Evgeny Morozov discovers actor-network theory

With some trepidation did I read Evgeny Morozov’s latest piece “The Taming of Tech Criticism” but thankfully the firebrand has matured and this piece is both readable and relevant.

A critical or oppositional attitude toward Silicon Valley is no guarantee of the critic’s progressive agenda; modern technology criticism, going back to its roots in Germany at the turn of the twentieth century, has often embraced conservative causes.

It treats something that I had been struggling with over the past week after the umpteenth debate here about Silicon Valley and venture funded technology. I share the qualms of my friends but at the same time I hink that criticisms of startup culture are deeply reactionary. Whatever argument you make against them is going to be boring, non-productive and unsuccessful. Morozov signals a similar trend that technology criticism which is startup criticism by another name is conservative and futile.

“By offering to reduce the amount of work we have to do, by promising to imbue our lives with greater ease, comfort, and convenience, computers and other labor-saving technologies appeal to our eager but misguided desire for release from what we perceive as toil,” notes Carr in an unashamedly elitist tone.

The fact that Nicholas Carr is patronizing, elitist, stupid and wrong is nothing new but it is good to read it exposed clearly. What does this say about people who still read Carr?

In fact, what distinguishes radical critics from their faux-radical counterparts is the lens they use for understanding Silicon Valley: the former group sees such firms as economic actors and situates them in the historical and economic context, while the latter sees them as a cultural force, an aggregation of bad ideas about society and politics.

What it comes down to and what Morozov considers to be a radical—I’m sure this is radical in America—is that we need better things as well as better ways to pay for them. That is something that should still be eminently feasible in the parts of Europe that have not fallen prey to neoliberalism.

By the end I found out that all of Morozov’s writing—much of it mistaken by his own admission—was so difficult because he hadn’t come around to the speculative turn yet. With this piece it sounds as if he might have, though his omission of sources makes it hard to tell.

By slicing the world into two distinct spheres—the technological and the non-technological—it quickly regresses into the worst kind of solipsistic idealism, paying far more attention to drummed-up, theoretical ideas about technology than to real struggles in the here and now.

Even a cursory reading of Bruno Latour and friends would have told you long ago that divisions between technology and non-technology—society and nature— are a lie (“We Have Never Been Modern”), that there is no technology per se (actor-network theory), and that you cannot take short-cuts when talking about anything (object-realism).

In fact, the very edifice of contemporary technology criticism rests on the critic’s reluctance to acknowledge that every gadget or app is simply the end point of a much broader matrix of social, cultural, and economic relations.

This is actor-network theory if ever I read it.

The rallying cry of the technology critic—and I confess to shouting it more than once—is: “If only consumers and companies knew better!”

It is my conviction as a designer that consumers and companies usually do know better. They are as well informed as they can be for the things they value and they take the best possible decisions considering their personal value functions. Claims to the contrary gloss over realities that these actors are faced with and more than anything else stem from a patronizing difference of opinion.

Jumping to the end by Matt Jones

Matt Jones: Jumping to the End — Practical Design Fiction from Interaction Design Association on Vimeo.

Matt Jones gives an overview of the kind of work he used to do at BERG and then talks about the process of his creative work at Google. It’s refreshing to see that practice is shifting towards media that is readily consumable and deliverables that actually do something.


Terry Pratchett

Though I didn’t read him for very long, Terry Pratchett’s books in the local library translated to Dutch were my introduction to both fantasy and a certain kind of critical way of looking at the world. Only now I’m finding out how many other people were deeply influenced by Pratchett. I’m also glad to see how a literary establishment that had studiously ignored him and all genre fiction for all that time now has no other choice but to admit that they were wrong.