A review of “To Save Everything Click Here” (critique of the Quantified Self movement)

Excerpted from Tom Slee:


“Chapter 7 is typical of the book. Here is a collection of people who record and track their everyday lives online, and then analyze and quantify their existence, from toothbrushing to reading to fecal contents. These “datasexuals” now have a social movement, of a sort, which they call the “Quantified Self” movement. It would be easy to dismiss the Quantified Selfers as harmless eccentrics if they did not have a significant presence among the opinion shapers and leading lights of Silicon Valley, and if the mindset they embody was not clearly present, if in moderated form, in the wider digital world, and if the assumptions and goals were not oozing out over the rest of us. From quantifying oneself in a private context it is a short step to the presentation of self through these numbers, and the use of them as a basis for optimization and refinement. So Morozov cites Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, who says that self tracking is a way to “acknowledge that you have bugs, that there’s new development to do on yourself” (237) so that we can algorithmically measure, tweak, and refine ourselves and our self-presentation to the world.

From here it is just one more short step to the buying and selling of our personal data: to insurers in return for lower premiums, to advertisers in return for better deals. Our personal data becomes a new “asset class” and executives respond by “trying to shift the focus [of debate] from purely privacy to what we call property rights” (235). New social pressures emerge as the digitizers follow their path of bits, algorithms and markets (career counsellors now routinely recommend that building a strong presence on LinkedIn is a route to a better job), and we can replace debates about privacy with reassurances about personal choice. “Privacy is mostly an illusion, but you’ll have as much of it as you want to pay for” says Kevin Kelly (236). New companies emerge to optimize our self-presentation on the web (reputation.com), new norms emerge as “If you’re going out with someone, and they don’t have a Facebook profile, you should be suspicious” (Slate’s Farhad Manjoo, quoted on p. 239). Why would you not share your real-time blood alcohol levels with your employer if you don’t have anything to hide? (240).

The impact of the digital on our lives is such that, while the social consequences of self-tracking seem immense, they are just one thread among many of the digital revolution. In separate chapters, Morozov investigates new developments in policing, arts and culture, politics, government, social engineering, civic life, health, the workplace, and the increasingly designed, architected environments in which we live. There is no aspect of life that isn’t ready to be tweaked, nudged, hacked and filtered into optimal performance.

How to respond to such a flood of changes? One is tempted to define oneself by an attitude to digital technologies themselves: to be unequivocally pro- or anti-technology. But to reject or to accept technology wholesale has no future: wholesale rejection entails rejection, not just of integrated circuits, but of the people connected by them: shaping the use of technology lies not in the realm of individual choice, but of social choice. Wholesale acceptance seems fatalistic – abandoning the possibility of having any say in the forces shaping the societies in which we live.

Morozov undertakes two projects, one successfully and one less so. The first is to provide a framework in which to think about the new inventions that are being sold to us, and the patterns of thought behind them. Morozov identifies a twin-tracked ideology behind the inventions and inventiveness of the digital world. One track is “Internet-centrism” – the practice of “taking a model of how the Internet works and applying it to other endeavours”. Writers have imbued the Internet with “a way of working”; it has a “grain” to which we must adapt; it has a culture, a “way it is meant to be used”, and it comes with a mythology in which iTunes and Wikipedia become models to think about the future of politics, and Zynga is a model for civic engagement (15). The second track is “solutionism”: the recasting of social situations as problems with definite solutions; processes to be optimized (23).

Morozov does a fine job of articulating Internet-centrism and solutionism as two facets of a single Silicon Valley ideology, whose followers include the Valley’s software industry leaders, venture capitalists, conferences and “thought leaders”, as an evolution of the “Cyberselfish” ideology identified a decade ago by Paulina Borsook. The common assumptions, shared biases, and individualistic predilictions give a cohesiveness and homogeneity to the new ideas and inventions, actively constructing and shaping the digital environment from which they claim to draw their inspiration. The insistence on “disrupting” our social and environmental lives; the idea that the solutions inspired by and enabled by the Internet mark a clean break from historical patterns, a never-before-seen opportunity – these mean that the only lessons to learn from history are those of previous technological disruptions. The view of society as an institution-free network of autonomous individuals practicing free exchange makes the social sciences, with the exception of economics, irrelevant. What’s left is engineering, neuroscience, an understanding of incentives (in the narrowly utilitarian sense): just right for those whose intellectual predispositions are to algorithms, design, and data structures. Morozov argues that these orthodoxies have had “a corrosive effect on public discourse and on reform projects” (16) and it’s difficult to argue otherwise.

