solving problems that don’t exist
October 12, 2013, 4:27 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , ,

Telling: Each photograph explores contemporary American life, as well as revealing family dynamics that become most clear at the dinner tableWhen things aren’t working we get busy solving problems that most people didn’t even know existed. For example, think of all the things that aren’t working for people in this age of debt and crisis and no jobs. Now recall how we expend vast creative resources to make gadgets, which are lovely, but which don’t really alter the general landscape that much. Now understand how these trends – the rise of gadgets and the decline of life – are linked.

That’s Packer’s point in his essay Upgrade or Die:

My unprovable hypothesis is that obsessive upgrading and chronic stagnation are intimately related, in the same way that erotic fantasies are related to sexual repression. The fetish that surrounds Google Glass or the Dow average grows ever more hysterical as the economic status of the majority of Americans remains flat. When things don’t work in the realm of stuff, people turn to the realm of bits. If the physical world becomes intransigent, you can take refuge in the virtual world, where you can solve problems–how do I make a video of my skydiving adventure while keeping my hands free?—that most of your countrymen didn’t know existed. Morozov puts it this way: “Last year the futurist Ayesha Khanna even described smart contact lenses that could make homeless people disappear from view, ‘enhancing our basic sense’ and, undoubtedly, making our lives so much more enjoyable. In a way, this does solve the problem of homelessness—unless, of course, you happen to be a homeless person.”

George Packer, Upgrade or Die, The New Yorker


Here is a stinging rebuke to the world the techies have built by George Packer in his article Change the World. The arc of his argument in these three paragraphs: that the world view of the tech made world is parochial, narrow, given to simplistic solutions; that out of this context has arisen a sort of libertarian ideology that offers tech solutions to superficials while the world burns; and that our focus on tech – which though narrow is described as a media revolution, not unlike the Industrial Revolution – may logically be related to many of the macro social problems we are experiencing, like inequality, among others.

My prof at university explained how ‘Who controls the media’ wins the prize. That the tech nerd – the audio video guy from high school, with his zero social skills, who never went out, who couldn’t engage in a proper conversation, who couldn’t conceive of anything beyond his singular realm of knowledge being significant – is now in charge is a crazy thought. It’s the reality in pretty well every office I have ever worked in; never the brightest or broadest, always the narrowly technically adept.

Here is George Packer; the full article is linked below:

Horowitz—who is the son of David Horowitz, the radical turned conservative polemicist—attributed Silicon Valley’s strain of libertarianism to the mentality of engineers. “Libertarianism is, theoretically, a relatively elegant solution,” he said. “People here have a great affinity for that kind of thing—they want elegance. Most people here are relatively apolitical and not that knowledgeable about how these large complicated systems of societies work. Libertarianism has got a lot of the false positives that Communism had, in that it’s a very simple solution that solves everything.” The intellectual model is not the dour Ayn Rand but Bay Area philosophers and gurus who imagine that limitless progress can be achieved through technology.


Technology can be an answer to incompetence and inefficiency. But it has little to say about larger issues of justice and fairness, unless you think that political problems are bugs that can be fixed by engineering rather than fundamental conflicts of interest and value. Evgeny Morozov, in his new book “To Save Everything, Click Here,” calls this belief “solutionism.” Morozov, who is twenty-nine and grew up in a mining town in Belarus, is the fiercest critic of technological optimism in America, tirelessly dismantling the language of its followers. “They want to be ‘open,’ they want to be ‘disruptive,’ they want to ‘innovate,’ ” Morozov told me. “The open agenda is, in many ways, the opposite of equality and justice. They think anything that helps you to bypass institutions is, by default, empowering or liberating. You might not be able to pay for health care or your insurance, but if you have an app on your phone that alerts you to the fact that you need to exercise more, or you aren’t eating healthily enough, they think they are solving the problem.”


One question for technology boosters—maybe the crucial one—is why, during the decades of the personal computer and the Internet, the American economy has grown so slowly, average wages have stagnated, the middle class has been hollowed out, and inequality has surged. Why has a revolution that is supposed to be as historically important as the industrial revolution coincided with a period of broader economic decline?

Change the World: Silicon Valley transfers its slogans—and its money—to the realm of politics, George Packer, The New Yorker, May 2013