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the pathology of solutionism

A more serious discussion of the progress trap was provided on Monday, when internet critic Evgeny Morozov gave a talk in the Balie in Amsterdam for the launch of the Dutch translation of his 2013 book 'To Save Everything, Click Here'.

Morozov's lecture on "the pathology of solutionism" was followed by responses from and a debate with other guest speakers, which was characterized by almost total agreement between the participants. Surely Morozov's message was timely and urgent, but it also seemed to reflect the rather autocratic style of reasoning that's found in his book as well.

'To Save Everything, Click Here' addresses the current promise of using the proliferation of connectivity, apps and big data to solve any kind of problem, from obesity and crime to climate change. On one level, this is a matter of bringing Silicon Valley's giddy hyperbole back to earth, but on another, scarier level it reveals how politicians are increasingly being seduced by this technological form of solutionism, which conveniently bypasses such complications as the systemic nature of these problems, while tacitly blaming them on the irrational behavior of consumers.

Thus, as Morozov describes in his essay 'The Real Privacy Problem', which offers a comprehensive introduction to the issue:

...the new digital infrastructure, thriving as it does on real-time data contributed by citizens, allows the technocrats to take politics, with all its noise, friction, and discontent, out of the political process. It replaces the messy stuff of coalition-building, bargaining, and deliberation with the cleanliness and efficiency of data-powered administration.

It's the familiar idea of eliminating friction, which inspired both social media and e-commerce, that's now being applied to politics. Relying, as it does, on ever more revealing data streams, concerns over data gathering and government 'nudging' are often framed in terms of privacy. But the larger issue here, as Morozov stressed, is one of politics – this is not about privacy but about democracy. "We can't hack our way out of this."

The wider implications of what Morozov called the "Foucaultian hypervisibility of individuals", exposed to both data-hungry companies and surveillance-happy governments, become clear when contrasted with the growing invisibility of institutions. Governments increasingly claim that what they do is classified, while globally operating corporations elude nationally organized oversight (see, for example, 'the biggest company you've never heard of'). What's worse, many corporations actively pursue strategies of producing public ignorance (as in the case of climate change denial).

Ultimately, this leads back to Zygmunt Bauman's analysis of how power has shifted from national governments to global companies, leaving representative politics empty-handed. The result is that it takes a lot of political guts to fight any issue on a systemic level. Nudging people's behavior when it comes to, say, limiting carbon emissions, seems just so much easier than taking on the global industries whose emissions represent a much larger share of responsibility.

Hence Morozov's repeated urging that we need to take debates over apps and data out of the technological sphere and into the political arena:

As long as we regard technology as the primary discursive framework, creating camps of technophiles and technophobes, the politics behind it remain hidden. The price we pay at a social and political level for these efficient technological solutions is not being discussed.

Or in ideological terms, the starry-eyed promise of innovation increasingly obscures a very conservative agenda of leaving the system as is. Corporations will not suffer interference, while the behavior-reduced-to-data of citizens-reduced-to-consumers can be endlessly tinkered with.

deaf: the progress trap

This year's Dutch Electronic Art Festival raised expectations with its intriguing theme, 'The Progress Trap', marking the first time this biennale questions rather than celebrates its own technological focus.

Progress has become a means to an end in itself and has been decoupled from the cultural, ecological and social advances that it was supposed to help achieve. However seductive quick gains from technological solutions are, their temporary victories in the short term may cause much worse and bigger problems in the long run, luring us into The Progress Trap.

(It would seem this program statement means to say that progress has become an end in itself, though on another level its confusion of means and ends does show how deeply entrenched our ideas of progress really are...)

In any case, the works exhibited, at Het Nieuwe Instituut and V2, had trouble living up to the theme, unless by illustrating how (electronic) art doesn't escape this trap either. A work like 'Preppers Room' - a replica of a fully stocked survival cellar for those who anxiously await doomsday - by caricaturizing the issue really dismisses it as something concerning only eschatological shoppers.

In this respect a more thoughtful piece is Alicia Framis' 'Departure Board', which collects utopian destinations from world literature and popular culture on a flight departure board, cleverly undermining its own 'flight into fancy' with the technological infrastructure it assumes.

And while we're still here, the visually soothing 'Spawn', an outdoor light art piece by Jonas Vorwerk, offers gently floating colored light balls that are really just that...

Spawn - Jonas Vorwerk - 1

Spawn - Jonas Vorwerk - 2

Spawn - Jonas Vorwerk - 3

memory of holland vs boutade

After Slauerhoff's sarcastic sketch of Holland's social landscape, here are two more visions of Holland, pitting the idealized landscape of Marsman's 'Memory of Holland' ('Herinnering aan Holland', 1936) against the dismal 'slough of dreary pap' of P.A. de Génestet's 'Boutade' (1851).

