists do their work and the Marxists theirs. Better yet, let their work mingle promiscuously. Indeed, let the Pope himself do his part.

It also seems to me that, if there is to be a political response to technological society, then it should be democratic in nature; and if democratic, then is must arise out deliberation and consent. If so, then whatever work helps advance public understanding of the stakes can be valuable, even if it gives us only a partial analysis.

Morozov would reply, as he argued against Carr, that this assumes the problem is one of an ill-informed citizenry in need of illumination when, in fact, the problem is rather that economic and social forces are limiting the ability of the average person to act in line with their preferences. In his recent piece arguing for an “attentional commons,” Matthew Crawford identified one instance of a recurring pattern:

“Silence is now offered as a luxury good. In the business-class lounge at Charles de Gaulle Airport, I heard only the occasional tinkling of a spoon against china. I saw no advertisements on the walls. This silence, more than any other feature, is what makes it feel genuinely luxurious. When you step inside and the automatic doors whoosh shut behind you, the difference is nearly tactile, like slipping out of haircloth into satin. Your brow unfurrows, your neck muscles relax; after 20 minutes you no longer feel exhausted.

Outside, in the peon section, is the usual airport cacophony. Because we have allowed our attention to be monetized, if you want yours back you’re going to have to pay for it.”

The pattern is this: where the technologically enhanced market intrudes, what used to be a public good is repackaged as a luxury item that now only the few can afford. I think this well illustrates Morozov’s point, and it is an important one. It suggests that tech criticism may risk turning into therapy or life-coaching for the wealthy. One can observe this same concern in an earlier piece from Morozov on “the mindfulness racket.”

That said and acknowledged, I’m not sure all didactic efforts are wholly wasted. Morozov is an intensely smart critic. He knows a lot. He’s thought long and hard about the problems of technological society. He is remarkably well read. Most of us aren’t. As I a teacher I’ve come to realize that it is easy to forget what you, too, had to learn at one point. It is easy to assume that your audience knows everything that you’ve learned over the years, particularly in whatever field you happen to specialize. While the delimiting forces of present economic and political configurations should not be ignored, I think it is much too early to give up the task of propagating a serious understanding of technology and its consequences.


“Why, then, aspire to practice any kind of technology criticism at all?” Morozov asks. His reply was less than sanguine:

“I am afraid I do not have a convincing answer. If history has, in fact, ended in America—with venture capital (represented by Silicon Valley) and the neoliberal militaristic state (represented by the NSA) guarding the sole entrance to its crypt—then the only real task facing the radical technology critic should be to resuscitate that history. But this surely can’t be done within the discourse of technology, and given the steep price of admission, the technology critic might begin most logically by acknowledging defeat.”

Or, they might begin to reimagine the tech critical project. How deeply do we need to dig to “resuscitate that history”? How can we escape the discourse of technology? What if Morozov hasn’t pushed quite far enough? Morozov wants us to frame technology in light of economics and politics, but what if politics and economics, as they presently exist, are already compromised, already encircled by technology?

In a follow-up post, I’ll explain why I think Alan Jacobs’ project to understand the technological history of modernity, as I understand it, may help us answer some of these questions.

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