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.

The Political Perils of “Big Data”

In “Every Little Byte Counts,” a recent review of two books on “advances in our ability to store, analyze and profit from vast amounts of data generated by our gadgets” (otherwise known as Big Data), Evgeny Morozov makes two observations to which I want to draw your attention. 

The first of these he makes with the help of the Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben. Here are Morozov’s first two paragraphs: 

In “On What We Can Not Do,” a short and pungent essay published a few years ago, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben outlined two ways in which power operates today. There’s the conventional type that seeks to limit our potential for self-­development by restricting material resources and banning certain behaviors. But there’s also a subtler, more insidious type, which limits not what we can do but what we can not do. What’s at stake here is not so much our ability to do things but our capacity not to make use of that very ability.

While each of us can still choose not to be on Facebook, have a credit history or build a presence online, can we really afford not to do any of those things today? It was acceptable not to have a cellphone when most people didn’t have them; today, when almost everybody does and when our phone habits can even be used to assess whether we qualify for a loan, such acts of refusal border on the impossible.

This is a profoundly important observation, and it is hardly ever made. In his brief but insightful book, Nature and Altering It, ethicist Allen Verhey articulated a similar concern. Verhey discusses a series of myths that underlie our understanding of nature (earlier he cataloged 16 uses of the idea of “nature”). While discussing one of these myths, the myth of the project of liberal society, Verhey writes,

“Finally, however, the folly of the myth of liberal society is displayed in the pretense that ‘maximizing freedom’ is always morally innocent. ‘Maximizing freedom,’ however, can ironically increase our bondage. What is introduced as a way to increase our options can become socially enforced. The point can easily be illustrated with technology. New technologies are frequently introduced as ways to increase our options, as ways to maximize our freedom, but they can become socially enforced. The automobile was introduced as an option, as an alternative to the horse, but it is now socially enforced …. The technology that surrounds our dying was introduced to give doctors and patients options in the face of disease and death, but such ‘options’ have become socially enforced; at least one sometimes still hears, “We have no choice!” And the technology that may come to surround birth, including pre-natal diagnosis, for example, may come to be socially enforced. ‘What? You knew you were at risk for bearing a child with XYZ, and you did nothing about it? And now you expect help with this child?’ Now it is possible, of course, to claim that cars and CPR and pre-natal diagnosis are the path of progress, but then the argument has shifted from the celebration of options and the maximizing of freedom to something else, to the meaning of progress.”

The second point from Morozov’s review that I want to draw your attention to involves the political consequences of tools that harness the predictive power of Big Data, a power divorced from understanding:

“The predictive models Tucker celebrates are good at telling us what could happen, but they cannot tell us why. As Tucker himself acknowledges, we can learn that some people are more prone to having flat tires and, by analyzing heaps of data, we can even identify who they are — which might be enough to prevent an accident — but the exact reasons defy us.

Such aversion to understanding causality has a political cost. To apply such logic to more consequential problems — health, education, crime — could bias us into thinking that our problems stem from our own poor choices. This is not very surprising, given that the self-tracking gadget in our hands can only nudge us to change our behavior, not reform society at large. But surely many of the problems that plague our health and educational systems stem from the failures of institutions, not just individuals.”

Moreover, as Hannah Arendt put it in The Human Condition, politics is premised on the ability of human beings to “talk with and make sense to each other and to themselves.” Divorcing action from understanding jeopardizes the premise upon which democratic self-governance is founded, the possibility of deliberative judgment. Is it an exaggeration to speak of the prospective tyranny of the algorithm?

I’ll give Morozov the penultimate word:

“It may be that the first kind of power identified by Agamben is actually less pernicious, for, in barring us from doing certain things, it at least preserves, even nurtures, our capacity to resist. But as we lose our ability not to do — here Agamben is absolutely right — our capacity to resist goes away with it. Perhaps it’s easier to resist the power that bars us from using our smartphones than the one that bars us from not using them. Big Data does not a free society make, at least not without basic political judgment.”

I draw your attention to these concerns not because I have an adequate response to them, but because I am increasingly convinced that they are among the most pressing concerns we must grapple with in the years ahead.

