Looking for Mr. Fixit

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With the oil still spurting out of a hole a mile under the sea, everyone is looking for Mr. Fixit. One of the front page stories in the NYTimes News of the Week in Review on May 30, 2010 discussed the incessant search for technological answers to all of our problems.

Americans have long had an unswerving belief that technology will save us — it is the cavalry coming over the hill, just as we are about to lose the battle. And yet, as Americans watched scientists struggle to plug the undersea well over the past month, it became apparent that our great belief in technology was perhaps misplaced.

The next day, David Brooks wrote in the same paper:

Everybody is comparing the oil spill to Hurricane Katrina, but the real parallel could be the Iranian hostage crisis. In the late 1970s, the hostage crisis became a symbol of America’s inability to take decisive action in the face of pervasive problems. In the same way, the uncontrolled oil plume could become the objective correlative of the country’s inability to govern itself.

The plume taps into a series of deep anxieties. First, it taps into the anxiety that the people running our major institutions are just not that competent. Second, it feeds into the anxiety that there has been an unhappy marriage between corporations and government officials, which has had the effect of corrupting both. Most important, the plume exposes the country’s core confusion about the role of government.

Anxiety is an emotion that arises when we suspect or know that the problem right in front of us can't be handled by any of our stock of individual or collective coping strategies. Fear is the ultimate form of anxiety showing up when that knowledge of having no solution at hand pops up very suddenly. We had a chance to think about the Gulf blowout for a few days before it became a bona fide disaster. When we suddenly encounter a bear in a forest, we have nothing in our bag of tricks unless we are a forest ranger. Fear usually leads to a decision to flee physically or metaphorically.

Part of the anxiety comes from the cultural expectation that we should have a solution at hand. That's the Mr. Fixit mentality that is accentuated by our implicit faith in technology, both in the shape of tools (giant shears or domes) or technically derived institutional processes (investigatory commissions). A few days earlier Brooks wrote another column recognizing the complexity of the Gulf situation. He warned against looking for simple solutions and pointed to a series of failings of both institutions and individuals when faced with complexity. It's a very good column but one in which Brooks fails to see the very problem he warns against. He concludes with a "solution."

So it seems important, in the months ahead, to not only focus on mechanical ways to make drilling safer, but also more broadly on helping people deal with potentially catastrophic complexity. There must be ways to improve the choice architecture — to help people guard against risk creep, false security, groupthink, the good-news bias and all the rest. This isn’t just about oil. It’s a challenge for people living in an imponderably complex technical society.

Improving the "choice architecture" is the wrong response if that means simply making it better. "Better" implies some technical improvement. We must emphatically transform the way we solve problems and make decisions about risky projects by giving up the basic belief that reality can be mastered by analysis and scientific knowledge. Complexity, even Brooks has it wrong, is not the same as complicated. It is a way of holding reality that admits from the start that we cannot "know" how most large socio-economic-technical systems work by invoking expertise and scientific methodologies. Complexity requires more attention be paid to local, experiential learning. Dealing with complexity requires pragmatic, prudent, cautious actions always accompanied by careful monitoring and means for adapting to unforeseen behavior. In some cases involving new, big systems, this may mean not doing anything.

In yet another article, Brooks (who has been remarkably non-partisan through this big mess) commends President Obama for his pragmatism (my choice of word) and acceptance of the primacy of local learning in his education reforms. Unfortunately, political [and business success] is still seen as finding the right Mr. Fixit.

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1 Comments

David M Carter said:

John,

I agree 100%! The other problem with the "Mr. Fix-It" syndrome is that it masks much deeper questions about our place in the world. For example, do we even have the right to unleash our technological prowess on the natural world in the first place? I've read very little coverage about the gulf tragedy that addresses this fundamental question.