Ben Smithgall

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Software and data at Spotify. Previously with U.S. Digital Service and Code for America.

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To Save Everything Click Here

May 12, 2013

Evgeny Morozov’s new book, “To Save Everything, Click Here” is certainly worth reading, if for no other reason than it occupies a much-needed space in pop-technology books of railing against technology as a solution to every possible problem. In the book, Morozov tackles numerous interesting problems with some current thinking in the technology space. There’s too much for me to think about in this post, and so I mostly want to focus on his third chapter, titled “So Open It Hurts” which focuses on open government and open data. He has two primary points that I want to talk about: his discussion of open data/open government as ideology, and the tools and that can result from this open data.

Government as an Ideology

Thinking about “open government” as an ideology makes a lot of sense for Morozov in the scope of his larger intellectual project. Morozov is concerned primary with what he calls “solutionism,” which he defines as:

Recasting all complex social situations either as neatly defined problems with definite, computable solutions or as transparent and self-evident processes that can be equally optimized - if only the right algorithms are in place! - this quest is likely to have unexpected consequences that could eventually cause more damage than the problems they seek to address. I call the ideology that legitmizes and sanctions such aspirations “solutionism.”

…solutionism presumes rather than investigates the problems that it is trying to solve, reaching ‘for the answer before the problems have been fully asked.’ How problems are composed matters every bit as much as problems are resolved.

In all, this broad objection to technology as a tool that can help to solve complex problems fits nicely with his general critique of the idea of open government, where he generally proclaims that key components of open government work, namely measures to improve transparency, are generally bad and provide “solutions” to problems that are not truly problems, but instead by-products of systems of a democratic polity.

Morozov relies on cherry-picking examples that fulfill his thesis about the problems with open government and solutionism more broadly. In his discussion with the ideology of open government, he focuses on one particular example: eightmaps.com, a notably problematic website that maps the names, addresses, and occupations of donors to pro-Proposition 8 groups. I have no argument with Morozov’s central point here: eightmaps certainly seems odious, as the only use one could make with the site is to name and shame individuals who have undertaken this political action. Even though I don’t agree with these donors, it is clear that similar types of site could be created for any real cause or group, which is certainly problematic and could certainly chill the political process. Morozov also reports that individuals whose names appeared on the eightmaps site faced harassment for their views. Imagining a situation where many of these sites exist for other causes is certainly reason for concern.

Morozov also obsesses over the “open government” movement’s obsession with “transparency.” Generally, he points out that tools that move to open up every single remaining dark corner of the government can and do have wide-ranging consequences:

In other words, a quest for transparency has costs; occassionally, those costs could be far more significant than the expected benefits, and there is no good reason to sacrifice the quality of deliberation in the name of making it more transparent.

I think I agree with this. However, Morozov’s example (the problem with the publication of US Congress attendance rates) seems far too optimistic about the current state of Congress:

Now that the numbers are out there, a politician’s less-than-sterling attendance record is likely to feature in the negative ads from his or her contenders in the next election… All of a sudden, politicians can no longer make decisions about how to balance their obligations, and politics as whole suffers as a result.

In response to this, I point to George Packer’s tremendous piece in the New Yorker from 2010. It seems like Morozov is assuming that absent the publication of attendance records, Congress would be more efficient as politicians could better schedule their time. This, when compared against the picture painted by Packer, seems an almost silly notion.

Generally, though, Morozov’s problemitization of transparency as a goal is well taken: it seems wise to consider unexpected consequences of our actions. However, I am a bit more interested in his problemization of the tools that are developed as a result of the open government movements, which I will discuss more below.

Open Government as a set of tools and infrastructure

Morozov spends a good deal of time openly mocking all sorts of useful tools that have been developed as a result of open government movements. He derides “maps and trains” along with “potholes” and writes off people who are interested in making government response times to those complaints better. Morozov does himself and his argument a serious disservice here as he jubilantly points out that the Nazis had great and transparent train data. It’s unclear how that changes the inherent usefulness of something like the City of Chicago’s bus tracker, but it certainly adds some unnecessary vitroil to the Morozov’s point.

His point seems to have two primary, if possibly conflicting, main points about the tools that come about as a result of open government. On the one hand, Morozov worries that “open data” and “open government” are basically just buzzwords that non-transparent governments can hide behind, or that bureaucracies can use to publish largely useless datasets and still call themselves “transparent.” On the other hand Morozov complains that we don’t see any new or interesting things coming out of the open data movement, except for some imagined lame app that allows us to better report potholes.

I think both of these points are a bit nonsensical and certainly in conflict with each other. To the first point, Morozov is arguing, essentially, that people are using “transparency” as cover to produce mostly useless information while, in some cases, being mostly non-democratic. While I think this is an interesting argument, I still think it tends to fall flat. As Morozov himself admits, these datasources don’t exist in a vacuum, and as a result, I don’t really imagine that people are really fooled when an obviously non-democratic government publishes a low-value dataset to trumpet themselves as suddenly open and democratic.

For the other argument, I think Morozov either ignores or doesn’t care about the tremendous amount of good that comes out being able to track service requests. For example, Chicago is a city that has a history of segregation, and along with that many people were conviced that services were (and continue to be) unequally distributed. By tracking and examining the efficiency by which problems are resolved across the city’s geography, citizens can, in effect, see demonstratively if this holds true or does not. Projects like the Open 311 project allow for this sort of good to happen. Additionally, while I understand the problems that Morozov has with, for example, opening crime data, his primary complaint with other service delivery data appears to be that it’s boring or somehow not up to some arbitrary standard. Perhaps we have different goals, but I think that in his eagerness to disparage “open government” and “open data,” Morozov fails to see the fundamental potential and value of genuinely improved services in cities and municipalities.

So What?

There’s much more to Morozov’s book than I’ve had the opportunity to talk about here, and I would certainly recommend it. But I do think that he is so eager to make a point and do so in such a triumphant and gloating manner that he throws out the good with the bad. I am concerned, and I think rightly, with projects like eightmaps, but I don’t think Morozov does any work, really, to discover what exists that is good in the open government movement. Additionally, he appears to want it both ways: the data that exists is either nothing but a sham in order to buttress open government credentials, or the dataset doesn’t provide any value. Morozov does himself a disservice by not examining fully the community that has been developed around open data, the tools that have been built outside of governments, and the value that this type of public-private collaboration can bring. More thought can and likely should be done around the potential unforseen consequences of what are inherently political actions, but overall Morozov is far too quick to dismiss too much in his argument.