Big problems require large collective actions, not ‘solutions’

The term ‘solution’ implies that only technology can provide the answer to a problem

Recasting all complex social situations  as neat problems with definite, computable solutions is likely to have unexpected consequences that could eventually cause more damage than the problems they seek to address

Recasting all complex social situations as neat problems with definite, computable solutions is likely to have unexpected consequences that could eventually cause more damage than the problems they seek to address

 

The word “innovation” has become an overused platitude stripped of specific meaning, as I argued here recently – last week I saw a shoe brand boasting that “innovation never felt this good”, which makes it sound like innovation is ready to rival silk in the texture stakes.

The dilution of meaning is not without consequence, however – its overuse obscures genuine innovation, lazily conflating it with newness.

A similar fate has befallen “solution”, a word that used to mean the answer to a problem, puzzle or equation, but which has now become a ubiquitous synonym for service or product.

So a telecoms company urges you to “combine your landlines, mobiles and collaboration tools in to one, unified solution”, which is obviously just a bundle of services.

Flicking through a stray house renovation magazine the other day, I spied on a single page of ads descriptions such as “smart energy solutions” (storage batteries) or “intelligent radiator cover solutions” (yep, just radiator covers). It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that in time some edgy fashion brand will market itself as offering “nudity solutions”.

The examples are so numerous that it barely warrants mention anymore, and the linguistic sleight of hand is somewhat wasted on us now – at some point, “solutions” was used instead of “services” as it somehow suggested a more sophisticated, and therefore more valuable, variety of labour. That distinction is barely discernible anymore.

Approachability

The popularity of the word can be traced back to IBM’s slogan from the mid-1990s, “solutions for a small planet”, when Big Blue was trying to overhaul its image under the leadership of chief executive Lou Gerstner.

He employed the services of leading ad agency Ogilvy & Mather to inject some approachability into the brand as it tried to extend its reach in the small and medium business sector.

But back then technological literacy wouldn’t have been all that high among the owners of smaller businesses – remember, the PC revolution was a little over a decade old at this point – and Ogilvy & Mather relied on “solutions” as a neat shorthand for the range of services IBM provided without having to get bogged down in technological jargon.

Admittedly, solutions might be just another one of those irritating but ultimately harmless examples of corporate jargon, but I suspect its spread is related to a facet of our relationship with technology that bears closer scrutiny – something known as “technological solutionism”.

The phrase was popularised by the contrarian Belarusian technology critic Evgeny Morozov in his brilliantly titled 2013 book To Save Everything, Click Here. Morozov is an astute and provocative thinker about our relationship with technology, and he trained his withering sights on our tendency to seek technological solutions to all our problems, and the technology industry’s specious promises to find those solutions.

Solutionism

“Recasting all complex social situations either as neat problems with definite, computable solutions or as transparent and self-evident processes that can be easily optimised – if only the right algorithms are in place! – this quest is likely to have unexpected consequences that could eventually cause more damage than the problems they seek to address. I call the ideology that legitimises and sanctions such aspirations ‘solutionism’,” Morozov writes.

Indeed, this describes the quintessential framework beloved of most start-ups – identify something that is “broken”, propose a “solution”, sell your solution to investors, get rich.

But this approach falls down when applied to intractable problems such as obesity, say, or climate change. The solutionist approach is to devise clever technologies to combat the effects of overeating or fossil fuel-burning – how about fitness trackers or smart electricity meters. The best approach, however, would be to engage in large-scale responses, such as encouraging healthier eating habits and globalised carbon taxes. Those sorts of solution, however, can’t be easily sold to VCs or consumers.

Indeed, despite the prevalence of all these technological solutions, the persistent problems afflicting our society remain as unsolved as ever – inequality, poverty, war and conflict.

Equations

That’s because these problems are irreducible to the sort of rudimentary equations favoured by “technological solutionists”, but rather require large-scale collective action.

As Morozov writes: “These are the kinds of problems that, on careful examination, do not have to be defined in the singular and all-encompassing ways that ‘solutionists’ have defined them. What’s contentious, then, is not their proposed solution but their very definition of the problem itself…How problems are composed matters every bit as much as how problems are resolved.”

To which one might reasonably ask what, exactly, is so bad about finding solutions to things? After all, a convincing argument can be made that our yearning to constantly problem-solve is the foundation of human progress. Trying to find ways of improving our situation is one of the hallmarks of our species.

However, it is not the finding of solutions that is concerning, but rather the sense that everything is a problem in search of a solution that only technology can provide. The ubiquity of “solutions” perhaps shows that this misleading ideological framework has infected our vocabulary and mindset.

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