Monthly Archives: March 2013

On the Autobahn to Silicon Valley

A fascinating essay by Evgeny Morozov in The New York Times today explores some of Silicon Valley’s weirder projects, which are either comical or deeply ominous, depending on your point of view.

Morozov, for his part, is alarmed. Technology, he worries, has the capacity to make our foibles obsolete, and to remove everything unpleasant and worthwhile about being human. Our devices could comprehensively record our behavior and alert us or our friends to our inconsistencies. Windows or lenses could project more interesting features into the world we see through them, hiding what we wish weren’t there. One application allows users to poll their friends instantaneously whenever they need advice, no matter how trivial the question.

“Sunny, smooth, clean: with Silicon Valley at the helm, our life will become one long California highway,” Morozov writes. This image comes from an essay Herbert Marcuse published in 1941 called “Some Social Implications of Modern Technology”:

A man who travels by automobile to a distant place choose his route from the highway maps. Towns, lakes and mountains appear as obstacles to be bypassed. The countryside is shaped and organized by the highway. Numerous signs and posters tell the traveler what to do and think; they even request his attention to the beauties of nature or the hallmarks of history. Others have done the thinking for him, and perhaps for the better. Convenient parking spaces have been constructed where the broadest and most surprising view is open. Giant advertisements tell him where to stop and find the pause that refreshes. And all this is indeed for his benefit, safety and comfort; he receives what he wants. Business, technics, human needs and nature are welded together into one rational and expedient mechanism. He will fare best who follows its directions, subordinating his spontaneity to the anonymous wisdom which ordains everything for him.

Marcuse adds that following the road signs is the only rational and reasonable thing for any driver to do. “All protest is senseless, and the individual who would insist on his freedom of action would become a crank.” That remark applies not just to motorists, but to all members of a society pervaded by technology.

A system of highways removes the dangers and “obstacles” that each traveler previously had to confront as an individual. Contemporary technology has a similar socializing effect, allowing people to decide what to buy or read based on what their friends are doing, and saving them the risk of making a decision independently that could be wrong. Individuality can be trying.

Likewise, Morozov seems to be included in Marcuse’s observation that any driver who thinks of protesting against the highway system is displaying profound irrationality. In an essay published last month, Morozov argues that we are often better making decisions for ourselves. For example, he writes that your friends would never go with you to see a film like “Santantango,” which is “a seven-hour, black-and-white art-house flick by the Hungarian auteur Bela Tarr.” Given that description, almost everyone would appreciate the recommendation of their friends not to watch “Santantango,” which is, of course, why social media are so popular.

Technology has allowed us to confront experience as a group, rather than one by one, and that has made the struggle much easier. All the same, it may be that humanity has lost something important in the elements of  individuality that have disappeared with technological progress, as Morozov argues.

I’m not entirely persuaded. His reasoning depends on the intuition that the current technological revolution is different from all the others that have preceded it. It’s difficult now to imagine how photography and the radio would have seemed to our grandparents, or to think of highways as Marcuse thought about them. That example is only a metaphor for Morozov, but for Marcuse, highways were a very real example of the social consequences of technology. Technology has always given humans more and more power to adjust reality to meet society’s demands. The human experience has changed as a result, to be sure, but we are all still human.

That fact, however, is one reason Morozov’s work (which is new to me) is so interesting. None of Silicon Valley’s contrivances will make us happy, because the depth of our needs exceed the capacity of any algorithm to model. He’s right to point out the shallowness of what he calls Silicon Valley’s “solutionism,” the view that all of the world’s problems have their solution in technology. The situation is actually much worse than that.