Good Versus Bad Smart: Some Thoughts On Morozov's Op Ed

I have yet to sit down and read Evgeny Morozov’s new book, To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism.  I certainly found his last book very thought provoking.  But I did get a chance to read an op ed Morozov recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal with the provocative title “Is Smart Making Us Dumb?”  The piece draws a distinction between mobile and other devices that are “good smart” and ones that are “bad smart.”  Good smart devices “leave us in complete control of the situation and seek to enhance our decision-making by providing more information.”  Morozov offers the example of a teapot that relays the state of the energy grid.  Whereas bad smart ones “make certain choices and behaviors impossible,” a theme Lawrence Lessig, Jonathan Zittrain, and others famously develop under the rubric of "code."

As philosopher of technology Evan Selinger tweets, Morozov's is a “[g]ood normative slice!”  And a complicated one.  Cutting off choice is not always liberty dampening, and the appearance of control can itself nudge or paralyze.  For instance, in the context of privacy, Laura Brandimarte and colleagues show how granting subjects more control over their data leads, if anything, to greater promiscuity of disclosure.   The authors call this effect the “control paradox.”  Other literatures suggest that too many choices can lead to bad decisions, and that each choice to avoid temptation can deplete will power.  And then of course there is Ulysses, who hears the siren’s call precisely because he cannot choose to answer it.  In other words, filtering out information and limiting choice can sometimes be a design feature, not a bug.

I’m grappling with a similar set of issues in a new essay entitled Code, Nudge, or Notice?  I argue in part that regulators ought to try to maximize “facilitation” and minimize “friction”—help citizens discover and realize their goals, instead of hindering them from achieving goals the government does not like by creating physical or psychological barriers.  As is common to the form, the essay leaves some hard (and, hopefully, interesting) questions unanswered.  Will the government facilitate conduct it does not like?  Probably not, just as it would not subsidize activity it does not desire.  Is pure facilitation, in the sense of being free from manipulation, even possible?  And, for Morozov and I both, is not introducing a certain friction itself a way to facilitate?  I look forward to learning more about Morozov’s take on these and other questions, no doubt elaborated in the book itself.

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