In her celebrated January 2010 statement on "internet freedom", Hillary Clinton chided countries such as China, Tunisia, Uzbekistan and Egypt for placing restrictions on internet access. The then-US secretary of state affirmed her government's conviction that "the more freely information flows, the stronger societies become", because "access to information helps citizens hold their own governments accountable, generates new ideas, encourages creativity and entrepreneurship".
Not long after, the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks obtained a trove of information revealing US military and diplomatic conduct in Iraq, Afghanistan and the rest of the world. Information flowed freely. But the US government appeared somewhat less convinced of its capacity for strengthening society. Access to WikiLeaks was restricted in many government agencies; Amazon, MasterCard, Visa and PayPal were persuaded to withdraw their services; and students and government employees were discouraged from sharing Wikileaks information on pain of jeopardising career prospects.
Internet freedom, it turned out, was not a sacrosanct principle. It failed to resist the intrusion of profane political concerns. As an analytical category independent of political and social constraints, the internet produced stirring rhetoric, but shorn of its obfuscating theology, it proved subject to the imperatives of power as much in the United States as in Uzbekistan.
This disconnect between the reality of the internet - the physical infrastructure, with its platforms, protocols and utilities; its promises, perils and limitations - and the idea of "the internet" - as a fixed, coherent and unproblematic phenomenon that is open, public and collaborative - enables two dangerous tendencies that are the subject of Evgeny Morozov's To Save Everything, Click Here: Technology, Solutionism, and the Urge to Fix Problems That Don't Exist.
The first he calls "solutionism" - a preoccupation with spectacular and narrow solutions to complex social and political problems. The second is "internet-centrism" - a conviction that "the internet" heralds a revolutionary era, a time of profound change in which old truths have become obsolete.
Solutionism, Morozov argues, is not new. The impulse has manifested itself in the various post-Enlightenment attempts at social engineering. Its dehumanising narratives have been challenged by thinkers such as Jane Jacobs writing on urban planning, Ivan Illich on professional schooling, Michael Oakeshott on rationalism, Karl Popper on historicism, even Friedrich Hayek on central planning.
But dangers arise when the easy availability and low costs of new technologies are taken as licence to intervene in society, to fix problems of politics, public health, climate change, education, law enforcement, even art. The "friction, opacity, ambiguity and imperfection" of social relations are replaced by economistic notions of "efficiency, transparency, certitude and perfection". Political issues are turned into administrative problems with technological fixes. The rhetoric of empowerment is used to defer responsibility onto citizens while leaving structural problems unaddressed. Citizens are provided with the means to optimise their behaviour to the existing system, which is presumed fixed, unchangeable; and codes and algorithms are introduced to eliminate uncertainty from their lives, be it in health, security, or human relations. It's a Brave New World.
The evangelists for digital utopia - that includes both Silicon Valley companies and proselytising intellectuals - never question if such solutions are needed in the first place. Nor do they ask if efficiency is an unambiguous good. Indeed, many of the problems that digital technologies help address have only been recognised as such because the digital means have emerged to "fix" them.