For the last few weeks, Google has been ginning up their characteristic brand of media-fueled hyperventilation among us mere mortals. This time it’s for Google Glass – the so-called ’augmented reality’ headset that basically superimposes a voice-activated smartphone in the top right-hand corner of your field of view and thus integrates Google into your lived experience more closely than ever before.
As someone who already wears glasses of the decisively low-tech variety, much of the excitement related to wearing an object across one’s forehead was doomed to be lost on me. Further, as someone who is already annoyed by how much time we all spend gawking at screens instead of the un-augmented reality that lays before us, I was left feeling disconcerted with the notion that in the future I won’t even be able to tell when I’m boring my interlocutor to the point of driving them to their cell phones.
Soon we’ll all be making “eye-contact” while secretly playing Farmville and sifting through and endless pornography. Now how are we supposed to signal to others such key sentiments like ‘boy, it’s getting late’ or ‘dear god, please wrap-up this unending anecdote’?
Finally, if it wasn’t confusing enough seeing people talking on their Bluetooth headsets like full-blown schizophrenics, imagine if it becomes as obnoxious as IBM predicted in the late 1990s with this TV spot:
Now, it’s easy to mock these newfangled inventions. I’m sure in a hundred years words like mine will seem as quaint as those from a hundred years prior who fretted about the destructive effects of the telegraph or the radio. Technology marches inexorably forward, and it takes an ignorant Luddite not to see the value of such advances.
There’s an impulse in our high-tech industrial culture, with all our Enlightenment baggage in tow, to dismiss the hyperbolic concerns of technological naysayers. But indeed there is a timeless characteristic of what our best naysayers do.
Recall Aesop’s fable of the Grasshopper and the Ant. It is summer and the Ant is diligently preparing for the hard winter ahead while the lazy Grasshopper lounges about, chuckling to himself as the Ant scurries too and fro. Come winter, of course, the Grasshopper is woefully unprepared and comes begging to the Ant for some scraps of food. The Ant declines to help the Grasshopper and before we know it, a lesson has been learned.
I think it’s safe to say we are in the summer of Google. For that matter, it’s the summer of Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Reddit, Twitter, Amazon, Ebay and dozens of other such websites/companies. We all sign up for free accounts and benefit from the easy one-click solutions brought to us by the well remunerated geniuses in Silicon Valley. But what if we are Grasshoppers, who amuse ourselves in the heat, ignoring what the Ant has been clamoring to say.
Evgeny Morozov does us the unpopular service of nay-saying in his newest book titled, tongue-in-cheek, Click Here To Save Everything. Like the carefree Grasshopper, many of us sit about while characters like Morozov do the Ant’s work. He warns us not in Apocalyptic terms about the dangers of Google. He does not get red in the face ranting about privacy or greed or censorship.
No, the hard work he is doing is to force us to reconsider what happens when the solutions we fetishize pose problems of their own. Morozov forces us to reconsider the adverse consequences of relying on search to remember everything, to use Facebook to recall our friends’ birthdays, of allowing algorithms to recommend our next reads on Amazon, and so forth.
The hard work he does in his book is to ask us to consider another world where we are forced to conceptualize problems holistically. What do we lose when we benefit from these technologies? What deeper reality underlies the superficial ‘problems’ that these companies aim to solve?
Of course, I use Google all the time. I’m writing these words into Google Documents, and filling the gaping holes in my general knowledge and vocabulary with Google Search. It’s easy to mock things like Google Glass, but it takes a more perceptive mind to question those services that we now consider invaluable, and indeed inevitable.
With a deeply democratic passion, Morozov interrogates the effects of our abiding faith in technology. If there is bound to be a solution for everything, eventually, as the industrialist mantra would have it, what implications does this have for a citizens’ attitude towards democracy, the environment, or even the family?
Morozov’s book is an extended and subtle argument, precisely of the variety not amenable to quick summarizing. He is never hyperbolic nor unreasonable. He merely asks us in one example after another to reconsider what we consider ‘solutions’ to ‘problems’.
The digital world is new, but it is not as revolutionary as some would have us believe. The human problems startups in California seek to solve (and monetize) are not new. The conundrums of democracy are old and have survived many a technological revolution before this one.
Morozov is a conservative in the best possible sense – he takes what is valuable about our past and ensures that it isn’t thrown out with the bathwater in our relentless digital push ‘forward’.