By ascribing unrealistic virtues and powers to the Internet, the techno-evangelists of Silicon valley have given rise to a dangerous “solutionist” approach that seeks to fix things on a grand scale.
That smart technology and all of our social connections (not to mention useful statistics like the real-time aggregate consumption of electricity) can now be “inserted” into our every mundane act, from throwing away our trash to making tea, might seem worth celebrating, not scrutinizing. Likewise, that smartphones and social-networking sites allow us to experiment with interventions impossible just a decade ago seems like a genuinely positive development. Not surprisingly, Silicon Valley is already awash with plans for improving just about everything under the sun: politics, citizens, publishing, cooking.
Alas, all too often, this never-ending quest to ameliorate or what the Canadian anthropologist Tania Murray Li, writing in a very different context, has called “the will to improve” — is short-sighted and only perfunctorily interested in the activity for which improvement is sought. Recasting all complex social situations either as neatly defined problems with definite, computable solutions or as transparent and self-evident processes that can be easily optimized — 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 legitimizes and sanctions such aspirations “solutionism.” I borrow this unabashedly pejorative term from the world of architecture and urban planning, where it has come to refer to an unhealthy preoccupation with sexy, monumental, and narrow-minded solutions — the kind of stuff that wows audiences at TED Conferences — to problems that are extremely complex, fluid, and contentious. 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. Design theorist Michael Dobbins has it right: solutionism presumes rather than investigates the problems that it is trying to solve, reaching “for the answer before the questions have been fully asked.” How problems are composed matters every bit as much as how problems are resolved.
Solutionism, thus, is not just a fancy way of saying that for someone with a hammer, everything looks like a nail; it’s not just another riff on the inapplicability of “technological fixes” to “wicked problems” (a subject I address at length in The Net Delusion). It’s not only that many problems are not suited to the quick-and-easy solutionist tool kit. It’s also that what many solutionists presume to be “problems” in need of solving are not problems at all; a deeper investigation into the very nature of these “problems” would reveal that the inefficiency, ambiguity, and opacity — whether in politics or everyday life — that the newly empowered geeks and solutionists are rallying against are not in any sense problematic. Quite the opposite: these vices are often virtues in disguise. That, thanks to innovative technologies, the modern-day solutionist has an easy way to eliminate them does not make them any less virtuous.
It may seem that a critique of solutionism would, by its very antireformist bias, be the prerogative of the conservative. In fact, many of the antisolutionist jibes throughout this book fit into the tripartite taxonomy of reactionary responses to social change so skillfully outlined by the social theorist Albert Hirschman. In his influential book The Rhetoric of Reaction, Hirschman argued that all progressive reforms usually attract conservative criticisms that build on one of the following three themes: perversity (whereby the proposed intervention only worsens the problem at hand), futility (whereby the intervention yields no results whatsoever), and jeopardy (where the intervention threatens to undermine some previous, hard-earned accomplishment).
Although I resort to all three of these critiques in the pages that follow, my overall project does differ from the conservative resistance studied by Hirschman. I do not advocate inaction or deny that many (though not all) of the problems tackled by solutionists — from climate change to obesity to declining levels of trust in the political system — are important and demand immediate action (how exactly those problems are composed is, of course, a different matter; there is more than one way to describe each). But the urgency of the problems in question does not automatically confer legitimacy upon a panoply of new, clean, and efficient technological solutions so in vogue these days. My preferred solutions — or, rather, responses — are of a very different kind.
It’s also not a coincidence that my critique of solutionism bears some resemblance to several critiques of the numerous earlier efforts to put humanity into too tight a straitjacket. Today’s straitjacket might be of the digital variety, but it’s hardly the first or the tightest. While the word “solutionism” may not have been used, many important thinkers have addressed its shortcomings, even if using different terms and contexts. I’m thinking, in particular, of Ivan Illich’s protestations against the highly efficient but dehumanizing systems of professional schooling and medicine, Jane Jacobs’s attacks on the arrogance of urban planners, Michael Oakeshott’s rebellion against rationalists in all walks of human existence, Hans Jonas’s impatience with the cold comfort of cyber-netics; and, more recently, James Scott’s concern with how states have forced what he calls “legibility” on their subjects. Some might add Friedrich Hayek’s opposition to central planners, with their inherent knowledge deficiency, to this list.
Silicon Valley is already awash with plans for improving just about everything under the sun.