Morozov’s approach to unpicking the hidden assumptions of solutionism, and the unpalatable consequences of its application, is impressive but less successful. In order to avoid a blanket technopessimism he makes two moves. The first is to adopt a broadly social constructionist approach to the world of digital technologies. The Internet does not shape us, it is shaped by the society in which it is growing. He is with Raymond Williams, against Marshall McLuhan. His stance here is blunt: he refuses to see “the Internet” as an agent of change, for good or bad. “The Internet” is not a cause; it does not explain things, it is the thing that needs to be explained. Chapter 2 is titled The Internet Tells Us Nothing (Because It Doesn’t Actually Exist).”


The second, more surprising move, is to adopt a critique that was first described in a pejorative sense by Albert Hirschmann. “In his influential book The Rhetoric of Reaction, Hirschmann argued that all progressive reforms usually attract conservative criticisms that build on one of the following three themes: perversity (whereby the proposed intervention only worsens the problem at hand), futility (whereby the intervention yields no results whatsoever), and jeopardy (whereby the intervention threatens to undermine some previous, hard-earned accomplishment)” (6). Morozov does not see himself as a conservative, but instead places himself in the tradition of other thinkers who have stood against programs of organized efficiency; “Jane Jacobs attacks on the arrogance of urban planning, Michael Oakeshott’s rebellion against rationalists in all walks of human existence, Hans Jonas’s impatience with the cold comfort of cybernetics; and, more recently, James Scott’s concern with how states have forced what he calls ‘legibility’ on their subjects” (7). The list is an interesting one because, as I mentioned at the beginning, it features the same cast of characters that the solutionists — those whom Morozov opposes so implacably — routinely invoke as their own inspirations.

The Hirschmann framework provides Morozov with a recipe for how to think about the many solutionist initiatives he tackles, and many of the passages in the book have a similar structure. Let’s return to self-tracking for a moment. Morozov’s first line of critique is Hirschmann’s “jeopardy”: he invokes the ‘technostructuralists’ to ask not just what individual choices self-tracking offers, but to ask how it changes the environment we inhabit. A decision not to share becomes a tacit acknowledgement that you have something to hide. The danger is that “if you are well and well-off, self-monitoring will only make things better for you. If you are none of these things, the personal prospectus could make your life much more difficult, with higher insurance premiums, fewer discounts, and limited employment prospects” (240). It erodes privacy, the ability to make a clean start, and erodes risk-taking behaviour given the consequences of failure. A second line of critique is to ask what, as our quantifiable aspects become the focus of attention, is missing in the quantified portrait that emerges: what intangible aspects of ourselves become invisible. Do these numbers, he asks, miss meaning? Where do ethics and aesthetics go to in a world of numbers? Morozov surveys the centuries-old debates over the virtues and perils of quantification. Here the critique stumbles, as Morozov rolls out thinker after thinker in a parade of reasons to doubt the benefits of quantification. From Nietzsche to Nussbaum, from nutritionism (the quantification of food) to water-metering and the evolution of clothes-washing norms, to the benefits of friction and dissonance in our everyday lives, there is no doubt he covers an impressive amount of ground, but the argument is scattershot; disjoint. The end result is an erudite and widely-sourced list of the ways in which technologies may lead to bad outcomes – but it is still a list, and it lacks the force of a strong central thesis behind it.

The other chapters follow a similar pattern: the perversity, futility, and jeopardy of solutionist agendas show a breadth of investigation that should shame many of his more populist opponents, and provide valuable contexts in which to think about technological programmes. In particular, his insistence on seeking out historical precedents for today’s arguments is a welcome change from the language of “rupture” that many solutionists prefer.

If there is a unified point of view behind the critique, it can be traced back to the “anti-solutionists” with whom Morozov identifies. Like Morozov and like Steven Johnson, I’m a big admirer of Jane Jacobs’s Death and Life of Great American Cities, and James Scott’s Seeing Like a State: which makes me wonder how can they end up in such different camps.”

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