Why We Disconnect Matters

A little over two weeks ago, The New Republic ran a piece by Evgeny Morozov titled “The Mindfulness Racket.” Comments that accompanied links to the article on social media suggested that Morozov had torn into the advocates of mindfulness and critics of digital distraction with the sort of eviscerating rhetoric that we’ve come to expect from him. The title reinforced the expectation.

When I finally got around to reading the article, however, I found that this was not exactly the whole story. Morozov does take issue with the “digital detox crowd,” but not because of their desire to disconnect or their uneasiness with the new “attention economy.” Rather, he takes aim at their motives and their strategies. For instance, Morozov points out that many advocates of mindfulness urge us “to unplug—for an hour, a day, a week—so that we can resume our usual activities with even more vigor upon returning to the land of distraction.” Unplugging and the pursuit of mindfulness, if it is only practiced in order to re-immerse oneself in the same regime of distraction and technocratic productivity, if it does nothing to change the conditions that gave rise to the need to disconnect in the first place–such practices simply do not go far enough.

Approached in this way, disconnection functions analogously, although inversely so, to the place of carnival in medieval society. Carnivals playfully overturned the expectations and assumptions ordering society. They inverted political, religious, and social expectations. They were temporary eruptions of disorder that ultimately functioned to preserve the order of society. They did so by operating as safety valves releasing the tensions, frustrations, and desires that were ordinarily repressed by the existing moral order. Extraordinary moments of controlled disorder, in other words, served to preserve the ordinarily existing order. On Morozov’s reading, disconnection as practiced by many of its advocates functions similarly. Disconnection is a moment of order that functions to sustain the ordinarily disordered status quo.

Morozov also alludes to Nathan Jurgenson’s critical essay, “The Disconnectionists,” and Alexis Madrigal’s similarly suspicious piece, “‘Camp Grounded,’ ‘Digital Detox,’ and the Age of Techno-Anxiety.” But Morozov’s brief discussion of these pieces is a hinge in his argument. After citing Jurgenson and Madrigal, both of whom raise important considerations, Morozov adds,

“Note that it’s the act of disconnection—the unplugging—that becomes the target of criticism, as if there are no good reasons to be suspicious of the always-on mode championed by Silicon Valley, what is called ‘real-time.’”

A little further on he warns, “critics like Madrigal risk absolving the very exploitative strategies of Twitter and Facebook.” From there Morozov suggests that the problematic aspects of social media should not be viewed as a natural price to pay for the enjoyment and benefits we derive from it. Rather, he thinks we should scrutinize social media as we would slot machines: “With social media—much like with gambling machines or fast food—our addiction is manufactured, not natural.”

Finally, Morozov is right to stress the fact that “why we disconnect matters.” “We can continue in today’s mode of treating disconnection as a way to recharge and regain productivity,” Morozov suggests, “or we can view it as a way to sabotage the addiction tactics of the acceleration-distraction complex that is Silicon Valley.” Of course, it is the latter option that Morozov urges us to adopt.

I trust that this has been a faithful summary of Morozov’s argument, but I encourage you to read the whole piece. Critics like Jurgenson, whose essay from last year I’ve long meant to write about, and Madrigal raise important concerns, but it has always seemed to me that the net, perhaps unintended, effect of their criticism was to suggest that there is no real problem with the way that our digital lives are ordered. In my view, Jurgenson and Madrigal are most useful when they are pointing out the self-serving and self-righteous tendencies in some of the digital cultures critics. Morozov does the same, but in doing so he does not suggest that the problem itself is illusory. In fact, the most serious failure of the disconnectionists in his view is their failure to fully understand the scope of the problem. Consequently, they have not been serious enough in their efforts to redress it.

The Inhumanity of Smart Technology

I’m allergic to hyperbole. That said, Evgeny Morozov identifies one of the most important challenges we face in the coming years:

“There are many contexts in which smart technologies are unambiguously useful and even lifesaving. Smart belts that monitor the balance of the elderly and smart carpets that detect falls seem to fall in this category. The problem with many smart technologies is that their designers, in the quest to root out the imperfections of the human condition, seldom stop to ask how much frustration, failure and regret is required for happiness and achievement to retain any meaning.

It’s great when the things around us run smoothly, but it’s even better when they don’t do so by default. That, after all, is how we gain the space to make decisions—many of them undoubtedly wrongheaded—and, through trial and error, to mature into responsible adults, tolerant of compromise and complexity.”