These thinkers have been anything but homogenous in their political beliefs; Ivan Illich, Friedrich Hayek, Jane Jacobs, and Michael Oakeshott would make a rather rowdy dinner party. But these highly original thinkers, regardless of political persuasion, have shown that their own least favorite brand of solutionist — be it Jacobs’s urban planners or Illich’s professional educators — have a very poor grasp not just of human nature but also of the complex practices that this nature begets and thrives on. It’s as if the solutionists have never lived a life of their own but learned everything they know from books — and those books weren’t novels but manuals for refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, and washing machines.
Thomas Molnar, a conservative philosopher who, for his smart and vehement critique of technological utopianism written in the early 1960s, also deserves a place on the antisolutionist pantheon, put it really well when he complained that “when the utopian writers deal with work, health, leisure, life expectancy, war, crimes, culture, administration, finance, judges and so on, it is as if their words were uttered by an automaton with no conception of real life. The reader has the uncomfortable feeling of walking in a dreamland of abstractions, surrounded by lifeless objects; he manages to identify them in a vague way, but, on closer inspection, he sees that they do not really conform to anything familiar in shape, color, volume, or sound.” Dreamlands of abstractions are a dime a dozen these days; what works in Palo Alto is assumed to work in Penang.
It’s not that solutions proposed are unlikely to work but that, in solving the “problem,” solutionists twist it in such an ugly and unfamiliar way that, by the time it is “solved,” the problem becomes something else entirely. Everyone is quick to celebrate victory, only no one remembers what the original solution sought to achieve.
The ballyhoo over the potential of new technologies to disrupt education — especially now that several start-ups offer online courses to hundreds of thousands of students, who grade each other’s work and get no face time with instructors — is a case in point. Digital technologies might be a perfect solution to some problems, but those problems don’t include education — not if by education we mean the development of the skills to think critically about any given issue. Online resources might help students learn plenty of new facts (or “facts,” in case they don’t cross-check what they learn on Wikipedia), but such fact cramming is a far cry from what universities aspire to teach their students.
Dreamlands of abstractions are a dime a dozen these days; what works in Palo Alto is assumed to work in Penang.
As Pamela Hieronymi, a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), points out in an important essay on the myths of online learning, ”Education is not the transmission of information or ideas. Education is the training needed to make use of information and ideas. As information breaks loose from bookstores and libraries and floods onto computers and mobile devices, that training becomes more important, not less.” Of course, there are plenty of tools for increasing one’s digital literacy, but those tools go only so far; they might help you to detect erroneous information, but they won’t organize your thoughts into a coherent argument.
Adam Falk, president of Williams College, delivers an even more powerful blow against solutionism in higher education when he argues that it would be erroneous to pretend that the solutions it peddles are somehow compatible with the spirit and goals of the university. Falk notes that, based on the research done at Williams, the best predictor of students’ intellectual success in college is not their major or GPA but the amount of personal, face-to-face contact they have with professors. According to Falk, averaging letter grades assigned by five random peers — as at least one much-lauded start-up in this space, Coursera, does — is not the “educational equivalent of a highly trained professor providing thoughtful evaluation and detailed response.” To pretend that this is the case, insists Falk, “is to deny the most significant purposes of education, and to forfeit its true value.”
Here we have a rather explicit mismatch between the idea of education embedded in the proposed set of technological solutions and the time-honored idea of education still cherished at least by some colleges. In an ideal world, of course, both visions can coexist and prosper simultaneously. However, in the world we inhabit, where the administrators are as cost-conscious as ever, the approach that produces the most graduates per dollar spent is far more likely to prevail, the poverty of its intellectual vision notwithstanding. Herein lies one hidden danger of solutionism: the quick fixes it peddles do not exist in a political vacuum. In promising almost immediate and much cheaper results, they can easily undermine support for more ambitious, more intellectually stimulating, but also more demanding reform projects…
I’ll be the first to acknowledge that the problems posed by solutionism are not in any sense new; as already noted, generations of earlier thinkers have already addressed many related pitfalls and pathologies. And yet I feel that we are living through a resurgence of a very particular modern kind of solutionism. Today the most passionate solutionists are not to be found in city halls and government ministries; rather, they are to be found in Silicon Valley, trying to take the lessons they have learned from “the Internet”— and there’s never been a more deceptively didactic source of great lessons about “life, the universe and everything” (to use Douglas Adams’s memorable phrase) — and put them into practice in various civic initiatives and plans to fix the bugs of humanity.
