George Packer notes in his New Yorker piece on Silicon Valley’s political aims:
When financiers say that they’re doing God’s work by providing cheap credit, and oilmen claim to be patriots who are making the country energy-independent, no one takes them too seriously — it’s a given that their motivation is profit. But when technology entrepreneurs describe their lofty goals there’s no smirk or wink. “Many see their social responsibility fulfilled by their businesses, not by social or political action,” one young entrepreneur said of his colleagues… “They actually think that Facebook is going to be the panacea for many of the world’s problems. It isn’t cynicism — it’s arrogance and ignorance.”
Silicon Valley’s unhealthy combination of arrogance and ignorance, combined with its ability to churn out ever more enrapturing products, leads to a misguided sense of ‘optimism’ about the role of technology in our culture. Optimism is not problematic in itself, but it requires an accurate understanding of the current state of the world. Without such understanding, it is not a matter of optimism or pessimism, but simple delusion. This delusion convinces Silicon Valley solutionists that they are ‘changing the world’ for the better, even though things aren’t quite so simple. The problem is particularly pronounced in the case of social media, which will be the focus of this article.
According to technology critic Evgeny Morozov, solutionism is “an endemic ideology that recasts complex social phenomena like politics, public health, education, and law enforcement as ‘neatly defined problems with definite, computable solutions or as transparent and self-evident processes that can be easily optimized — if only the right algorithms are in place!’” In the more specific case of social media, its solutionists rely on the misconception that our deepest cultural, social, and political problems are contingent upon inefficiencies in communications. They also claim that by launching digital agoras like Facebook or Twitter, more people will share thoughts, more regularly, and that this, in turn, will inevitably push us towards a better participatory democracy, which is also assumed to be inherently good. Zuckerberg’s 2012 Facebook IPO letter, a manifesto of the social media front of solutionism, epitomizes this position:
People sharing more…creates a more open culture and leads to a better understanding of the lives and perspectives of others…By giving people the power to share, we are starting to see people make their voices heard on a different scale from what has historically been possible. These voices will increase in number and volume. They cannot be ignored. Over time, we expect governments will become more responsive to issues and concerns raised directly by all their people rather than through intermediaries controlled by a select few.
Earlier in the IPO letter, Zuckerberg places Facebook at the end of a techno-historical narrative, comparing social media to the printing press and the television. “They gave more people a voice. They encouraged progress. They changed the way society was organized. They brought us closer together […] Facebook aspires to build the services that give people the power to share and help them once again transform many of our core institutions and industries.”
This all sounds great in theory, but how is it in practice? Not so good.
When discussing technologies (e.g. social media, the printing press, television), we must also realistically consider who we are in relation to these tools. It might be true that in an ideal world, social media, solely by virtue of its ability to connect people from across the globe and persons of different opinions, will resolve intercultural tension and end oppressive political regimes. But our world is not that world. We are not always the rational humans of Zuckerberg’s imagination; just as often, we are irrational and clumsy. We are not the citizens of an enlightened age of reason, and any attempt to say so or act upon such an assumption, is a fatal misrepresentation of what it is to be human.
Enlightenment thinker Immanuel Kant made a version of this point in his seminal essay, What is Enlightenment? Kant notes that we do not live in an enlightened age, but rather in an age of enlightenment. “As matters now stand, a great deal is still lacking in order for men as a whole to…apply understanding confidently.’” So, “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity” where immaturity “is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another.” Even if we grant that we are moving forward, in an age of enlightenment rather than an enlightened age, then we are still emerging from the “immaturity.”
Counterproductivity, a term coined and popularized by social philosopher Ivan Illich, is a phenomenon where beyond a certain point, “the more the leading institutions of our industrial societies grow, the more they become an obstacle to achieving the very objectives they are meant to serve.” Democracy, like any other political system, can fall victim to counterproductivity. This is especially apparent in light of the Internet and social media, since the presence of a politicized social media can lead to anti-democratization as well as democratization. As Morozov argues, “the Internet has exposed democracy’s Achilles’ heel.”
The major assumptions that sustain a solutionist promotion of politicized social media are, (1) that social media has an autonomously democratizing nature, and (2) that the emergence of more voices is by definition conducive to a healthy democracy. My criticism of these two assumptions will motivate the remainder of this article piece and demonstrate the counterproductive consequences of incorrectly applying social media to politics.
