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Does 'solutionism' create problems in the pursuit of innovation?

Posting in Technology

My little boy asked me how to play chess recently, and to teach him, I of course pulled out my iPad along with a chess board and pieces. We went through a game guided by a website that spelled out the rules of how to move a King, Rook, and Knave properly. When my kid, ever the 21st century preschooler, reported to my husband that he learned to play chess, he said, "Mommy and the iPad taught me."

OK, I admit: I forgot the rules of chess. But who really needs a memory any more? I bring up this scene because it illustrates how we no longer have to worry about fading memories and no one judges us for having them. That pre-20th-century problem has been solved by the Internet and its copious content, always there to supplement our brains. But what happens when we get in the habit of pushing aside our human imperfections and as a society look for technology-enabled solutions to everything? Do we get less human, in a way, or are we encouraging the development of more innovative services and products?

In the essay "The Perils of Perfection," published in the New York Times on March 3, author Evgeny Morozov discusses these very thoughts, in the light of Silicon Valley's philosophies and economics. In the piece, he describes "the dominant ideology of Silicon Valley today: what could be disrupted should be disrupted — even death....Barriers and constraints — anything that imposes artificial limits on the human condition — are being destroyed with particular gusto."

Forgetfulness, inconvenience, or even the discomfort felt when making a simple decision: all of these typical human experiences are becoming "problems." This is the core of what Morozov calls a "dangerous ideology" that he dubs "solutionism." (It is also the subject of Morozov's new book, To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, released on March 5.)  He defines this term as "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."

Basically, he asks: are engineers and entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley the final authorities on what constitutes a valid problem that can be solved ethically? Isn't it, um, interesting that the quest for "solutions" capitalizes on reframing natural states of being as dilemmas that can be solved with a new product or service? Although he doesn't state this directly, it's implied that popular, purely social media sites that are sometimes framed by their founders as solving basic humanitarian problems aren't exactly curing diseases. At least directly.

Yet what would happen to innovation if researchers and businesspeople in the social media or technology spaces did not look for challenges to conquer? Even if the challenges weren't exactly life threatening?

Morozov's essay brings up some good debating points and is written to provoke. He offers examples such as Google Glass. He discusses the ability of this wearable technology to snap pictures constantly, alleviating the wearer of a need to stop living to document his life in photos. With such examples, Morozov makes today's inventions seem as if they separate us from our humanness. Could he be implying that they're bringing us that much closer to cyborg territory?

But pushing the obvious pursuit of profit aside, the examples could also be seen as the opposite: as exemplifying our human desire to improve our lives, even if simply to free us up to live rather than to stop and take photos of our lives.

Whatever your view on "solutionism," the opinion piece is worth reading in that it begs businesses and consumers to step back for a moment and ask what problems are worth finding solutions for.

Image: Gamma Man/Flickr

— By on March 4, 2013, 9:47 PM PST

Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure