Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, September 30, 2013

the Underground Man addresses the solutionists

In essays and books, Evgeny Morozov has outlined four intellectual pathologies of the code-literate and code-celebrant: populism, utopianism, internet-centrism, and solutionism. These are fuzzy overlapping categories and Morozov still seems to be in search of a stable set of terms to articulate his critique. We might simplify matters by saying that all the people who fit into these categories tend to have excelled, in their academic and professional careers, as problem-solvers, so that we might sum up their thinking in this way: to many men who can code, every moment of discomfort looks like a problem in need of a code-based solution.

Thus Morozov, from To save Everything, Click Here:

Design theorist Michael Dobbins has it right: solutionism presumes rather than investigates the problems that it is trying to solve, reaching “for the answer before the questions have been fully asked.” How problems are composed matters every bit as much as how problems are resolved.

In one important passage in the book, Morozov responds to the proposal that cameras be installed in your kitchen to watch you cook a meal and correct you whenever you go astray. But this, Morozov points out, is to reduce people to machines carrying out instructions. It rules out any possibility of autonomous action, of actually learning an art-form, of creative improvisation, of discovering that your “error” led to a better result than the recipe you failed to follow. “Imperfection, ambiguity, opacity, disorder, and the opportunity to err, to sin, to do the wrong thing: all of these are constitutive of human freedom, and any concentrated attempt to root them out will root out that freedom as well.”

I simply want to note that the argument that Morozov makes here was made more powerfully, and with a greater sense of the manifold implications of this tension, one hundred and fifty years ago by Dostoevsky in Notes from Underground. In one especially vital passage Dostoevsky anticipates the whole of the current solutionist paradigm:

Furthermore, you say, science will teach men (although in my opinion this is a superfluity) that they have not, in fact, and never have had, either will or fancy, and are no more than a sort of piano keyboard or barrel-organ cylinder; and that the laws of nature still exist on the earth, so that whatever man does he does not of his own volition but, as really goes without saying, by the laws of nature. Consequently, these laws of nature have only to be discovered, and man will no longer be responsible for his actions, and it will become extremely easy for him to live his life. All human actions, of course, will then have to be worked out by those laws, mathematically, like a table of logarithms, and entered in the almanac; or better still, there will appear orthodox publications, something like our encyclopaedic dictionaries, in which everything will be so accurately calculated and plotted that there will no longer be any individual deeds or adventures left in the world. ‘Then,’ (this is all of you speaking), ‘a new political economy will come into existence, all complete, and also calculated with mathematical accuracy, so that all problems will vanish in the twinkling of an eye, simply because all possible answers to them will have been supplied. Then the Palace of Crystal will arise. Then….’ Well, in short, the golden age will come again.

All problems will vanish in the twinkling of an eye, simply because all possible answers to them will have been supplied. To this utopian prediction the Underground Man has a complex response:

Can man’s interests be correctly calculated? Are there not some which not only have not been classified, but are incapable of classification? After all, gentlemen, as far as I know you deduce the whole range of human satisfactions as averages from statistical figures and scientifico-economic formulas. You recognize things like wealth, freedom, comfort, prosperity, and so on as good, so that a man who deliberately and openly went against that tabulation would in your opinion, and of course in mine also, be an obscurantist or else completely mad, wouldn’t he? But there is one very puzzling thing: how does it come about that all the statisticians and experts and lovers of humanity, when they enumerate the good things of life, always omit one particular one? They don’t even take it into account as they ought, and the whole calculation depends on it. After all, it would not do much harm to accept this as a good and add it to the list. But the snag lies in this; that this strange benefit won’t suit any classification or fit neatly into any list.

What does he mean here? What is the “one particular” “good thing in life” that is always omitted from the list? We would see it quite clearly, the Underground Man says, if the solutionist utopia were ever actually realized, because at that moment someone would arise to say, “Come on, gentlemen, why shouldn’t we get rid of all this calm reasonableness with one kick, just so as to send all these logarithms to the devil and be able to live our own lives at our own sweet will?”

And such a figure would certainly find many followers. Why? Because

that’s the way men are made. And all this for the most frivolous of reasons, hardly worth mentioning, one would think: namely that a man, whoever he is, always and everywhere likes to act as he chooses, and not at all according to the dictates of reason and self-interest; it is indeed possible, and sometimes positively imperative (in my view), to act directly contrary to one’s own best interests. One’s own free and unfettered volition, one’s own caprice, however wild, one’s own fancy, inflamed sometimes to the point of madness – that is the one best and greatest good, which is never taken into consideration because it will not fit into any classification, and the omission of which always sends all systems and theories to the devil. Where did all the sages get the idea that a man’s desires must be normal and virtuous? Why did they imagine that he must inevitably will what is reasonable and profitable? What a man needs is simply and solely independent volition, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead.

And so the solutionist utopia will inevitably sow the seeds of its own undermining. “This good” — the good of independent volition — “is distinguished precisely by upsetting all our classifications and always destroying the systems established by lovers of humanity for the happiness of mankind. In short, it interferes with everything.” This is true for good and for ill; but it is always and everywhere true.


  • I've started to think that technology is a form of legalism. It's all based on laws anyway.

    Input x + input y = output z. It iterates forever.

    "Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for all who believe."

Post a Comment

[Basic HTML tags can be used in this comment field.]