Every week it seems there’s another book being published on the new digital age. One of the better ones released this spring was Evgeny Morozov’s To Save Everything Click Here. Morozov is not known to pull any punches, and in this book he’s unsparing in his criticism of two trends, which he calls internet-centrism and solutionism. Morozov uses internet-centrism as a short-hand for describing a variety of myopias he sees in geek culture. These include the tendency to think the internet can bring world peace, that it’s an inherently democratizing force, the architecture of the internet can be used as a model for governance, and the belief that the internet has remade the world so radically that there is little to learn from the past. Morozov’s second complaint is leveled against solutionism, which he uses as a short-hand for describing the tendency to fix things that don’t need fixing or to impose fixes that cater to some constituencies while muting the needs of others.
Internet-centrism and solutionism are conceptually rich categories for making sense of our current age, and Morozov deserves credit for conceiving them. Every time we hear pundits say that we are living through a technological revolution like no other, or that the Internet is democratizing the world, the concept of internet-centrism reminds us that this world view is questionable and not without its discontents. Similarly, when we come across technologies that present themselves as panaceas (when they really aren’t), or when we use technologies that are more burdensome to negotiate and manage than the problems they are attempting to resolve, then solutionism should spring to mind.
Morozov presents many examples of solutionism. But some of his best examples come in his discussion of Google’s driverless cars and personalized maps. At first gloss, those technologies seem pretty uncontroversial. Driverless cars will allow us to reach our destinations without having to take on the burden of driving. And personalized maps allow us to zero-in on the locations that interest us, while avoiding those that don’t. In other words, both inventions reduce the amount of friction it takes to go about our daily lives and increase our traveling efficiency. But Morozov treats these as examples of solutionism because he sees virtues in our existing (more inefficient) solutions.
Without driverless cars we are more likely to enter the public sphere and use public transportation. And without personalized maps we are more likely to stray from our intended path and encounter people and neighborhoods we wouldn’t ordinarily encounter. While those experiences might not seem desirable, Morozov thinks this is essential. These experiences force us to encounter and deal with difference. That confrontation, in turn, is an important experience to preserve for people who want to learn how to get along with others in a democratic society.
Are there similar (albeit less opprobrious) solutionist tendencies at work in the areas of interest (namely education) that bring this blog readership together? For sure:
One example of solutionism in education is the use of lecture-capture to extend the classroom to students who can’t attend a face-to-face lecture. This technology obviously has some benefits. It allows students to attend class at times of their own choosing, and it allows students to review a lecture multiple times. The first feature makes it easier to get to the classroom, and the second one aids comprehension. What is left out of this solution? The most vexing aspect of lecture-capture is that it turns the classroom into a one-way broadcast where the lecturer lectures and the students listen. A good portion of education requires more interaction between teachers and learners, and arguably, more serendipity as instructors attempt to connect (and occasionally clash) with the new personalities and learning challenges that each cohort of students present. Lecture capture, of course, offers very little of this. Instead of expanding opportunities for interactivity and unpredictability, lecture-capture turns the student from participant into mere spectator, and it narrows the space in which differing concerns can be aired. In so doing, lecture-capture represents a classic example of solutionism in education.
A more topical (and possibly more consequential) example of how solutionism is manifesting itself in education is in MOOCs. MOOC proponents often tout the way these large courses will lower costs by streamlining teaching and reducing inefficiency. But is the problem that higher education faces (and that MOOCs aspire to resolve) really a problem of inefficiency? Or is the heart of the problem more that as a nation we’re becoming increasingly reluctant to fund college with public monies at the levels we did in the ‘60s and ‘70s? MOOCs (and their solutionist proponents) gloss over these questions and take the fiscal situation as a given. MOOCs, in other words, are attempting to transform an age-old question about the virtues of education and at what levels to fund it into a question about efficiency and the way that technology might improve it.
Morozov, as it happens, tweets a bit, and if you visit his Twitter profile you’ll notice the following sentence right below his picture: “There are idiots. Look around.” That snarky (albeit entertaining) disposition is on full display in To Save Everything, Click Here, and it gets him into trouble when he accuses eminent authors of internet-centrism even when not all of them are truly deserving of the term. Whatever its critical excesses, Morozov has provided some sticky descriptions for malaises that too often get a pass as we pursue the next new digital enthusiasm. For this reason alone he’s worth reading.