Who’s afraid of technical “solutionism”?

There seems to be a growing trend of articles in political and cultural circles critiquing the “solutionism” of Silicon Valley; the tech industry’s willingness to identify ever more societal problems that could be solved with increasingly clever devices and software.  Bloggers at the Economist and the New York Times have been looking at an article in the New Yorker, and possibly it’s associated book The Unwinding, by George Packer (in fact, it wasn’t until I was typing this up that I realized they both were referring to the same thing).

I have not read all of thew New Yorker article because it’s behind a paywall, but a follow-up by Packer gives some of the thesis:

My analysis of the Valley’s politics isn’t about left-right in the usual sense. It’s about a particular brand of utopianism that sees solutions for social and political problems in the industry’s products and attitudes.

The Economist also has a book review on several books looking at Silicon Valley, though Morozov’s “To Save Everything, Click Here” is the most relevant to this discussion.

I think these critical looks can be important, but it’s also  important to put Silicon Valley in context. The trend of industry leaders thinking a novel technology can solve many societal problems isn’t new. Just a quick Google search of “radium products” will bring up dozens of unexpected (and terrifying) uses that still cause problems in some areas. Industrialization led to attempts to mechanize everything. And electricity was attempted as a cure for virtually every ailment in the late 19th century. Of course, it seems important to point out this isn’t just restricted to technological industries. Many people last year felt one of Mitt Romney’s crucial qualifications for the presidency was his experience as a consultant.

Even someone who thinks fluoride is a conspiracy would admit this is probably worse. For reference, Alfred Curie is not related to Marie, which might explain why he though this was smart.

Even someone who thinks fluoride is a conspiracy would admit this is probably worse. For reference, Alfred Curie is not related to Marie, which might explain why he thought this was smart.

And trying to apply one’s background to more social problems than you probably should isn’t just restricted to industry leaders. One of the comments on the Democracy in America post asks if the techies are any different than economist wonks. Like is there any social problem that Matt Yglesias doesn’t think can be solved by some optimal combination of taxes, vouchers, and subsidies? This tendency to over-economize things is wonderfully parodied in a piece pondering how modern politics would try to develop a library system.

Of course, I don’t want to just leave the tech industry completely off the hook. Two of the recurring complains seem valid. A lot of modern tech products seem really frivolous (I still can’t understand the appeal of Instagram) or don’t solve major problems (say Siri). In a slight defense, though, many things that were initially frivolous ended up being used in important ways. When asked about the practicality of electricity by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Michael Faraday replied “One day, sir, you may tax it”. Or who would have thought YouTube would end up expanding beyond a repository of funny videos and become a major place where people go to learn things as diverse as how to cookphysics, or full on supplements to traditional education? But yeah, I don’t need yet another app to edit my photos.

The other major complaint is that the tech industry doesn’t create much wealth aside from the few people who work for successful companies. I think that’s completely true. But this complaint kind of ignores the structure of what the media focuses on when they talk about “tech”. I’ve kind of talked about this before. What I didn’t mention in that post on Thiel is that I think part of the problem is how the media portrays the “tech industry”. Nowadays, “tech industry” is almost synonymous with computing or the Internet, e.g. basically just software along with an occasional reminder of hardware. “Cleantech” is typically treated separately, and we even don’t hear much about non-mobile computing technology anymore. Maybe I’m crazy, but I feel like I remember in the 90s, web businesses or “dot coms” being treated as their own field separate from computers. It might reflect a deeper change in the business though, since those old dot coms of Google and Amazon now sell branded hardware and Apple and Microsoft are moving more and more into social software and Internet usage is increasingly dominating what people use computing devices for.

I typically hate this conflation because it distorts discussion of “STEM”. Here, it makes it hard for any of the companies the media would now typically consider to be in tech to ever really employ a lot of people. No matter how much Facebook expands as a Web site, it won’t ever need that many people. You only need a few thousand people to maintain a large digital presence. Amazon has more employees, but that’s because it needs people to manage some of its physical presence in meatspace, like its warehouses. As long as the media portrays tech as Web- and software-centric, then tech won’t ever employ that many people because it doesn’t need that many jobs. Industries that need people in actual places will probably always end up employing more people. That’s why the media needs to care about tech outside of the Internet, because say running renewable power plants or manufacturing new computers or electric cars will require a decent number of humans doing things.


2 thoughts on “Who’s afraid of technical “solutionism”?

  1. Pingback: Technology’s track record, past and future | nontrivial problems

  2. Pingback: Where are all the engineering blogs? | nontrivial problems

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