and now for a little technophobic paternalism

April 3, 2013 — 1 Comment

teddy bartender

One of the big dangers of being a professional pundit is that you can chase yourself into a slow downward spiral of having to up the ante on your best known subject matter to keep up interest from those who expect a certain slant from you. If you’re best known for telling your viewers that the other side of the political divide wants to destroy the country as you know it, that side better be up to something ever more dire every week at least or you’re stuck with a rehash of the same old stories. And tech writer and skeptic Evgeny Morozov seems to be doing the same thing as our hypothetical pundit, going from scathing, well-informed criticism, to blaming technology even though the humans are clearly at fault, and finally to the slippery slope of the Old Fogey Squad as he forsees a dystopian future created by our over-reliance on smartphones and apps. But not only does he recite the technophobic talking points, he also makes the same mistake as virtually every well-meaning Luddite makes when speaking out against the feared technology.

Basically, it seems that technophobes forget that all the apps and gadgets they fear will enslave the world are operated by humans and have an off button. If you want to disregard what an app tells you, you can use said off button and… wait for it… shut it off. Surely the Luddites know this, you might argue, why else would they implore you to turn off your computers and phones? Well, allow me to cite Morozov’s downright asinine example of a smart kitchen that will warn you what ingredients not to mix stifling culinary innovation. New recipes and flavors are created when an ambitious cook takes chances and an app telling the cook what to do and what not to do would only be an impediment to creativity. But what if the cook just wants to get the dish right and give its flavors an initial test run? After all, when I find a new recipe I stick to it, make it exactly by the book, and when I actually taste it, I might get the idea to do something new with it. So when I first make the dish, the app would be very useful. Next time? It gets shut off and I experiment.

Similar lapses in realizing that humans have a mind of their own also come up when the modern technophobe will invariably declare that googling is making us dumber by making remembering facts, figures, or routes irrelevant. Whatever information is brought back has to be remembered to be useful, and it had to have been required in a proper context. Your phone or computer isn’t just going to tell you what to do next, you’re going to ask it for some tidbit of information that you need to know at a given moment. When traveling, isn’t it nice to get a map and directions for an unfamiliar city? And if you stumble across a word or a term you don’t know, wouldn’t finding out what it means in just a few seconds be a good thing? If anything, having a search engine in your pocket would encourage you to get answers from trusted sources when you need them. To think that we’ll be worse off because we can use smart tools to get things done makes about as much sense as declaring that GPS and information boards make traveling more difficult because they take away from the art of line navigation and orienting oneself with sextants.

So on an on we go down the slippery slope as people unable to decide for themselves what app is useful and what app isn’t, and substituting their own free will for a machine’s instructions, are all in dire need of saving by the technophobes who will bring them to either the technology-free nirvana of their ancestors, or who will carefully filter what phones, computers, and apps can still be used as not to overwhelm those poor, sad technophiles unable to understand why there’s an off switch on their devices and how to use it, much less make choices as to when to listen to the app and when to ignore it. Of course not every app in an app store is useful and far from every technological solution to a problem is a Nobel Prize-winning idea to put it mildly, but that’s why we have markets that decide what ideas people like, what solutions they find useful, and which will give them the creeps or are more trouble than they’re worth. Maybe the Luddites should put a bit more trust in their fellow humans rather than trying to be strict, overweening parents who want to do what they think is best for their offspring rather than let them learn on their own?

Share
  • TheBrett

    Morozov is at his best when he’s talking about a particular concrete example, or bursting the fame bubble of incoherent appeasers of dictatorship like the power couple in “Naked in the TED”. I remember The Net Delusion being a good read, about how authoritarian regimes had and were adapting to the internet.

    But this stuff . . . have you ever read a bad book review, one where it was obvious that the author cared more about showing how “smart” and “well-read” they were in “putting down the book”, as opposed to actually talking about the book itself? That’s the impression I get of Morozov from both the Slate back-and-forth, and from what I’ve tried to read of To Save Everything. It’s just not particularly useful, and the few “insights” that the book has buried in the morass are so obvious that it’s bizarre to see them expanded to book length.

    Tell me you can’t imagine some 15th century Morozov equivalent dreading the arrival of the printing press, arguing that it would destroy a rich legacy of oratory, rhetoric, and calligraphy, leaving behind only generic, conformist pamphlets and yet more copies of the bible.