Solutions and other problems

How do we solve solutionism?

Solutionism, a term popularized by Evgeny Morozov to describe “an intellectual pathology” that defines problems on the basis of one’s capacity for solving them. Morozov argued that Silicon Valley’s software engineers recast “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!” For Morozov, solutionist thinking has displaced a central category of social concerns, like public health and education, which may have problematic facets, but which are not fundamentally definable as problems.

This article, over at the ever-excellent Places, addresses solutionism from an urban design point of view, leading into a discussion of (urban) planners’ desire to ‘tame’ the landscape and solve geographic challenges.

The peculiar mindset of solutionism extends to other areas as well. For (communications) planning, the metaphor is no less complex. Our landscape - consumers, citizens, culture, society - may be less tangible, but it is no less intricate. How much can be solved with the power of words alone?

On one hand, there’s a Bernaysian theosophy that communications can (and should) change consumer behaviour. Don’t adapt your campaigns, adapt the consumer to them. From here, there’s a clear golden thread that extends all the way through the modern occultism of nudges and norms. It is, to be fair, inspiring. When I talk about communications planning, I often use the language of magic and of wizardry: it is our job to find and unlock the combination of words of power that can reshape reality into the result that is required. Ladies and gentleman, by speaking these arcane syllables, I can get people to pick up their dirty towels! Marvel of marvels! This seems silly, but it is, indeed dark magic. And like all magic, can be used for good or ill. (See also: Harry Potter.)

On the other hand, let’s not be ridiculous. Solutionism is being ‘brutally simple’ to its ‘brutally ridiculous’ conclusion. Very few challenges ever reduce to a single factor. Ipsos MORI’s Colin Strong writes in a similar vein about the ‘sparkling’ appeal of nudges: we are enamoured by the possibility of cheap, simple and impactful solutions. But they are merely one tool in the shed, and not always the right one. Humans are tidy creatures, and we like tidy solutions, if they’re shiny and new, that’s all the better. Sadly, chucking a ring into a volcano won’t actually solve all the world’s problems. Making the journey to the volcano longer and adding more obstacles adds a sort of dramatic verisimilitude. It further convinces us that the ring-chucking ought to solve everything. But, ultimately, life doesn’t work that way. There’s no one ring; no dark lord. Building a better sidewalk or laying out a sexy poster? These things help, but they don’t solve.

Is solutionism actually that peculiar? No one wants to stand in front of their boss and say, There is zero fucking change this poster will solve world hunger. I’m sorry mate, but have you even seen what’s going on out there? Yeah, we’ve got Rankin, but c’mon. We need to believe we can make a difference. So we parse and pare and make assumptions and bury caveats, and, at the end, we can put together an equation that draws a direct formula between ‘number of YouTube pre-rolls bought’ and ‘bars of soap sold’. We contribute, so therefore we claim the whole. Twas ever thus. (See also: CV writing.) This sounds cynical, but agency is important: we need the reassurance that our role is significant, else, well… why play it?

With that in mind, solutionism does have (some) merit. It is certainly insidious when it leads us to laziness or irresponsibility. We don’t need to worry about climate change because eventually a hobbit will toss some jewellery into Mount Doom! But solutionism is also how we trick ourselves ourselves into helping - it convinces us that we’re more significant than we actually are. We recycle, we diet, we pay taxes, and we wear masks, because we want to believe our actions are the answer. And they are, kinda, but only in infinitesimal, incremental bits. By making our actions feel significant, we deceive ourselves into contributions that would otherwise seem completely irrational. We’re not the solution, but we’re a tiny, virtually-inconsequential fragment of it. By overplaying our part, we keep going in the face of probabilistic lunacy. We motivate ourselves by creating a tiny rings of power, every single day, and finding volcanos at which to throw them.

Some other bits, elsewhere:

I contributed the ‘agency response’ to this report from the Market Research Society. I have to admit, being asked by the ‘Delphi Group’ to give a response to ‘the multiverse’ is the closest I’ll ever come to being tapped for the Global Frequency. It was a lot of fun. (Don’t get your hopes up: it is about responsibility and perspective in data research. It was still fun though.)

There are book(/s)-related update(/s) to come, in time. One sad note though: The Best of British Fantasy is, sadly, bested. Two volumes isn’t a bad run, and the publisher was very supportive, but numbers and numbers, and they’ve made the right call. In its two years, BOBF gave 50 deserving writers a moment of celebration and recognition, which makes me happy. The books remain on sale (although the hardback copies have, rightfully, dwindled). It may return someday, but not, I’m afraid, right now.

  • Virtual fashion is fascinating. I did a presentation on this a billionty-twelve years ago (it was about World of Warcraft avatars as identity, back when WoW was at peak THING, so that’ll age it). It makes sense to me in a way that NFTs don’t, which is, I suppose, hypocritical, but I can live with that.

  • Some Millennials are grandparents now. I think we can probably stop blaming them for being flighty with their careers and not buying homes and start worrying that we have a lost generation that wasn’t allowed the chance for stable careers and/or home ownership.

I really like Stuart Brand’s depiction of change over time. Being far-sighted, and investing in the long-term, feels increasingly difficult. A good example of the layers in practice, as noted by Dr Cynthia Miller-Idriss. Post Capitol attacks, we’re spending £2 billion on Capitol security (infrastructure), but only £20m on prevention education (policy). And, as far as I can tell, virtually nothing to shift the poisonous extremism (culture) that led to the riots in the first place?

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