In this, Morozov’s critique overlaps with a second significant contemporary word: “fragility.” As Black Swan author Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains in his 2012 book Antifragile, a “fragile” system is easily broken by unexpected shocks or irregularities. Global finance was one such system at the time of the 2008 crisis, with its locked-in assumptions about risk and cascading series of bad debts.
“Antifragility”, by contrast, describes a system that is able to thrive on uncertainty, and that will not be brought crashing down by circumstances its designers did not anticipate. For Taleb, humans are naturally “antifragile” creatures. Our best qualities, from creativity to compassion, are nurtured by a certain amount of stress, disorder and uncertainty - and are blunted by excessive ease and insulation from consequences.
If we are to grow as people, for Taleb, we must experience surprise, failure and disappointment, and not be seduced into thinking that all consequences have already been anticipated on our behalf. This, as he sees it, “is the tragedy of modernity: as with neurotically overprotective parents, those trying to help are often hurting us the most”.
The hurt doesn’t only lie in failures of personal development. For a central paradox of “smart” technologies is that the power they offer comes hand-in-hand with an unprecedented vulnerability. The more complex the global infrastructure needed to support the most basic tools and services in our lives, the more vulnerable it becomes to unexpected crises - from power outages to civil unrest - and the more vulnerable we become alongside it.
None of which is to deny the utility of Google Maps as a tool - or the giddy joy of exploring places from South Dakota to North Korea through the lens of services like Google Earth. Technologies inconceivable even a few decades ago now nestle in the palms of millions of hands, and these hands gratefully clasp their smart tools. It’s what else these hands do, and don’t do, that really matters; and how far the gifts of each device extract a price elsewhere.
As it was in the realm of finance, so it may be for technology. If the great digital edifices come crashing down – even temporarily - it’s those who most gleefully outsourced themselves to smart tools who’ll be left looking most stupid. Yet we all bear the risks of an uncritical approach to smart living: of a machine-woven social fabric that might, at the push of a button or the snipping of a cable, unravel entirely.