Evgeny Morozov: The tech ‘solutions’ for coronavirus take the surveillance state to the next level

Published in The Guardian on 15 April 2020, Evgeny Morozov writes about the relationship of capitalism, neoliberalism and technology’s ‘solutionism’ in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Selected excerpts follow – and read the full article here (external link to The Guardian)

But capitalism does not survive by neoliberalism alone: the latter merely plays the role of the bad cop, insisting, in the words of Margaret Thatcher’s famous dictum, that “there is no alternative”… The good cop in this drama is the ideology of “solutionism”, which has transcended its origins in Silicon Valley and now shapes the thinking of our ruling elites. In its simplest form, it holds that because there is no alternative (or time or funding), the best we can do is to apply digital plasters to the damage.

Solutionists deploy technology to avoid politics; they advocate “post-ideological” measures that keep the wheels of global capitalism turning.

After decades of neoliberal policy, solutionism has become the default response to so many political problems… The two ideologies have an intimate relationship. Neoliberalism aspires to reshape the world according to blueprints dating from the cold war: more competition and less solidarity, more creative destruction and less government planning, more market dependence and less welfare…– but the rise of digital technology has actually presented a new obstacle.

How so? While big data and artificial intelligence don’t naturally favour non-market activities, they do make it easier to imagine a post-neoliberal world – where production is automated and technology underpins universal healthcare and education for all: a world where abundance is shared, not appropriated.

Neoliberalism shrinks public budgets; solutionism shrinks public imagination.

This is precisely where solutionism steps in. If neoliberalism is a proactive ideology, solutionism is a reactive one: it disarms, disables and discards any political alternatives. Neoliberalism shrinks public budgets; solutionism shrinks public imagination. The solutionist mandate is to convince the public that the only legitimate use of digital technologies is to disrupt and revolutionise everything but the central institution of modern life – the market.

… we can see two distinct strands of solutionism in government responses to the pandemic. “Progressive solutionists” believe that timely, app-based exposure to the right information could make people behave in the public interest. This is the logic of “nudging”, which shaped the UK’s disastrous initial response to the crisis. “Punitive solutionists”, by contrast, want to use digital capitalism’s vast surveillance infrastructure to curb our daily activities and punish any transgressions.

The worst is still to come: 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.

Our first order of business should be to chart a post-solutionist path – one that gives the public sovereignty over digital platforms. Otherwise, complaining about China’s authoritarian but effective response to Covid-19 is not only pathetic but also hypocritical

While they can be used for non-market purposes, today’s digital platforms make a poor foundation for a political order open to actors other than consumers, start-ups and entrepreneurs. Without reclaiming digital platforms for a more vibrant democratic life, we will be condemned for decades to come to the unhappy choice between “progressive” and “punitive” solutionisms.

And our democracy will suffer as a result. The feast of solutionism unleashed by Covid-19 reveals the extreme dependence of the actually existing democracies on the undemocratic exercise of private power by technology platforms. Our first order of business should be to chart a post-solutionist path – one that gives the public sovereignty over digital platforms. Otherwise, complaining about China’s authoritarian but effective response to Covid-19 is not only pathetic but also hypocritical: there are many varieties of techno-authoritarianism in our future, and the neoliberal version doesn’t look much more appealing than the alternative.