Solutionism

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Someone has given a name, solutionism, to a cultural characteristic that plays a key role in my work on sustainability. Reading the NYTimes today I noticed an article in the Review section by Evgeny Morozov, entitled, “The Perils of Perfection.” Morozov is the author of To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism. The title suggests that this is a book I should (and will) get and read closely.

Here is his point in a nutshell:

All these efforts to ease the torments of existence might sound like paradise to Silicon Valley. But for the rest of us, they will be hell. They are driven by a pervasive and dangerous ideology that I call “solutionism”: an intellectual pathology that recognizes problems as problems based on just one criterion: whether they are “solvable” with a nice and clean technological solution at our disposal. Thus, forgetting and inconsistency become “problems” simply because we have the tools to get rid of them — and not because we’ve weighed all the philosophical pros and cons.

He has focused on Silicon Valley, but this way of getting through the messiness of everyday living is pervasive in our culture. We are addicted to technological solutions to every problem we face. We are already deeply mired in “solutionism,” but don’t recognize it as contributing to the very problems we set out to solve. Systems dynamics has a very apt way of talking about this phenomenon by way of an archetype of common behavior called “fixes-that-fail.” The solutions we apply are not matched to the real source of the problems, and so they recur often with significant unintended consequences. I believe that unsustainability in all of its shapes and shades is one big unintended consequence of relying on technology and applied science to solve all of our problems, large and small. The situation gets more challenging as the repeated technological solutions distract us from seeking the underlying causes and attacking them. In systems dynamics jargon, this is called “shifting-the-burden.”

The problems of living, especially the more refractory and persistent ones, are complex with many causes; that’s why they become “problems” in the first place. Technological solutions, especially the kind Morozov writes about are simplistic, often aimed at symptoms or at superficial causes. Here’s an example form the article.

LAST month Randi Zuckerberg, Facebook’s former marketing director, enthused about a trendy app to “crowdsource absolutely every decision in your life.” Called Seesaw, the app lets you run instant polls of your friends and ask for advice on anything: what wedding dress to buy, what latte drink to order and soon, perhaps, what political candidate to support… Seesaw offers an interesting twist on how we think about feedback and failure. It used to be that we bought things to impress our friends, fully aware that they might not like our purchases. Now this logic is inverted: if something impresses our friends, we buy it. The risks of rejection have been minimized; we know well in advance how many Facebook “likes” our every decision would accumulate.

Why would anyone want to do that? It’s very difficult to avoid drifting into inauthenticity in today’s consumeristic culture. So here is a device that will hasten and accentuate the process. Just let the world define who you are and do whatever “they” think best for you. It’s banality at the core. No flourishing possible here. Decisions about who one is and what he or she cares about are at the core of being. Each time we relegate our decisions to others (the crowd), we lose a little of our self. We need to care for ourselves as well as others and the earth if we are to flourish or even simply to cope with life. If we begin to give ourselves up to the crowd, I expect that we will begin to find ourselves even more at a loss most of the time, rather than the opposite as the makers of this app seem to suggest.

I started to track down Morozov’s work and found this interesting tidbit in an article he wrote for the WSJ.

In 2010, Google Chief Financial Officer Patrick Pichette told an Australian news program that his company “is really an engineering company, with all these computer scientists that see the world as a completely broken place.” Just last week in Singapore, he restated Google’s notion that the world is a “broken” place whose problems, from traffic jams to inconvenient shopping experiences to excessive energy use, can be solved by technology. The futurist and game designer Jane McGonigal, a favorite of the TED crowd, also likes to talk about how “reality is broken” but can be fixed by making the real world more like a videogame, with points for doing good. From smart cars to smart glasses, “smart” is Silicon Valley’s shorthand for transforming present-day social reality and the hapless souls who inhabit it.

Reality is not broken. Reality is what it is. It is the context of living, whether we get familiar with it or not. “Broken” is a human assessment that is all about our failings, not that of the world. Reality was here before us and will be around after we are gone. We managed to get to where we are today by learning to cope with it. It wasn’t the broken world that caused the extinction of the many species that did not make it this far. It was something about them that failed to match reality. Believing we can ignore the world out there by isolating us from it with technology is fool’s play. We have done a lousy job so far if we evaluate our progress in terms of the human and environmental messes we have created.

This notion of solutionism is everywhere, not just in Silicon Valley. Our entire political economy is permeated wit it. We can fix our fiscal house by sequestration, applying a meat ax to a complex and important problem affecting millions of real, living people. We can solve the climate change problem with geo-engineering, applying global-scale technologies without the means to understand fully how it will work. Not happy with your looks reality) get a “LifeStyle Lift.” And so on and on.

Morozov takes us even deeper into the deeply engrained addiction to placing technology between us and life, which in this mode, life becomes nothing but a series of problems. If a human being loses all consciousness of him or herself as an active agent in the course of living, there’s not much left to experience. Shutting out the world’s warts is akin to creating sensory deprivation, a sense of sameness that can become frightening and destabilizing. Yet, this seems to be the goal of the engineers that are creating our Internet-based life. I started out as an engineer and thought I could make life better through chemistry. I full agree with the sentiment in the close of his Times article.

“I wish it would dawn upon engineers that, in order to be an engineer, it is not enough to be an engineer,” wrote the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset in 1939. Given the cultural and political relevance of Silicon Valley — from education to publishing and from music to transportation — this advice is particularly worth heeding.

It has taken me 30 years to get to the place Ortega y Gasset is pointing to; to accept that the world is a really messy place in which to exist; and to discover that it is my home just as it is.

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