Solutionist discussions of social media’s power to shape the way that humans communicate and hence how information is regulated are not entirely unfamiliar. Solutionists frequently argue that the growing presence of social media presents a challenge to the censorship that stabilizes authoritarian regimes — hence China’s banning of Google or Iran’s “war on social media.” The misstep, however, is to assume that social media’s antagonism towards authoritarian regimes is an automatic good, for opposition to something bad does not translate into a resolute justification of something. This would be analogous to justifying setting a man on fire because he was cold.
When we look at authoritarian regimes such as those in China, Russia, Iran, or Egypt, etc. the thought might flit across our minds: “if only they had the virtues of social media to counteract the authoritarian regime that oppresses them! If they could only communicate authentically with each other! That would lead to the establishment of healthy democratic politics!” And yet, while some regimes have made it more difficult to access certain social media products, few regimes have shut it down entirely. China does not have Facebook, nor Twitter, nor Google; however, they do have their own counterparts Renren, Sina Weibo, and Baidu, in addition to a swath of online forums for debate on topics ranging from provincial to international affairs. Despite the rise of social media around the world, democratization has stalled. In his piece Are the Authoritarians Winning?, Michael Ignatieff writes:
For the first time since the end of the cold war, the advance of democratic constitutionalism has stopped…In Latin America, democracy has sunk solid roots in Chile, but in Mexico and Colombia it is threatened by violence, while in Argentina it struggles to shake off the dead weight of Peronism. In Brazil, the millions who took to the streets last June to protest corruption seem to have had no impact on the cronyism in Brasília. In the Middle East, democracy has a foothold in Tunisia, but in Syria there is chaos; in Egypt, plebiscitary authoritarianism rules; and in the monarchies, absolutism is ascendant.
Social media is present in these countries selected by Ignatieff, yet the actual trends of political governance in the world are completely contrary to the unrealistic optimism that social media proponents advertise. Many authoritarians could not care less about social media, for it does not transfer power from the state to the people — the people do not earn a right by discussing on Twitter. With social media, the people earn only a permission to discuss politics in a certain forum, a distinction made by Jean-Claude Milner. Putin, Xi, and the like can rest assured that social media is no serious threat to their regime. If social media does create problems for authoritarian regimes, the dictators can simply send in their own propagandistic bloggers for damage control.
In order for social media to truly be a democratizing force, again we would have to presume that citizens of any given nation are predominantly civic-minded political agents, competent in political thinking, and inherently democratically oriented. Virtual communities, like their physical counterparts, lack an intrinsic possession of these three properties. To think otherwise is to commit epochalism, the fallacy of thinking that the latest technological innovation is historically distinct from its predecessors. This heroic understanding of social media commits the same fault as contemporary understandings of the radio.
Again, our perennial inability to understand each other is not because of the lack of more efficient communication tools; it is because of a plurality of conflicting values, dogmatism, ignorance, and other problems that have always plagued our social nature. Since the problem is not with our tools, social media solves the wrong problem. Morozov illustrates this point with discussion of the radio: “The twentieth century produced even more such proclamations about the latest technologies. A 1913 letter to the editor of Scientific American proclaimed that Marconi’s discoveries might allow ‘communication…at will, at any time, between human beings separated by great distances’ […] Less than a decade later, an article in Collier’s hailed radio as a ‘tremendous civilizer’ that would ‘spread culture everywhere’ bringing ‘usual understanding to all sections of the country, unifying our thoughts, ideals, and purposes, making us a strong and well-knit people.’”
Soon after the radio became popularized in the 1920s, we saw the rise of totalitarian states. People forget that the radio, the television, and now social media, communicate ideas — nothing more. These ideas include democratic sentiments here and there, but also interspersed throughout the democratic declarations are anti-democratic declarations. We do not live in a mature, enlightened time; whatever politics we espouse in our Facebook statuses or posts in forums and blogs, there still exist, rather powerfully, the unappreciated plurality of competing values, ideology, nationalism, dogmatism, ignorance, etc. These are problems that have existed, will continue to exist, and will indefinitely cause problems for our political situations if we are not careful enough. This is the human condition, and any attempts, like that of social media, to bypass it without proper acknowledgment of these obstacles, are doomed to fail.
