Problems and their solvers

We live in a cultural moment of what is sometimes called “solutionism” — an intellectual fixation with “solutions” rather than the problems to which they are addressed.

Some of this is ingrained in Anglo-American cultural psychology—and not necessarily all for the worse. Although this vantage point sometimes suffers from a debilitating naiveté about the nature and complexity of problems, its indefeasible optimism about man’s ability to control and master the world has made a contribution to technological and economic progress that cannot be denied.

Nevertheless, a lot of the excesses of solutionism are nowadays driven by unremittingly one-dimensional Silicon Valley groupthink of the Internet Age, a metaphysic in which all problems are reframed as a want of an app or a startup. In venture capital, code and devices lies salvation.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the worldview of TED, where the worst of 1% liberal tone-deafness meets the intellectual fraud of  facile technocracy. This has seen some public rebuke from the likes of Evgeny Morozov (who, ironically, gained notoriety through the very same TED over a decade ago for his sceptical take on the hackneyed cliché of the Internet as an instrument of political liberalisation). Although the assaults on the edifice of Apps and Machine Learning Macht Frei are muted and comes from a small renegade force, that critique has gained exposure to a wider audience in recent years. There is sufficient prior art to not warrant a recapitulation.

Business man pushing large stone up to hill , Business heavy tasks and problems concept.The bigger and more troublesome consensus I see relates to the social convention that one must provide solutions alongside one’s contemplation of problems. In America, at least, social criticism is widely deemed “unconstructive” if not accompanied by a a plan to fix the ills. It seems to me that one cannot be a public intellectual with a critical vantage point in the US unless one is prepared to offer concrete rectification, whether policy prescriptions for worldly problems or inward-looking attitudinal adjustments for personal ones. Otherwise, one’s a pathetic whiner.

The first and foremost reason this is problematic also manifests itself in the reign of the aforementioned technocracy: it posits something about the nature of problems — that they all have clear, distinct and discrete solutions. Some problems of humanity are timeless and existential, though. Not all problems are solvable, particularly in isolation. The American cultural mythos is cholerically hostile to the notion that some problems simply might not have solutions, alas. Everything’s solvable!

And maybe it is. But where solutions do exist, they are often woven into complex and interdependent systems of simultaneous equations, inextricably bound up in solutions to vast categories of other problems. The presumption of symmetry between the task of describing a problem and devising a solution is unwarranted, but if the critic balks, they are met with: “Oh, all you want to do is rant and complain”.

That explains why the “so what do we do about it?” part of socially critical books often reads like a stilted afterthought, stammered out at 5:49 AM on the day of the editor’s deadline in an eerily silent graveyard of empty latte urns and greasy take-out food caskets. After doing the rather manageable thing of identifying the problem, the writer’s now tasked with the much more cosmological burden of sorting it all out. It’s the thrill of agony and the stinging pain of defeat, all in one manuscript.

Yet the most overlooked problem ought to be the one most glaring: even where discrete solutions are possible, in principle, the people best equipped to identify and describe a problem are not necessarily the best people to solve it, and any correlation between the two is strictly incidental. Observers most sensitive to the consequences of a political problem, for instance, are rarely policy experts. They are not in a position to craft a labouriously articulated fix that is compatible with the internal logic of, for example, the legislative process.

Gun control is a timely, if random example. I can tell you in considerable detail why I think this country has a globally unprecedented mass shooting problem and that it needs to seriously re-examine its interpretation of the Second Amendment, but I don’t have the esoteric knowledge to tell you what kind of response might actually work as a matter of working law or regulation. Ironically, the people who are more qualified to do that mostly don’t seem to think our mass shootings are much of a problem.

I don’t know why we expect a competent description of a problem to signal an ability to solve it, but I do know that the demand to do so is a widely deployed conversation stopper that shuts down a lot of legitimate critical work. Conversation stoppers only work inasmuch as they capture widely accepted notions — we call it “conventional wisdom”. Conventional wisdom has it that everything’s fixable and that one must proffer a fix to get a seat at the table of criticism and dissent.

That’s something we need to solve.