Party pooper Evgeny Morozov: ‘appification’ does not solve complex issues

ios-7-black-iphoneYesterday, web critic Evgeny Morozov gave a lecture in the framework of the 25th anniversary of the Mediafonds, the Dutch Cultural Media Fund. During his presentation, he outlined various worst-case scenarios for a public sector that looks too much to Silicon Valley.

In his own words, Evgeny Morozov is really a more suitable speaker for funerals than for anniversaries. If you have read his most recent book, To Save Everything, Click Here (2013) or seen the Tegenlicht documentary (2011) on the man, you will know that the Belarusian is not exactly the life of the party. This may, in fact, be the exact reason why the Mediafonds invited him. Although the fund is celebrating its 25th anniversary, it already knows it will cease to exist in 2017. And who better to bring down the atmosphere than the self-styled ‘party pooper’.

Imitating Silicon Valley

Government intervention is out, and apps are in. Nowadays, the public sector derives its metaphors from Silicon Valley. So how do you apply Kickstarter’s logic to the arts sector? Who will launch the iTunes of journalism?

Although tech companies present themselves as organizations that want to change the world for the better, they are in the first place commercial organizations, Morozov warns. Added to which, we don’t know enough about the underlying structures of the companies that we want to copy. For instance, if a public service wants to use the structure of the ‘free’ encyclopedia Wikipedia it must understand that it is in fact based on a hierarchy and a large body of rules.

Optimized books

The arts and culture sector has sufficient reason to mistrust Big Data, Morozov claims.

The combination of sensors in our mobile devices and our activities on social media are generating an increasing amount of data on what we do and think. This is interesting from an economic perspective; it opens up new markets and inspires new products. However, for writers, journalists and artists, these developments may not be so positive. For example, Amazon’s e-reader Kindle tracks your reading behavior. It won’t take long before a biometric system in the screen’s interface will be able to read your emotions. According to the market logic, this will inspire Amazon to increasingly publish ‘optimized’ texts. The question of which book will become successful will no longer be a question, but a given based on data. The chances that publishers will want to take risks with experimental literature will thus decrease. When it comes to the media sector, robots are already making good headway in taking over the jobs of journalists.

Why apps are not the solution

Morozov is greatly worried about the privatization or ‘appification’ of problem-solving. It looks great on paper: the entire world has access to Massive open online courses (MOOCs) in the shape of hip video lectures. Self-tracking apps eliminate obesity. Problems that governments have been struggling with for years are solved in the blink of an eye by Silicon Valley. In Morozov’s view, however, MOOC’s destroy the traditional system of higher education, which constitutes far more than a platform that prepares people for a career. Apps may seem rational, but they do not have an eye for the context of complex issues like obesity. For poor persons in the mid-West, for instance, it’s a rational choice to buy cheap junk food rather than engage in a two-hour drive to a shop that sells expensive vegetables. Apps don’t solve problems. All they do is create the illusion we are tackling them. In Big Data, whys and wherefores do not matter.

Author Evgeny Morozov of The Net Delusion

Photograph: The Guardian

Does anyone know what´s going on inside the black box?

It is tempting for the public sector to combat complex issues using cheap data from Facebook, Gmail, mobile phones and so on. Morozov argues that this is already creating dangerous situations. For instance, the U.S. healthcare system, which has been strongly commercialized under the influence of pharmaceutical companies, will only prescribe more expensive drugs when an increasing number of people start using self-tracking apps.

Inspired by Google and Twitter, the U.S. police increasingly focus on crime prevention. Using algorithms and software solutions, they try to predict when and where crimes will take place. But does anybody know what is really going on inside the black box that is performing the calculations?

The same applies to terrorism. Controlling a physical space, e.g. through the use of drones or facial technology, to bar certain people from access, is a danger to democracy, Morozov states. Crime prevention means that no public debate is held on what actually constitutes a crime. This is a topic on which opinions have strongly varied over the centuries.

Challenging easy claims

Tech companies are presenting themselves as the Human Rights Watch rather than the new Coca Cola. Morozov encourages the audience to challenge their claims. Start-ups and venture capitalists from Silicon Valley should no longer get away with easy answers. It should be made clear, however, that Morozov is not opposed to technology or the digital infrastructure in itself. But problem-solving based on algorithms will result in public bodies being held hostage by market logic. This will bar political innovation. Now Silicon Valley is offering an app for everything, it’s time to redefine the actual issues, otherwise the system will soon no longer need our opinion. In that case, our data will be the only thing that matters.