To Save Everything, Click Here (in Croatia)

Just finished up a trip to Vienna and south into Croatia. While this was a vacation, I did see a images relevant to Sustainable Virtual Design. Graffiti in both Vienna (Austria) and Split (Croatia) featured posts implying that implied things about the ‘Net relevant to Sustainable Virtual Design.

In Vienna, I saw more than one anti-Google message on the dumpsters gracing that marvelously clean town, one of which is shown below.

Google: mind control on a dumpster in Vienna, Austria

That was about that time that Google’s publicity project, “The Intern” was showing in theaters.


In other words, a couple of guys who don’t understand the ‘Net way can wreck the world, instead of just screwing up their job prospects. The world, by the way, is actually a “system” that they need to learned-up in order to function. It’s true that sustainability thinking involves system thinking, but IMHO “system” is being used in a different way than here.

The movie, and the dumpster message, both tap into the idea that Google is bigger than life, and going to bring about the end of the world as we know it. There is a counterattack being waged on the trash-bins of central Europe.

Later, in the city of Split, the party-hub of young Croatia as it enters the EU, I saw postings concerning the hacker group Anonymous.

The two symbols of "Anonymous" - Guy Fawkes and the headless man, stenciled onto the wall of an ancient palace

These clustered around Diocletian’s palace in Split, a.k.a. the party-town of young Croatia. The palace isn’t exactly a ruin – it has been built out and inhabited today, as you can see from the image below.

Diocletian's Palace, now the center of the modern city of Split, seen from the air
Diocletian’s Palace, now the center of the modern city of Split

The preservation is amazing, if you look at a reconstruction of the palace from the early 4th century.

Reconstruction of the palace
Reconstruction of Diocletian’s palace in about 300 A.D.

Alas, great age, or the pro-authority leanings of the emperor who created the palace, did not prevent Guy Fawkes from showing his face on the walls.

These wall-scrawls in Vienna and Croatia, along with the recent Google movie release, reflect the  rising belief system about the wired world. We see it among the “digital immigrant” and “digital native” young that roar into the old Palace in Split on Friday nights on their motorcycles, along with cellphone addicts in Orange County and many elected officials already wearing their Google Goggles. It is a belief that the Internet, and related “cyber” technologies are so revolutionary that they will end war, replace politics with a social network, and end crime by replacing our current world with a “radically transparent” one. It also implies that taking down a website of a rival political group is equivalent to storming the Bastille in the real world.

Now, if we believed this, Sustainable Virtual Design would be more important that I think (and I write a blog on the topic). On one hand, if the Internet is just another tool, or medium  for communication, sustainability is very important. However, it is not the ultimate battle for humanity. But if the digital world has really split off from the real one and become an arena of equal power, then sustainable design would be literally life and death.

The streetworks in the photographs posted above appear to demonstrate that the second possibility is the many people believe in, not only in the US, but in Eastern Europe. This attitude, which I used to think of as “the Internet is a Holy savior of the tech-conscious” was put in perspective by my vacation reading of a great new book by Evgeny Morozov, “To Save Everything, Click Here.

Evgeny Morozov's to save everything click here - the folly of technological solutionism

This book helped me see the attention given to anonymous hackers, do-gooder search engines and revolutionary cellphones as part of a larger delusion, which in fact hinders the application and practice Sustainable Virtual Design.

In this belief system, the Internet is our saviour, and those who work there are prophets bringing a radically new age of human experience.

You could see this idea at the Occupy movement, where having an iPad, and posting constantly to Twitter about the OWS struggle was integral to the protest. Somewhow, using the network made the protesters hipper, greener, and more socially aware than the dark past of human experience. It implied they were doing something radically new.

You can see it in the so-called “Twitter revolutions” in the Middle East. In the popular blogosphere and press, cellphones and Twitter created a new era of political protest in countries like Iran, bringing ever more openness and democracy to the world. Never mind that, as more recent analysis shows, that nearly all of the blogging and tweeting came from expats outside the affected country, frequently part of a Silicon Beach or Silicon Valley.

You can also see it in the “Pirate Party in Germany, which seeks to replace the normal political process with something like Facebook, or possibly Mac OS. Not only can the Internet bring down a country, it can replace nations with open-source government.

The belief in the Internet “way” as salvation is there in WikiLeaks releases and Edward Snowden in Russia at the time of writing.

Morozov calls the attention to these delusions,  the thing that will save us “technological solutionism.” This is a belief that all the world’s problems reduce to lack of information, e.g. wars are due to incomplete data. This can be fixed by getting everyone information. It is an engineering fix – our problems just require optimization of a mechanism, which is one of the things engineers do very well. I would go beyond Morozov and say the faith in the ‘Net as the world’s salvation has gone fully into uncritical faith. In the absence of religion, one has to believe in something, and it seems for many to be the ‘Net as a tool for salvation. The more we conform to the Google way or the ‘Net way (as we all become interns at a high-tech, socially-aware company), the better the world will be. The engineers have revealed the truth. The Internet,  has a new set of commandments that replace the last 6,000 years of history and will give us a new, righteous way of life. I call this worship of a new goddess, Techna. Goddesses are invented all the time – witness Pliny The Elder’s irritation at the introduction of the Fortuna cult to Rome 2,000 years ago (wheel of fortune). I doubt this one will have a better effect.

Techno-utopianism is a problem for sustainability because, once you uplift the ‘Net, and the connected way of life associated with it to semi-divine, it becomes difficult to discuss its feet of clay. The people creating the wired future are the geniuses of the time, and must therefore already know everything. Problems with carbon footprints are either ignored (“more technology will fix that”) or assumed in hand (“Google will solve our energy problems with a green ‘Net). This belief may explain the astonishing faith in the Millennial generation in their “big, bright, and friendly” brands (Neil Howe) – Apple and Google. Do I even need to remind you of the wisdom of St. Jobs? In such a world, how hard it is to question whether you can only “think different” with a specific hunk of hardware, produced under less than green conditions in China?

The alternate, Libertarian version of ‘Net-utopia is little better – revolutionary geniuses at Anonymous and Wikileaks will speak truth to power by unraveling all plans and revealing all secrets. Nations and governments will dissolved like a bad dream, and we’ll live in the end of John Lennon’s song, updated by our tablet computers. We will live in creative anarchy, made one and everywhere the same by the life-saving network. We’ll run our lives as startups, our organizations as an OS kernel, and ourselves as enhanced meta-beings living in the spirit world (read Internet) of cyberspace.

In practice, all this delusional thinking about Google and Anonymous raises the carbon footprint of the Internet. In reality the Internet is a medium, not a world. Effective use of the Internet is not about using it more, or conforming our behavior to its inevitible march. As Morozov points out in his books, the Internet can be used effectively by governments, dictators, and “evil corporations.” It is fragile, and could turn to something less “free” very quickly. Not being alive, it is not growing. Since technology does not determine culture, we might even abandon it someday with the right change in zeitgeist. In short, it is similar to other communication media with its own share of benefits and problems. It is not a synthetic heaven which will bring about the end of history.

In the past, I’ve listed several features of Sustainable Virtual Design. To these I now add the first, and most important: The Internet will not save us. It is a medium that we can learn to use in a sustainable way, not the vangard coming age of cyber-utopia. As web and Internet designers we are not high priests, and our actions are as subject to scrutiny as anyone else. So get off your high horse, and fix your website.

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