Publication date: 3/5/2013
Every March since 2005, infographic designer Nicholas Felton publishes the Feltron Annual Report—a statistical tally of a year of his life charting such minutiae as the number of beers he consumed by country of origin.
The Net Delusion author Evgeny Morozov argues that self-tracking eccentrics like Felton are not unique to our technological epoch. In his newest book To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, Morozov writes that in 1912 Horace Fletcher urged his followers to chew their food 32 times to improve the density and smell of their feces. “The Great Masticator” analyzed and weighed his own excrement and published his findings with charts in a book appropriately titled Fletcherism, What It Is.
Tech worshippers’ ahistorical perspective and their preoccupation with “eternal amelioration” are some of Morozov’s targets in To Save Everything, Click Here. He engages in an ambitious plan of tech resistance with this volley:
“Who today is mad enough to challenge the virtues of eliminating hypocrisy from politics? Or of providing more information—the direct result of self-tracking—to facilitate decision making? Or of finding new incentives to get people interested in saving humanity, fighting climate change, or participating in politics? Or of decreasing crime? To question the appropriateness of such interventions, it seems is to question the Enlightenment itself.”
Morozov thinks the questions are necessary and argues there is a high cost if we don’t ask about the shortcomings of Internet solutionism. He proposes stepping back from the barrage of progressive ideas (as a conservative might in the face of change) so real problems aren’t sacrificed via Albert Hirschman’s triad of perversity, futility and jeopardy.
Chapter seven of this revealing book questions the global movement of the Quantified Self, which traces its beginnings to Gary Wolf’s 2010 manifesto published in New York Times Magazine. In the manifesto, Wolf wrote the movement would emerge with more compact and powerful sensors, the ubiquity of smartphones, Twitter and Facebook norms of sharing and cloud computing.
An unabashed digital refusenik, Morozov argues that Wolf’s manifesto does no more than explain the technology that has allowed self-tracking to ossify on a mass scale.
“But has it become more desirable? Or did we want it all along, but the right gadgets and clouds were missing? Wolf, in true geek fashion, emphasizes the unique ways in which self-tracking—and quantification more broadly—can help shield us from subjectivity and emotion, supposedly a benefit.”
Morozov ridicules the movement as a “modern narcissistic quest for uniqueness and exceptionalism.”
“Self-tracking—especially done in public—is often just a by-product of attempts to show off and secure one’s uniqueness in a world where suddenly everyone has a voice and is expected to say things that matter.”
Here he tends to confuse cultural criticism with mocking, disdain and a cloying certainty of the pitfalls of science. Then, morphing into a reasonable creature, he reminds readers of a benefit nobody has considered: self-tracking might generate better data for improving decisions about our health.
What if Morozov had dispensed with all of the mocking and instead focused on what is actually good inquiry and analysis in the book? Would it have read more cohesively and briskly? He one ups his detractors best when asking the thoughtful, persistent questions that deserve answers.
Morozov presses on about privacy issues and how willing tech worshippers might be to pay for ownership and control of their data. Consider Nicholas Felton—of the personal annual report—and his newest Silicon Valley venture, Daytum.com.
According to Morozov, Daytum’s 80,000+ users can track personal data like daily miles run or the number of hamburgers consumed and choose to pay a $4 a month premium to keep their accounts private. He compares Daytum’s paywall to that of Reputation.com, whose users pay to clean up their online reputations. During the economic collapse of 2008, investment bankers began using online reputation services and paid up to $10,000 a month for concealment.
“Good for the bankers; bad for the rest of us. But what about those who have done nothing wrong but can’t pay? Will a data-rich economy create new forms of digital divide, where only the rich can afford to defend their online reputation?”
To Save Everything, Click Here by Evgeny Morozov is a worthwhile read for an edifying technological debate of the Internet and its impetus for modern solutionist initiatives—sans blinkers.
Category: Nonfiction, Internet