Why the scare quotes around “the Internet”? In the afterword to my first book, The Net Delusion, I made what I now believe to be one of its main, even if overlooked, points: the physical infrastructure we know as “the Internet” bears very little resemblance to the mythical “Internet”— the one that reportedly brought down the governments of Tunisia and Egypt and is supposedly destroying our brains — that lies at the center of our public debates. The infrastructure and design of this network of networks do play a certain role in sanctioning many of these myths — for example, the idea that “the Internet” is resistant to censorship comes from the unique qualities of its packet-switching communication mechanism — but “the Internet” that is the bane of public debates also contains many other stories and narratives — about innovation, surveillance, capitalism — that have little to do with the infrastructure per se.
French philosopher Bruno Latour, writing of Louis Pasteur’s famed scientific accomplishments, distinguished between Pasteur, the actual historical figure, and “Pasteur,” the mythical almighty character who has come to represent the work of other scientists and entire social movements, like the hygienists, who, for their own pragmatic reasons, embraced Pasteur with open arms. But anyone interested in writing the history of that period cannot just deploy the name “Pasteur” as an unproblematic, objective term; it needs to be disassembled so that its various parts can be studied in their own right. The story of how these disparate parts — including the actual Louis Pasteur — have become ”Pasteur,” the national hero of France whom we see in textbooks, is what the history of science, at least in its Latourian vision, should aspire to uncover.
Now, I do not set out to write history in this book. If I did, I would indeed try to show the contingency and fluidity of the very idea of “the Internet” and attempt to trace how “the Internet” has come to mean what it means today. In this book, I’m interested in a much narrower slice of this story; namely, I want to explore how “the Internet” has become the impetus for many of the contemporary solutionist initiatives while also being the blinkers that prevent us from seeing their shortcomings.
”The Internet” has allowed solutionists to significantly expand the scope of their interventions, running experiments on a much grander scale.
In other words, I’m interested in why and how “the Internet” excites — and why and how it confuses. I want to understand why and how iTunes or Wikipedia — some of the core mythical components of “the Internet” — have become models to think about the future of politics. How have Zynga and Facebook become models to think about civic engagement? How have Yelp’s and Amazon’s reviews become models to think about criticism? How has Google become a model for thinking about business and social innovation — as if it had a coherent philosophy — so that books with titles like What Would Google Do? can become best sellers?
The arrival of “the Internet” both boosted and vindicated many of the solutionist attitudes that I describe in this book. “The Internet” has allowed solutionists to significantly expand the scope of their interventions, running experiments on a much grander scale. It has also given rise to a new set of beliefs — what I call “Internet-centrism” — the chief of which is the firm conviction that we are living through unique, revolutionary times, in which the previous truths no longer hold, everything is undergoing profound change, and the need to “fix things” runs as high as ever. “The Internet,” in short, has supplied solutionists with ample ammunition to ratchet up their war on inefficiency, ambiguity, and disorder, while also providing some new justification for doing so. But it has also supplied them with a set of assumptions about both how the world works and how it should work, about how it talks and how it should talk, recasting many issues and debates in a decidedly Internet-centric manner. Internet-centrism relates to “the Internet” very much like scientism relates to science: its epistemology tolerates no dissenting viewpoints, while all recent history is just about how the great spirit of “the Internet” presents itself to us.
This book, then, is an effort to liberate our technology debates from the many unhealthy and erroneous assumptions about “the Internet.” In this, it’s much more normative than history aspires to be. Following the work of Latour and Thomas Kuhn, many historians of science have come to accept that, while the idea of “Science” with a capital S is even more chock-full of myths than the idea of “the Internet,” they have made peace with this discovery, reasoning that, as long as there are scientists who think there is this “Science” with a capital S out there, they are still worth studying, regardless of whether historians of science themselves actually share this belief.
It’s an elegant and reassuring approach, but I find it very hard to pursue when thinking about “the Internet” and the corrosive influence that this idea is beginning to have on public discourse and the kinds of reform projects that are getting priority. In this sense, to point out the many limitations of solutionism without also pointing out the limitations of what I call “Internet-centrism” would not be very productive; without the latter, the former wouldn’t be half as powerful. So before we can embark on discussing the shortcomings of solutionism in areas like politics or crime prevention, it’s worth getting a better grasp of the pernicious intellectual influence of Internet-centrism…Revealing Internet-centrism for what it is will make debunking solutionism much less difficult.
This excerpt is taken from his To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism (New York, NY: Public Affairs Books, 2013).