As much as I’m deeply interested in technology, and make a living out of it, I’m really mainly in it for the science, and I’m in science ultimately for the sake of it. Thus, I welcome a healthy sobriety and a tad of skepticism in our relationship with technology in everyday’s life. Not out of pessimism, gravity, or self-denial (are you kidding?), but simply because blindly seeing technology as a flawless dispenser of solutions to humanity’s problems is ultimately irrational.

With this mindset I took up reading Evgeny Morozov‘s To save everything click here with the expectation of finding original insights and provocative criticism of certain uncritical attitudes towards technology creation and fruition. Unfortunately I have been sorely disappointed. The whole book drowns few noncontroversial common-sense points against an uncritical attitude towards technology in an ocean of meandering rants — often tinted with intellectual snobbery, and occasionally turning into flat-out nonsense. The book’s content could have been a moderately interesting article; 400+ pages are definitely too many.

I will make a couple of examples that illustrate my criticism; the whole book is mainly “more of the same”.

Chapter 3 takes a stab at criticizing the proponents of openness (of information) at all costs. It starts with some generally reasonable statement that it easy to agree upon with: “No serious philosopher would ever proclaim that either transparency or openness is an unquestionable good or absolute value to which human societies should aspire.” Honestly, the statement is hardly very profound. Pretty much every value, even “absolute” ones, requires critical thinking to be turned into something actionable and valuable. (Also, why the restriction to philosophers?) Anyway, to illustrate this otherwise unproblematic point the chapter tells the story of Manuel Aristarán, an Argentinian programmer who built a website that aggregates public spending data from his hometown’s municipality records. A year after the website was launched, the municipality restricted access to the spending data by adding CAPTCHAs; this change, which made it difficult to automate the updates to Aristarán’s website, was criticized by open-government activists.

This episode triggers Morozov’s criticism against the idea that more open government is always better for politics. His argument? First, he imagines a “populist group” leveraging the data on Aristarán’s website to pressure the government into diverging funds from education to “a nearby rum-making factory”. He doesn’t bother to explain exactly how this would happen or, more to the point, how the aggregator website would facilitate it, but since “an inefficient democracy is always preferable to a well-run dictatorship”, he feels safe to conclude that restricting access to the spending data is for the greater good. If this is starting to make little sense, my summary is doing justice to the text! The chapter continues with a detour that includes repeated praises of Bruno Latour’s work (of fashionable nonsense fame) and advocates read-only websites — humans can read them but they cannot be downloaded or reproduced elsewhere (good luck implementing that). It then goes back to the episode of Argentinian local politics arguing, while remaining serious, that what the advocates of openness in politics, like Larry Lessig, want ultimately boils down to asking that “the local politics in Bahía Blanca [Aristarán’s hometown] make sacrifices so that a 15-year-old in Palo Alto can remix cat videos without going to jail.” At this point, the confusion is such that it’s not clear what Morozov’s point is anymore, nor what he considers reasonable and what not. And this is not even halfway through the chapter, during which he even manages to argue for “greater transparency around the financing of political parties” (yes, at some point he seems to briefly argue for it, albeit in passing). The mystery of who the cat-video remixer is remains unfortunately unsolved to date.

Fast forward to Chapter 7, which retells a story by some Ivan Illich, a riveting story about one of Illich’s student who once declined his offer for a second glass of cider not wanting “to get into a sugar high.” End of the story. For a variety of reasons, none of which I could expect, Illich and Morozov are quite upset by the student’s reply. Illich criticizes “the idea that all people have specifiable needs”; in other words, he claims she doesn’t really know whether she needs more sugar or not. Morozov attributes to the young lady the belief that “her moral compass is exhausted by her easily measurable and quantifiable needs”, thinks that “she might have a moral obligation […] to be polite and accept the drink”, and that she ignores that “she might actually derive great sensual pleasure from drinking the cider”. Judging by the pertinence and convincingness of these arguments, one can tell Illich and Morozov are not ones to turn down drinks.

While not all passages are as nonsensical as the story of the cider, there’s little to save in the whole book, and the little that is reasonable and can be agreed upon is neither very original nor particularly eloquent. On somewhat similar themes I recommend instead, among others, Lessig, Schneier, and Turkle, for really insightful analyses of the implications of technology and the Internet on modern society. And of course keep reading this blog for time-saving summaries 😉

One of Tolstoy’s least known works [Tolstoy, 1886], published during the ascetic spiritual phase that characterized his late life, criticizes science (as well as art) as irrelevant because it gives no answer to the eponymous question “What shall we do then?”. While Tolstoy’s intentions were right-minded, his criticism remains misplaced: science may not give ready-made direct answers to moral questions, but certainly provides highly relevant information to help answer them.

Tolstoy’s superficial description of the scientist’s work as consisting of “counting invisible bugs and stars” caught Poincaré’s attention. In a talk given in 1906, later published in his trilogy of essays on epistemology [Poincaré, 1914], Poincaré discusses how science goes well beyond merely “counting bugs” or, beyond metaphor, amassing facts. As he says in a famous quotation in another part of the trilogy:

Science is built up with facts, as a house is with stones. But a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house.

This story explains the origin of this blog’s name, but you may still be wondering why a blog mainly about science (and enthusiastic about it!) is named after a misconception.

To address this objection, we have to think about the derivative meaning of “bug” as “defect” or “error” — particularly widespread in computer science to describe software faults, but whose introduction predates even Tolstoy’s observations. Under this new meaning, Tolstoy’s sentence is not so infelicitous. On the contrary, finding and counting errors are efforts fundamental to the progress of science. At another level, there are entire fields devoted to counting bugs: software verification, one of my main research interests and a recurring topic in this blog, is concerned with finding, characterizing, removing, and establishing the absence of software bugs.

I’m sure Poincaré would approve of this view. After all he developed one of his most important breakthroughs — chaotic behavior of nonlinear dynamical systems — as an attempt to patch a mistake (a bug!) in his initial submission of an award-winning paper (interestingly, a reviewer helped catch the mistake, but this makes for another story [Diacu, 1996]).

The slogan “counting bugs” also vindicates the unquantifiable value of science from below, where every effort that satisfies curiosity and contributes, no matter how modestly, to improving knowledge and understanding is worthy regardless of utility or practicality.

This blog will try to follow such an inquisitive but also lightsome spirit while discussing sundry topics in science and beyond. If you’re sympathetic, I hope you will join us!

#### References

1. Leo Tolstoy: What shall we do?, 1886. Available here in English.
2. Henry Poincaré: Science and hypothesis. The value of science. Science and method., 1914. English edition: The value of science, edited by Stephen Jay Gould, Modern Library, 2001.
3. Florin Diacu: The solution of the $n$-body problem, The Mathematical Intelligencer, 18(3):66–70, 1996. Available here.