Both these poems were part of the David Reid Poetry Translation Prize, which published all contenders' versions online, so there's a wealth of English translations.

Marsman's ode to the Dutch river landscape is one of the best-known poems in the Netherlands, endlessly visualized in photos. Its opening lines have become proverbial (and have often been parodied), while its cautionary ending continues to resonate with a people living below sea level. Bert Haanstra's documentary 'De stem van het water' ('The Voice of the Water', 1966) also takes its name from Marsman's poem.

Here is the poem in the translation by Renée Delhez:

Thinking of Holland
I see broad lazy rivers
flowing through infinite
low-lying land,
rows of incredibly
delicate poplars
like plumy feathers
on the horizon, and
sunken and small in this
space so stupendous
the farmhouses
scattered about,
clumps of trees, villages,
squat stumpy towers,
churches and elm trees,
in one grand layout.
The skies hang low
and grey, multicoloured
mists slowly make the
sun disappear,
and in every region
the voice of the water
with its endless disasters
is heard and is feared.

Like Slauerhoff, Marsman lived abroad when he wrote the poem (in the south of France), but that's about the only similarity. While Slauerhoff damned the suffocating conformism of its people, Marsman saw only the tranquility of the open Dutch river landscape with its vast skies and its tiny, humble inhabitants.

Thinking of Holland...

This nostalgic and idealized landscape is in Marsman's poetics also, and crucially, a landscape of the soul. Comparing 'Memory of Holland' to another of his poems, written around the same time, 'Brief aan een vriend' ('Letter to a Friend'), helps bringing out this aspect of the poem. It also reminds us of his earlier dedication to vitalism, a Nietzschean philosophy of energy which in the 1920s brought a younger Marsman uncomfortably close to fascism.

Here's an excerpt of the poem, modernistically without capitals, in a rough translation:

yet within us will be a quiet fire,
hidden in bone and marrow.
wandering the infinite land
we will be stronger and more tranquil,
received into the flowing totality
of the seasons, intimately connected
with its space and changing weather.

The link between the two poems is in the word 'verband' - the 'one grand layout' ('het groots verband') versus 'the flowing totality' ('het stromend verband') - which makes for a tricky and rather abstract word to translate, connoting context, interrelationship, the way things are connected in a larger whole.

In the translations of 'Memory of Holland' the phrase is variously translated as 'all wondrously planned', 'in grandiose conjunction', 'in one great bond', to name a few. In some versions it suggests the human design of the landscape - or even its divine plan, which would be too theistic for a vitalist, expressionist poet. Delhez's 'one grand layout' works better in evoking the natural order of the landscape, which in 'Letter to a friend' is even more clearly the 'totality' Marsman wishes to feel himself a part of.

However, what Marsman left out of his lofty design was the Dutch weather that will bring back to earth any landscape of the soul through sheer drizzle.

O land of fogs and frogs

Almost a century earlier, preacher and poet P.A. de Génestet wrote a great tirade on the Dutch climate, probably unique in emphasizing that its poet has a cold. His 'Boutade' stands out in his late Romantic, mildly humorous theologian's poetry, and is probably his best-remembered poem.

Its exaggerated disgust of this 'land of fogs and frogs' culminates in denouncing the entire lowlands wrested from the sea, 'but not at my request' ('maar niet op mijn verzoek') - in other words, thanks a lot, o masochistic forefathers! Indeed, as the DRPTP jury noted, "the key to translating De Génestet's ode to the Dutch weather is hyperbole and mock outrage."

Here is the winning translation by Francis Jones, who renders the title 'Boutade' (which has a slightly different meaning in English than in Dutch) as 'Pique'.

O land of fogs and frogs, of dung and dirty rains,
Dew-sodden scrap of soil, bone-cold, miasmal, damp,
Awash with unplumbed sludge, with roads like open drains,
Awash with mould and gout, umbrellas, toothache, cramp!

O slough of dreary pap, dominion of newts,
Galoshes, cobblers, splodgers, muddy deities,
Of marsh-fowl great and small, in all their feathered suits,
Take pity on your son: this autumn, hear him sneeze!

Your soggy climate slows my arteries to mires
Of mud: I have no song, no hunger, joy or rest.
Put your galoshes on, o hallowed land our sires
Have lifted from the sea - but not at my request.

A great contrast with Marsman, his bird's-eye lyricism countered with a frog's-eye call to 'put your galoshes on' and come down to catch cold. The real nature of the relationship of the Dutch with their watery delta is not, De Génestet seems to say, in heroically withstanding 'endless disasters', but in the much more mundane, daily battle with 'mould and gout, umbrellas, toothache, cramp'.

So whenever someone starts quoting 'Thinking of Holland...' the preferred retort is 'but not at my request!'