Energy Data and “Solutionism”

April 18, 2013 | Amanda Kolson Hurley

You may have heard of Evgeny Morozov. He is “Silicon Valley’s fiercest critic,” according to the website Gawker. He is Twitter-famous for keeping his modem and smartphone locked in a safe to avoid wasting time on the Internet. He is a sharp, relentless mocker of tech-industry hype and digital love-ins like the TED conference (he is also, it should be noted, a former TED fellow). He has just published a book with the acerbic title To Save Everything, Click Here.

In recent articles in the New York Times and Slate, Morozov takes aim at the messianic fervor of Palo Alto executives who believe their apps and codes will change the world. He calls this kind of thinking “solutionism”: “an intellectual pathology that recognizes problems as problems based on … whether they are ‘solvable’ with a nice and clean technological solution at our disposal.”

In other words, Morozov argues, Silicon Valley is churning out “solutions” to problems we may or may not have, while we let them define our priorities, to society’s peril. “Given Silicon Valley’s digital hammers,” Morozov writes, “all problems start looking like nails, and all solutions like apps.”

Morozov probably doesn’t make many friends at cocktail parties (“There are idiots. Look around,” reads his Twitter bio), but his critique is bracing and necessary. Why wasn’t Google’s Eric Schmidt roundly derided for proclaiming, “I believe we can fix all the world’s problems”? The achievements of companies like Facebook and Apple, and their undeniable contributions to the lives of millions (mostly in affluent countries), shouldn’t cause us to confuse their business goals with philanthropy or social policy.

Data and devices are not solutions, Morozov reminds us. Which brings me to building energy data and how it intersects with “solutionism.”

Those of us who spend our days promoting transparency for building energy data, or designing tools to make that data intelligible for the public, should recognize the limits of technology. Let’s say someone designed a perfect app for reducing energy consumption. People competed to reduce their energy use the most, and then won prizes.

Would that be an energy efficiency revolution? No, Morozov would argue, because people wouldn’t be doing it for the right reasons. The quest to create “hacks” for our bad habits and absent-mindedness is both doomed and ethically suspect.

So what if our devices did the opposite? Morozov wishes they could be “subversive troublemakers, making us question our habits and received ideas.” He uses the example of a kitchen appliance. We don’t know how much energy it uses. “This ignorance is neither natural nor inevitable; it stems from a conscious decision by the designer of that kitchen appliance to free up your ‘cognitive resources’ so that you can [focus on] other things. Multiply such ignorance by a few billion, and global warming no longer looks like a mystery.” 

People in our line of work are quick to tout “big data,” a term that drives Morozov crazy. And he’s right that possessing lots of data is not an end in itself. But we can use that data to generate the cognitive friction that does stimulate behavioral change. If that appliance told us with a beep how much electricity it gobbled up on standby, we’d quickly unplug it. Likewise, when our buildings tell us how much energy they use, we’ll be spurred to improve them–and our own habits. A color-coded energy efficiency map for iPhones might not get Morozov to unlock his safe, but it’s certainly an example of technology serving a larger purpose, rather than the other way around.

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Amanda Kolson Hurley

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