Exactly right.

“Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made,” Kant observed. Corollary to keep in mind: If a straight thing is made, it will be because humanity has been stripped out of it.

What is the endgame of the trajectory of innovation that is determined to eliminate human error, deviance, and folly? In every field of human endeavor — whether it be industry, medicine, education, governance — technological innovation reduces human involvement, thought, and action in the name of precision, efficiency, and effectiveness.

Morozov’s forthcoming book, To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, targets what he has called “solutionism,” the temptation, I take it without having read the book yet, to view the Internet as the potential solution to every conceivable problem. I’m tempted to suggest for Morozov the target of his next book: eliminationism — the progressive elimination of human thought and action wherever possible. Life will increasingly consist of automated processes, actions, and interactions that will envelope and frame the human and render the human superfluous. Worse yet, insofar as the human is ultimately the root of our inconveniences and our problems, solutionism’s ultimate trajectory must lead to eliminationism.

There are tragic associations haunting that last formulation, so let me be clear. It is not (necessarily) the elimination of human beings that I’m worried about; it is the elimination of our humanity. The fear — and why not, let’s embrace its most popular cultural icon — is that we will be rendered zombies: alive but not living, stripped of the possibility for error, risk, failure, triumph, joy, redemption, and much of what renders our lives tragically, gloriously meaningful.

Albert Borgmann had it right. We must distinguish between “trouble we reject in principle and accept in practice and trouble we accept in practice and in principle.” In the former category, Borgmann has in mind troubles on the order of car accidents and cancer.  By “accepting them in practice,” Borgmann means that at the personal level we must cope with such tragedies when they strike. But these are troubles that we oppose in principle, and so we seek cures for cancer and improved highway safety.


Against these, Borgmann opposes troubles that we also accept in practice, but ought to accept in principle as well. Here the examples are preparation of a meal and hiking a mountain.  These sorts of troubles, sometimes not without their real dangers, could be opposed in principle — never prepare meals at home, never hike — but such avoidance would also prevent us from experiencing their attendant joys and satisfactions. If we seek to remove all trouble or risk from our lives; if we always opt for convenience, efficiency, and ease; if, in other words, we aim indiscriminately at the frictionless life; then we simultaneously rob ourselves of the real satisfactions and pleasures that enhance and enrich our lives — that, in fact, make our lives fully human.

Huxley had it right, too:

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

“In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”

“All right then,” said the Savage defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”

In claiming the right to be unhappy, the Savage was claiming the right to a fully human existence. It is a right we must take increasing care to safeguard against our own fascination with the promises of technology.

Flânerie and the Dérive, Online and Off

Had I been really ambitious with yesterday’s post, I would have attempted to draw in a little controversy over the practice of flânerie earlier this week. You may be wondering what flânerie is, or if you know what it is, you may be wondering why on earth it would spark controversy.

Short answers today. First, flânerie is the practice of being a flâneur. The flâneur is a figure from the city streets of nineteenth century Paris who made his way through the crowded avenues and arcades watching and observing, engaging in what we could call peripatetic social criticism. He was popularized in the work of the poet Charles Baudelaire and the literary critic Walter Benjamin.

The recent mini-controversy revolved around the practice of cyber-flânerie, playing the part of the flâneur online. The debate was kicked off by Evgeny Morozov’s “The Death of the Cyberflâneur” in the NY Times. Morozov drew a spirited response from Dana Goldstein in a blog post, “Flânerie Lives! On Facebook, Sex, and the Cybercity”.

Morozov is a champion of the open, chaotic web of the early Internet. He is a fierce critic of the neat, closed web of Google, Facebook, and apps. Here is the gist of his argument (although, as always, I encourage you to read the whole piece):

“It’s easy to see, then, why cyberflânerie seemed such an appealing notion in the early days of the Web. The idea of exploring cyberspace as virgin territory, not yet colonized by governments and corporations, was romantic; that romanticism was even reflected in the names of early browsers (“Internet Explorer,” “Netscape Navigator”).

Online communities like GeoCities and Tripod were the true digital arcades of that period, trading in the most obscure and the most peculiar, without any sort of hierarchy ranking them by popularity or commercial value. Back then eBay was weirder than most flea markets; strolling through its virtual stands was far more pleasurable than buying any of the items. For a brief moment in the mid-1990s, it did seem that the Internet might trigger an unexpected renaissance of flânerie.


