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Pair Review: Rao vs Morozov

Breaking Smart, 'Season' 1 (2015) by Venkatesh Rao.

A grandiose and low-res narrative covering all of history from the perspective of technology (or, rather, the perspective of the tech industry (or, rather, of the solutionists)) in 30,000 words. Rao is one of the big in-house theorists for Silicon Valley*, and this is reflected in his contagious enthusiasm for just how much is becoming possible so quickly, the degree to which this time actually is different ("Software is eating the world"). Second half of this season attempts to generalise software engineering ideas - Agile, forking, sprints and all that - to all human endeavour (...)
As a simple example, a 14-year-old teenager today (too young to show up in labor statistics) can learn programming, contribute significantly to open-source projects, and become a talented professional-grade programmer before age 18. This is breaking smart: an economic actor using early mastery of emerging technological leverage — in this case a young individual using software leverage — to wield disproportionate influence on the emerging future.

Only a tiny fraction of this enormously valuable activity — the cost of a laptop and an Internet connection — would show up in standard economic metrics. Based on visible economic impact alone, the effects of such activity might even show up as a negative, in the form of technology-driven deflation. But the hidden economic significance of such an invisible story is at least comparable to that of an 18-year-old paying $100,000 over four years to acquire a traditional college degree. In the most dramatic cases, it can be as high as the value of an entire industry.

The music industry is an example: a product created by a teenager, Shawn Fanning’s Napster, triggered a cascade of innovation whose primary visible impact has been the vertiginous decline of big record labels, but whose hidden impact includes an explosion in independent music production and rapid growth in the live-music sector.
Yeah, I hate the title phrase too. People got cross at him being pretentious about the format (long-form blog posts released in huge chunks, to binge on like a boxset) but I like it. Very exciting for techies, and readable for nontechies. just unreliable.


* See also Floridi, a deep but similarly narrative thinker. Compare the two to Freud and Marx: wonderfully original but mostly lacking justification.


To Save Everything, Click Here (2013) by Evgeny Morozov.

Sharp, original and broad mismash: an intellectual history of information technology, IP law, political economy, as well as an ok bit of polemical sociology and a theory of Design. His targets are the 'solutionists', those technocrat techies who derive from the half of the Enlightenment which became positivism. (It is roughly: the will to perfect things and people, plus theorism, plus economism, plus the sheer power and scope of modern software.) Morozov is, bluntly, afraid for us all because software is eating the world:
Imperfection, ambiguity, opacity, disorder and the opportunity to err, to sin: all of these are constitutive of human freedom, and any concentrated attempt to root them out will root out that freedom as well... we risk finding ourselves with a politics devoid of everything that makes politics desirable, with humans who have lost their basic capacity for moral reasoning, with lackluster cultural institutions that don't take risks and, most terrifyingly, with a perfectly controlled social environment that would make dissent not just impossible but possibly even unthinkable...
(The book is only rarely as alarmist as this.) He gives a helpful survey of the present-day gurus and scholars who are involved in the uncritical adulation or demonising of the internet and its associated ideology (hyper-efficiency for everything, transparency for everything, the benevolence of emergent social processes like markets, no need to pay artists or other intellect-workers). His first great distinction is between a solution to a problem and a response; the former is objective, final, uncontroversial (i.e. maths at its best) while a response is the partial, negotiated, and rarely decisive. The novelty, promise, and danger of the solutionists is that they proffer solutions to more and more of the world, particularly in politics.

Morozov is not the oppposite of Rao, because Rao is more subtle than people give him credit for, and no subtle thinker ever has a single opposite. But their values and policy recommendations are totally opposed.

His own ideological perch is really interesting: he's constantly emphasising practice over theory, admiring Oakeshott and Illich while emphasising that everyone of whatever politics should be worried about the hegemonic techies. It occurs to me that the word 'practice' is a way of smuggling in status quo bias without tripping people's political alarms: the conservative word for 'practice' is 'tradition'; the left word for it is 'culture'. All three concepts impede change, whether through fear and status quo bias or relativism. Morozov's bipartisan curmudgeonliness is charming, but this caution and cynicism echo throughout, in his worries about e.g. the infantilising effect of technical ease, speed, gamification. I'm no longer the kind of person who dismisses someone based only on political or existential differences, but I do distrust people who think that the world is fine as it is (rather than just incredibly better than the other points in history), or that states of affairs are justified by their longevity rather than their being good for people. Practices need justification; justification is the practice of reason; reason very often implies efficiency. He's not anti-rationalist, but the products he attacks stem from that good tree.

At one point he gets very excited over the idea of people giving each other ratings online and thereby creating new dystopian social control mechanisms; this bold conjecture has recently been confirmed by the imminent launch of Peeple. I was going to write something about how MeowMeowBeans paranoia is unnecessary - for we already endure dystopian ranking algorithms: your salary and your number of followers are already wildly globally dominant rank orders - but it certainly speaks well of his mental model that he saw this coming. Only an outbreak of common sense (leading to Peeple's abject failure) will prevent solutionist horrors.

Many of his points apply to two of my tribes, the rationalists and the effective altruists. (Who seek to theorise and thereby improve on our native knowledge-seeking and moral reasoning, respectively.) But I don't think his critique does much against them: efficiency is humane and common-sensical in a world with scarcity and miscoordination as deep as ours; inefficiency in science and medicine bankrupts and kills people; inefficiency in charity and aid prevents many, many lives being saved or transformed. The absurd examples Morozov rightly holds up (the BinCam, the publicising of weight gain) may be just misapplications of the principle. We are a long way from the point where politics, charity, academia, or even science are over-rationalised and losing their other virtues because of excess efficiency.

Returning to his beautiful quotation, the first above: but I do not deserve the freedom to believe harmful falsehoods, nor the freedom to hide my errors behind ambiguity; nor the freedom to throw away resources which others need. And I don't want the freedom to waste my life. Technology is the only untried way of responding to our grave Darwinian inheritance of intolerance, selfishness, and irrationality. But Morozov makes his case well about the specific case of technologised politics.