To illustrate the folly of this solutionist mindset, consider Plato’s concept of areté. In Plato’s case, areté is, among other things, the body of characteristics that makes somebody an outstanding citizen of the body politic. Subsequently, this inquiry into the nature of political competence has been taken up by countless thinkers ranging from Aristotle to Nietzsche. On the other hand, a solutionist might say, “Forget searching for the metric that makes a human being an acting citizen whose political opinion should be respected; just let people talk to each other! Things will solve themselves that way.” Solutionists incorrectly believe that the solution is in people talking to each other with greater efficiency, while they ignore the nature of the people who are talking. The ability to post our thoughts — however banal or interesting to our friends online — is not a validation of our thoughts and political competency. Without an educated populace, the democratization enabled by a political social media is counterproductive; we will just throw bad ideas at each other, only further aggravating our political problems.
Apologists for solutionism sometimes argue that the great historical cases of social change such as the civil rights movement or the feminist revolution would have been accelerated if social media had been around to give the leaders coverage from the ground up. This line of argument is similar to those that have been used to emphasize the political utility of social media in the Arab Spring. Both arguments share the same assumption that if a tool could be used for the cause of spreading awareness of a certain phenomenon, then it is immediately a political good and conducive to positive change.
Disruptive socio-political movements require more than spreading awareness. Whether or not social media can even succeed as a disruptive force that can fight through systemic prejudice or oppression then becomes a question itself. As the radical feminist Carol Hanisch wrote in her essay What’s Wrong with Feminist Theory Today and What It Will Take to Make It Successful Again: “Organizing for liberation takes more than consciousness-raising, of course. We have learned the hard way that it is an absolute necessity to have a dedicated leadership that listens to the people and figures out a program that truly speaks to our needs and dreams…We need that kind of leadership. The anti-leadership line of much of the ’60s generation — my generation — has left a lot of voids. We must have organizations that are well-led, well-organized, well-disciplined, well-funded, and well-focused if we are to organize a winning movement…” Disruption is not an inherent property of consciousness-raising; the discarding of a dominant power structure requires a hierarchy of authority of its own, which comes in the form of strong intellects who can unite and guide people in support of a cause.
Even if social media can in some circumstances help to disrupt unjust orders, it is even less successful at constructing just ones to take their place. Consider the Arab Spring, which has been inaccurately touted as a success of social media. Insofar as the aim of the Arab Spring was to liberate, social media has been a textbook example of counterproductivity since it did nothing of the sort. Whether or not a tool is counterproductive depends on the aim of the tool, especially true when we attempt to define tools in the context of political or social revolution. In his discussion of the Arab Spring, Morozov quotes Ahmed Maher, one of the leaders of the April 6 Youth Movement and anti-Mubarak protests in Egypt: “We are the spark that ignites the world; we know how to inflame things…. But when we have a strong entity that can stand on its own feet — when we can form a government tomorrow — then we become an alternative. We didn’t understand that the media isn’t an alternative to the streets.” Thus, even in the case in which social media succeeds as a disruptive power that can “ignite” flames to burn through hierarchy and oppressive structures, when it comes to establishing a new government it is helpless. This is because a decentralizing tool is being used as if it were an intelligent centralizing tool. This is counterproductive, as demonstrated in the harsh reality that persists in the war-torn Middle East.
We must remember the philosopher Günther Anders’ words of warning as we charge ahead developing more and more tools: “It does not suffice to change the world. We do that anyway. And to a large extent that happens even without our involvement. In addition we have to interpret this change.” The recent upward trend of our technological prowess has come with a sharply decreasing trend of our political competency and humanist interpretations. The social and political commentary of the masses, amplified and aggravated by social media, remains banal. It is hubris to think that purely introducing new technology can fix our current and age-old issues. We as biological organisms evolve much more slowly than our technology; this results in a dangerous asymmetry that we have yet to take seriously. Social media as a political idol is only one representation of solutionism; the less we critically analyze our technological tools and how we use them, and the more we use them in blind faith, the more susceptible we become to a slow and invisible self-destruction by means of counterproductivity.
I trust that many solutionists genuinely hold good intentions to make the world a better place, but we also live in a time in which good intentions mean very little. The inability to recognize this nature of harm makes it all the more difficult to diagnose our problems as they are. Thus, it is of pressing urgency that our discourse shifts to deeper analysis of our relationship to proposed incoming technological tools before we put them on pedestals. There is a serious need to think differently, and “not in the glib sense touted by Steve Jobs.” Echoing Anders’ reversal of Marx’s famous remark on philosophy: Technologists have only changed the world, in various ways; the point is to interpret it.
Truman Chen, a sophomore studying philosophy, is the technology editor of Stanford Political Journal.