Book review: The Openness Delusion

“It’s not a bug. It’s a feature”. This, in grossly simplistic terms, is the central message of “Solutionism” – the term coined by the Belarusian-American Internet-critic Evgeny Morozov in his latest book To Save Everything Click Here.

Take, for instance, less than perfect crime punishment, inefficient democratic procedures, or limits of human perception and cognition: These phenomena are perceived as bugs in the societal and political systems by today’s internet-savvy information entrepreneurs. They are no bugs. They’re features. This, at least, is what “Solutionism” claims.

The broader perspective within which this claim is situated might be called “internet centrism”: an approach which takes for granted that everything the internet has to offer should be regarded as a blessing to society at large. Morozov ‘s objection to this is: ‘The internet’ just doesn’t influence everything in the same way. (Indeed, he suggests not to use the term “the internet” at all.) Therefore, one should study carefully on a case by case basis the effects of the different internet-related technologies.

One of the book’s central chapters deals with the notion of transparency or openness. “Sunlight might be the best disinfectant”: thus US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously said in 1913, hinting at publicity as a remedy for the “social disease” of corruption. Morozov ads: “But disinfectants, alas, are of little use to sunburn victims”. Are we already suffering from an overdose of transparency?

There are two ways to read the message that Morozov is aiming to convey. In a rather pragmatic version, he can be read as stating that transparency should only be regarded as means to an end and not as value in itself. This is what he actually says:

We should ”seek to increase or decrease transparency” not “as such but because transparency promotes or undermines other, higher goods.”

As a matter of fact, this claim is hardly controversial. A disinfectant is not something that we use as an end in itself. Therefore, the examples which Morozov mentions in his book (such as the site or a study demonstrating that Members of the FED’s Federal Open Market Committee voiced less dissent in their meetings after transcripts of these meetings were made public on a regular basis) are not so much of interest as a prove for his claim.

Rather, they point out the necessity to empirically investigate limits of transparency. There is actually quite a lot going on in this field. Worth mentioning: Loewenstein und Sunstein’s recent review on “Disclosure”, but also the historian Delphine Gardey’s work on how the aim for transparency of committee-work has been part of democracy’s agenda ever since the invention of the modern parliament. Nevertheless: A comprehensive summary of the takeaways regarding ‘transparency’ from academic research in psychology, behavioural economics, history and empirical deliberation research is still missing.

Morozov’s claim can also be read in a more radical fashion, stating that we should not even use transparency in terms of a rule of thumb or as a program (such as the pirate party pursues transparency as one of its political goals). Put differently: We should refrain from saying that something is good, because it is transparent or “open” – what, in way, we seem to do, when we are using the term to promote projects like “open government”, “open source” or “open innovation”. What kind of argument could be offered to support this more radical claim?

First of all, striving for transparency might have the effect that other, equally important considerations are getting out of sight. As Sunstein and Loewenstein put it in “Disclosure” (echoing Lawrence Lessigs’s Against Transparency):

“Information provision may have little impact in the absence of institutions and mechanisms that have the capacity to channel the information in concrete action”.

Too much emphasis on transparency might therefore lead to the unintended effect of political paralysation. (To be clear: Morozov doesn’t mention psychological experiments such as reported by Sunstein and Loewenstein and rather bashes Lessig for talking about “the internet” in too general terms. But these are actually the thinkers that could support his case.)

Another point is that quite often companies and governments praise themselves for being “open”, whereas in reality, they are not open at all. The self-proclaimed “open” US-government, for instance, has “aggressively prosecuted leakers and whistle-blowers”. (Here, one regrets that the book is written from a pre-Snowden perspective.

Today, Morozov would probably have written a lot more on this very topic.) Other organizations have hijacked the enlightenment-attitude towards the liberating power of information in order to present their business interests as a social good. Morozov: “Google is in the enlightenment business”. Do we really want to join Google and the US-government in their quest for this kind of openness?

To me, Morozov’s radical claim seems more convincing than the pragmatic version (which is the one he literally states). We should indeed cool down in our enthusiasm for all these trendy “open”-projects . At least we should take care not to focus too exclusively on the provision and the processing of information. To Save Everything Click Here might not argue for this conclusion in an always convincing way. But surely the 400-pager gives this conclusion adequate weight.

Ralf Groetker
Journalist, writing on Science, Technology & Society