Note — May 01, 2022

The Costs of Digital Utopia

This piece by Evgeny Morozov is part of the catalogue for the installation “Inanimate Species” by Joana Moll, a “bold attempt to situate the rise of microprocessors against the decline of the number and the diversity of insects.” Morozov argues that techno-capitalism, by staying on the surface, by not taking stock of their impacts, by keeping the costs hidden while forcing users into more and more transparency, hides the true costs of their “digital utopia.” By hiding the true breadth of their resource use and resulting impacts, by moving fast, they make it hard or even impossible for society to ‘evolve’ the proper analytics and language, the proper understanding, to provide a counter balance. Yes, some academics will say they do keep up, and some of their work does, but there’s no arguing that understanding in the public sphere and the language and actions of policy makers does not keep up.

Morozov believes that ‘we‘ must sometimes satisfy ourselves with correlation, with hints of understanding, without waiting for perfect information. “[C]orrelation might also be good enough; to think in terms of causation is a sort of intellectual luxury that requires the kind of analytical maturity that, alas, we have not yet reached.”

To join this with the other pieces below, with the ideas of narratives, stories, and imagined futures, he reminds us that ideas like Moore’s law end up being understood as “‘natural’ features of a given technology (e.g. the ever-shrinking microchip)” where actually they are “just the effects of capitalist competition.” In other words, the tales told by Silicon Valley become ‘natural truth’ but are just part of capitalism, part of a story and a history that needs deconstructing.

The lie that nurtures the utopian myth behind techno-capitalism is that there is only one way to do “big data” or “artificial intelligence” or “cloud computing” – and that this way has already been discovered and perfected in Silicon Valley. The benefits are too numerous and obvious to be even discussed explicitly; a mere invocation of a regularity like Moore’s law often suffices. The numbers go up – and this means “progress.” As for the costs, those could be carefully accounted for, and, when we are lucky, mitigated. […]

It’s only by revealing the inadequacy of our notions of technological progress, with its artificial blindness and inattentiveness to criteria that are of no value to techno-capitalism, that we will be able to regain our intellectual and political bearings, and, hopefully, steer the project of techno-capitalism away from destroying all life on earth. […]

Becoming better, faster, and more efficient at making human (as well as non-human) civilisation obsolete should not count as “progress”, even if, under capitalism, it often does.