Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Problem with Technosolutionism

Technology is an amazing tool, but there are some problems it can’t solve

In The Hedgehog Review, Christine Rosen writes about technosolutionism. If the pandemic has made evident the precarious nature of the global economy (it could briefly be brought to a standstill by a single “bug”), it also showed how advanced our technology had become. We immediately found ourselves on Zoom, or other conferencing platforms, doing business, teaching class, or chatting with family and friends we were otherwise used to seeing regularly. The pandemic hit less than a year ago, and we already have not one but several vaccines. It is astounding. Yet, there are dangers, Rosen argues:

It was the very swiftness and uncritical enthusiasm with which Americans embraced an ‘easy’ technological solution to a complicated problem that suggests that we are becoming increasingly comfortable with technosolutionism, and not just during times of crisis. Such acquiescence seems understandable at such times, when uncertainty prevails, but as we continue to struggle to find our bearings, it is worth considering the significant choices we have already made with regard to technological problem-solving, and begin to contend with the consequences.

Technosolutionism is a way of understanding the world that assigns priority to engineered solutions to human problems. Its first principle is the notion that an app, a machine, a software program, or an algorithm offers the best solution to any complicated problem. Notably, the technosolutionist’s appeal to technical authority, even for the creation of public policy or public health measures, is often presented as apolitical, even if its consequences are often not. Technosolutionism speaks in the language of the future but acts in the short-term present. In the rush to embrace immediate technological fixes, its advocates often ignore likely long-term effects and unintended consequences.

Technosolutionism is also often unabashedly radical in its vision of what it might accomplish, particularly in times of crisis. One of the more enthusiastic purveyors of such reasoning, Aaron Bastani, argued recently that ‘the pandemic makes it clear: We need Fully Automated Luxury Communism,’ his shorthand for a technosolutionist system he describes as ‘this technological revolution—oriented around automation, renewable energy, AI, and ever more objects resembling “information goods.”’

Even if few people are buying into the appeal of Fully Automated Luxury Communism, we are all witnessing and, under the pressure of the pandemic, more or less resigning ourselves to a growing dependence on technosolutionism in two areas that shape our everyday lives: public health and education.

In other news: Noah Baumbach to adapt Don DeLillo’s White Noise for the screen. He has cast Adam Driver as Jack and Greta Gerwig as Babette.

Dostoevsky in love: “The first time he fell in love, Fyodor Dostoevsky was in his mid-30s. He had written two famous novels, Poor Folk and The Double, been arrested for treason, suffered a mock-execution, and served four years of hard labour in Siberia. He was now, in 1854, serving as a private in the army and the object of his desire, Maria Isaeva, was the capricious and consumptive wife of a drunkard called Alexander . . . He eventually married Maria, and had his first full epileptic fit on their wedding night. She never recovered from the sight of his writhing, crumpled body: ‘The black cat has run between us,’ as he put it in The Insulted and the Injured.”

Boyd Tonkin reviews Patrick Modiano’s Invisible Ink: “In Invisible Ink, a man named Jean Eyben looks back to his youthful stint as a trainee private eye in Paris and his fruitless pursuit of a missing woman who called herself Noëlle Lefebvre. Who was she, what befell her, and how — a classic Modiano manoeuvre — does his quarry’s past connect to the gumshoe’s early memories to form ‘a missing link in my own life’? Modiano fans will not expect or want any gift-wrapped resolution, although an odd coda set in Rome hints at some degree of ‘closure’.  Rather, we relish the spine-prickling psychogeography of Paris, especially the 15th arrondissement south of the Eiffel Tower.”

A complex Washington: “I will admit that in turning the first pages of Peter Henriques’s new book on George Washington, my reaction was unfavorable. I was not persuaded by the author’s speculations concerning Washington’s relationship with his mother, Mary Ball Washington, a thing difficult to reconstruct for want of evidence, nor was it altogether news to me that Parson Weems’s account of young George and the cherry tree is likely mythical. But when I reached Henriques’s account of the near execution of Charles Asgill at Washington’s hands, I was won over.”

Tintin painting sells for $3.9 million: “The illustration was painted using gouache, ink and watercolour and shows Tintin and his dog Snowy hiding in a porcelain jar. It was initially intended to serve as the cover for Hergé’s fifth book, The Blue Lotus, but was rejected due to reproduction costs.”

Photo: Wrocław

Receive Prufrock in your inbox every weekday morning. Subscribe here.