The Internet changes everything; we’ve heard it a million times, because it’s true. But can the Internet fix everything? Can the proper application of digital technology solve any and every social ill? You might think so if you heed the words of many a starry-eyed futurist.
But in a witty and profound new book, Evgeny Morozov warns that there’s a great deal of naivete and ignorance at the heart of this appealing conceit. He goes beyond the obvious criticism that no technology could ever attain perfection, to make a deeper point: Seeking perfection in human affairs is a lousy idea.
As public intellectuals go, Morozov has a pretty good track record. His previous book, “The Net Delusion,” savaged the idea that the Internet was inevitably an ally of political freedom and an enemy of the world’s despots. He showed how brutal and corrupt governments from Iran to China have had little trouble turning this “liberating” technology to their own ends.
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This time, Morozov tackles a bigger theme — the folly of what he calls “technological solutionism.” This is the idea that electronic technology can deliver a complete and permanent solution to human problems. Are our schools too costly or too lousy? Educate kids over the Internet, with online courses from the finest universities. Too much crime? Use the Internet to track down criminals and even predict and prevent future outrages. Are our political systems unresponsive and corrupt? With our data networks, we’ll organize smarter, more efficient political networks.
It all sounds very good, but Morozov demonstrates how each of these ideal solutions has the potential to make matters worse. Not because technology doesn’t work, but because it does.
Internet-based training surely works. It’s an inexpensive way to fill our heads with valuable facts. But does it educate people? Morozov argues true education happens when teachers and students interact with one another, rubbing the rough edges off new ideas through discussion and debate. Without this human contact, online training offers only the illusion of true learning.
Transparency in politics: That was the goal of an Internet group that published the identities of people who supported the California law against gay marriage. Such information had been difficult to access in a pre-Internet world. Now anybody with a Web browser could get it in seconds.
This sort of transparency discourages political activism, left, right, or center, Morozov argues. Millions of people who would otherwise get involved in public policy disputes will simply go silent, rather than have their names and addresses broadcast to the entire world.
In the same way, publishing a neighborhood’s crime statistics online might seem a sound public service. But Morozov points to a 2011 survey by a British insurance company that found that about a 10th of the residents in a high-crime neighborhood refused to report crimes, to keep the news from appearing on the Internet and depressing property values.
Data-driven crime-fighting is laced with other perils. For example, some communities have tested software that uses statistical analysis to decide which convicts are most likely to commit future crimes. These analyses are used to decide who gets released on probation or parole.
But will these push-button parole boards make fair judgments? What’s to prevent programmers from building in subtle racial or economic biases? And since such biases will be buried in complex algorithms that few people understand, they will be all the harder to root out.
Scientists and futurists often treat the Internet as a black box, stuffed with marvelous technologies over which we have no control. In reality, the Internet is an entirely human construct. It works the way it does because of choices made by individuals, corporations, universities, and governments. There’s nothing inevitable about any of it. With eloquence, erudition, and wit, Morozov says that it’s time to start thinking clearly about the proper uses of these technologies, and to give up the naive delusion that our most challenging problems can be solved with the click of a mouse.
Hiawatha Bray covers high technology for the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.