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What’s Wrong with Technological Fixes? with Evgeny Morozov

In information, internet, interview, philosophy, psychology, society, technology on July 18, 2013 at 17:07

From: What’s Wrong with Technological Fixes? Terry Winograd Interviews Evgeny Morozov, Boston Review, http://www.bostonreview.net

Morozov characterizes this impulse to fix everything as “solutionism,” and offers two broad challenges to the solutionist sensibility. First, solutionists often turn public problems into more bite-sized private ones. Instead of addressing obesity by regulating the content of food, for example, they offer apps that will ‘nudge’ people into better personal choices. Second, solutionists overlook the positive value in the ‘vices’ they seek to ‘cure.’ According to Morozov, some of life’s good things come from ignorance rather than knowledge; opacity rather than transparency; ambivalence rather than certainty; vagueness rather than precision; hypocrisy rather than sincerity; messy pondering of imponderables rather than crisp efficiency. As these challenges reveal, Morozov’s critique is, in the end, animated by a sensible picture of human life that suggests a more modest view of technology than solutionists have proposed.

TW: A key element of many solutionist approaches is a focus on devices and techniques to shape the actions of individuals. For example you quote Tim Chang, head of a major venture fund investing in “Quantified Self” apps that allow users to track their vital statistics: “the only way we’ll fix our horribly broken healthcare system is by getting consumers to think about health and not healthcare.” In addition to the turn to “consumer,” I would imagine there are underlying assumptions here you don’t share about the framing of the problem. Is that right?

EM: One of the arguments I make in the book is that it’s impossible to understand the appeal or impact of technologies for self-tracking outside of the specific domain where they are introduced. So if we want to understand how the many tools advocated by the Quantified Self crowd would affect, say, health, we need to know something about how the notions of health and disease have changed in the last five decades and what role not only science but also the pharmaceutical industry has played in this process. I’ve read a bit in sociology and anthropology of health and medicine and one unmissable trend there is the growing concern with what academics call “biomedicalization”—which is like the good old medicalization, with its imperialistic tendencies to redescribe all experiences and concerns in the language of modern medicine, but now boosted by the techno-scientific apparatus of biological sciences.

If you follow the arguments of some prominent voices in this field—say anthropologists like Joe Dumit—you’ll see that they draw an interesting connection between this constant search for new symptoms and the financial interests of Big Pharma, who, of course, wants to sell us more and more drugs to treat more and more diseases. So this is the context in which I think we should view the proliferation of various devices for self-tracking. And seen in this light, the picture isn’t very pretty. So part of what I’m arguing in the book is that it’s wrong to just celebrate these new ways of self-tracking—the fact that we can now build sensors into our t-shirts to monitor our health—without having some deeper views on how we think about health and disease. I’m actually not interested in advancing one view of health over another in this book; all I’m trying to do is to point out that most debates about self-tracking technologies—at least those we hear in the public arena—sidestep these issues and just present these tools as ways for us to know more about ourselves, etc. That’s why solutionists have such an easy time: they do not complicate their stories, framing all of their innovations as giant steps towards progress and Enlightenment.

Read the interview

Reposted with permission from: Boston Review

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