Corona Solutionism Misses the Point

I was reading Evegeny Morozovs article in The Guardian on digital solutionism during Corona and immediately knew what he would say before I opened the article – naive techno-solutionists from Silicon Valley. In this post, I’m trying to understand why the notion of solutionism feels out of place today.

the pandemic will supercharge the solutionist state, as 9/11 did for the surveillance state, creating an excuse to fill the political vacuum with anti-democratic practices, this time in the name of innovation rather than just security.
Evgeny Morozov

Tech solutionism is not a proper framework for what is happening during the Corona crisis, at least outside of the USA. I mentioned in a previous post why there is a distinction between 9/11 and the Corona crisis when it comes to surveillance, but the Silicon Valley solutionist ethos also seem to have completely disappeared this time. Nobody expects Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg to solve the crisis with some disruptive innovation. In fact, they have been completely silent on the matter. The Apple/Google collaboration around contact tracing is precisely not a solution but a change on the infrastructural level, acting in this case more as a (privatized) public utility. This is problematic on its own, but can also open up for them to be regulated as utilities.

The digital technologies that Morozov brings up as bad examples of solutionism are all from authoritarian states and should be called digital authoritarianism rather than solutionism. There is no “saving the world” illusions here, only pure control and quite effective disease control, it seems. The other corona apps being developed for example in Europe are by scientists and civil society taking all the critique of technosolutionism onboard already, not by “tech giants”, nor by startups. Everyone seems to be aware that apps don’t solve the crisis, it’s even stated in their white papers. They work with healthcare professionals, they think of privacy and security, they recognize the complexity of the problem and invite a broad peer review. There is still problematic ideas going around, the apps may not end up working or even do harm in their current state, but the kind of scrutiny a project like DP-3T comes under and even invites is promising and far from tech bros trying to save the world.

Morozov also talks of a progressive solutionism as opposed to the punitive and compares it with the use of “nudging” to change people’s behavior, but again he misses the mark. Nudging is a dubious tactic where the idea is that structuring free choices by design can subconsciously favour one or the other alternative without coercion. Informing people that they have been at risk of being infected and suggesting them to take a certain action is not the same as nudging. The Swedish approach of giving recommendations for social behavioral norms rather than legal imperatives may or may not work, but it is not nudging because it’s aim is to make people do an informed choice, rather than tricking them into choosing one thing over another.

The Failure to Build

What Silicon Valley instead has enabled during the lockdowns is for bare life (and work) to continue in many places with video conferencing, online ordering and home deliveries.

Silicon Valley’s own Marc Anderseen has almost a more accurate picture of the situation when he wrote an article lamenting the inability of the “tech industry” to respond to the crisis. It becomes clear how what Silicon Valley innovates and disrupts consists of nothing that can be helpful in a crisis like this, but instead assumes another kind of normality and behavior. They are enabling a convenient bubble lifestyle but does nothing to respond to basic needs.

When digital innovation in basic services happen – even before the corona crisis – it is not from Silicon Valley entrepreneurs but larger partnerships of governments, researchers and companies (who rarely lead these collaborations even though they might profit from them), often publically funded. The discussion if these partnerships are a waste of common resources and enable companies to profit from public funds is another – but important – question, the point still remains that when it comes to complex socio-technical provision of basic needs, solutionism is not even in the game.

It seems that the world has evolved away from the Silicon Valley techno solutionist model and they themselves also seem beaten down enough from the last years of scandals and backlashes that they don’t even try. So the critique must evolve as well.

There is no solution outside tech

Today, a default techno-critical mode run the risk of becoming reactionary and cynical. Writing off any technological support for healthcare professionals or public authorities as techno solutionism is only accepting the Silicon Valley view of technology, but rejecting it instead of celebrating it. The idea that public health interventions based in epidemiology would do better without digital technologies because it would avoid solutionism – as if the same downsides of privatisation, reductionism and quick fixes can’t be done without tech – is not a sustainable position.[1]

As Daniel McQuillan points out in AI after the pandemic, epidemiology itself – as a form of governmentality when implemeted to direct state actions – is an algorithmic and anticipatory form of governance that predicts future outcomes based on computer models. Holly Jean Buck similarly points out in an article in Strelka Mag that a simple rejection of simulations and big data in policy is not possible. If the rejection of tech solutionism includes all attempts at using digital technologies to solve the crisis, not much is left in the aftermath.

“What institutions do we need to harness the new forms of social coordination and innovation afforded by digital technologies?”, Morozov asks and calls for charting a “post-solutionist part – one that gives the public sovereignty over digital platforms”.

The contours of such a post-solutionist path is already forming in the debates around the handling of the corona crisis. The question there is not over if the public should have sovereignty over the digital platforms, but rather about the definition and constitution of that public. There’s The Public whose needs should be considered in a fair manner but who is without voice, there is the formation of many publics around certain concerns and solutions, and there is the representative public authorities making decisions of what paths to take.

In this context, techno-solutionism is an old battle that had already been won. Although old battles often has to be fought again and again, deliberately taking the debate back to that old battlefield instead of using the critique as a starting point is not where we need to be now.

  1. I would even defend surveillance here from carte blache libertarian rejections. Dissidents for sure want to avoid surveillance, but so do tax evaders and money launderers. Surveillance can be used to create a society of total control, but also to provide large scale and efficient health care. The rejection of any technological gathering of data that risk being turned into surveillance and misused is itself an inverted technosolutionism that have a hard time coming to terms with how both a police state and a welfare state have an interest in gathering data on their population. Real problems of democratic control, dual use of technologies, slippery slopes and purpose migration exist, but we can’t automatically come down one side. This is a start of the argument, not its closure. ↩︎