Something similar has happened to the Internet. Transcending its original playful identity, it’s no longer a place for strolling — it’s a place for getting things done. Hardly anyone “surfs” the Web anymore. The popularity of the “app paradigm,” whereby dedicated mobile and tablet applications help us accomplish what we want without ever opening the browser or visiting the rest of the Internet, has made cyberflânerie less likely. That so much of today’s online activity revolves around shopping — for virtual presents, for virtual pets, for virtual presents for virtual pets — hasn’t helped either. Strolling through Groupon isn’t as much fun as strolling through an arcade, online or off.”

Further on, Morozov lays much of the blame on Facebook and the quest for frictionless sharing. All told it seems to me that his critique centers on the loss of anonymity and the lack of serendipity that characterize the Facebook model web experience.

For her part, Goldstien, who has done graduate work on nineteenth century flânerie, questioned whether anonymity was essential to the practice. Morozov cited Zygmunt Bauman’s line, “The art that the flâneur masters is that of seeing without being caught looking.” Goldstein on the other hand writes, “The historian Della Pollock, contra Morozov and Bauman, describes flânerie as ‘observing well and…being well worth observing’ in turn.”

Yet, even if we did grant Bauman’s characterization of flânerie, Goldstein still believes that much of what we do online qualifies as such:

“Seeing without being caught looking. Is there any better description for so much of what we do online? Admit it: You’re well acquainted with your significant other’s ex’s Facebook page. You’ve dived deep into the search results for the name of the person you’re dating, the job applicant you’re interviewing, the prospective tenant or roommate. On the dating site OkCupid, you can even pay for the privilege of “enhanced anonymous browsing,” in which you can see who checks out your profile, but no one can see which profiles you’ve looked at yourself. On Facebook, one of the most common spam bots promises to reveal who’s been looking at your profile. It’s so tempting! People click and the spam spreads, but it’s a trick: Facebook conceals users’ browsing histories from one another.”

I should say that I have no particular expertise in the study of the flâneur beyond a little reading of Benjamnin here and there. My hunch, however, is that the tradition of flânerie is wide enough to accommodate the readings of both Morozov and Goldstein. Moreover, I suspect that perhaps a metaphor has been unhelpfully reified. After all, cyber-space (who knew we would be using “cyber” again) and physical space are only metaphorically analogous. That metaphor is suggestive and has generated insightful analysis, but it is a metaphor that can be pushed too far. Cyberflânerie and, what shall we call it, brick-and-mortar flânerie — these two are also only metaphorically analogous. Again, it is a rich and suggestive metaphor, but it will have its limits. Phenomenologically, clicking on a link is not quite the same thing as turning a corner. The way each presents itself to us and acts on us is quite different.

Additionally, to complicate matters, it might also be interesting to draw into the conversation related practices such the dérive popularized by Guy Debord and the Situationists. That, however, will remain only a passing observation, except to note that intention is of great consequence. Why are we engaging in this practice or that? That seems to me to be the question. Stalking, flânerie, and the dérive may have structural similarities (particularly to the outside observer, the one watching the watcher as it were, but not knowing why the watcher watches), but they are distinguished decisively by their intent. Likewise, online analogs should be distinguished according to their intent.

Although, having just written that, it occurs to me that the dérive analogy does have an interesting dimension to offer. Regardless of our intentions, when we go online we do often find ourselves very far afield from whatever our initial reason for going online might have been. This is something the dérive assumes as an integral part of the practice. Also, while varieties of flânerie involve acting to see and to be seen in debatable portions, the dérive, in analogy with psychotherapy, is less focused on the seeing and being seen altogether. Here is Debord on the dérive:

“One of the basic situationist practices is the dérive, a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiences. Dérives involve playful-constructive behavior and awareness of psychogeographical effects, and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll.

“In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.”

This practice seems to better fit (metaphorically still) the online experience of either the early web or its more recent iteration. The difference, it would seem, lies in the object of study. Flânerie oscillates between social criticism and performance. The dérive takes one’s own psychic state as the object of study insofar as it is revealed by the manner in which we negotiate space, online and off.