What’s Wrong with Technological Fixes?


Terry Winograd interviews Evgeny Morozov in Boston Review:

In To Save Everything . . . I quote from Ken Alder'sfascinating book on engineering and the French revolution, where he argues that engineering is actually one of the most revolutionary professions, since engineers are so keen to “disrupt” and are always eager to look for the most efficient solution. Here is what he wrote:

Engineering operates on a simple, but radical assumption: that the present is nothing more than the raw material from which to construct a better future. In this process, no existing arrangement is to be considered sacrosanct, everything is to be examined in the light of present aspirations, and all practices refashioned according to the dictates of reason.

Now, there's much to like about this revolutionary spirit, at least in theory. I'm not the one to defend current practices because that's how we have always done things (even though I do realize why so many conservative commentators endorse my work; the best review I got is probably fromCommentary; I'm not yet sure how to react to such applause to my work). But this doesn't mean that everything should be up for grabs all the time—especially when efficiency is our guiding value. This to me seems dumb, not least because many of our political and social arrangements are implicitly based on the idea of inefficiency as the necessary cost of promoting some other values.

Take rent control or common carriers like taxis. Those two norms introduce a lot of inefficiency, as the proponents of AirBnB and Uber like to point out. But to say that these cool start-ups are good because they promote efficiency is not to say much—since efficiency may not be what we actually want.