Is “solutionism” getting us nowhere?


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Apps do everything from finding cheap pad thai to predicting what your children will look like to tracking your carbon emissions, but do they really help? Photo:
Apps do everything from finding cheap pad thai to predicting what your children will look like to tracking your carbon emissions, but do they really help? Photo:

We’re all aware of the popularity of hackathons and app contests. These events are devised to support causes, inspire technological collaboration, and confront issues that face society. And they are seen as the solution.

After all, apps have come to be viewed as the answers to all of our problems. They are relatively easy to make (with the right talented, creative people) and they can be disseminated widely and, perhaps more important, quickly. Programmers often take part in these competitions for little or no pay, with monetary prizes sometimes eschewed in favor of symbolic gifts or simple pride. Wherever there is a problem in the world, doubtless there is someone already working on an app to solve it.

A packed hackathon. Photo:

But a recent article by David Sasaki, a notable tech blogger in both Spanish and English, cautions such worship of apps and hackathons as the solutions to all of the world’s problems. Sasaki calls this thinking “Solutionism,” and he questions both the value of the solutions that it produces and the basic way in which this process glosses over society’s deeper needs. Solutions, Sasaki claims, seem to have surpassed problems in their primacy, especially with the ease of creating apps, and the sexiness of hackathons.

Sasaki uses Evgeny Morozov‘s definition of solutionism, credited to Michael Dobbins in Morozov’s forthcoming book, To Save Everything, Click Here: “Solutionism presumes rather than investigates the problem it is trying to solve, reaching for the answer before the questions have been fully asked.” Sure, we can easily program an app that tells us where, in our community, there is roadkill on the streets, but do we know how to use this information, or why we even programmed the app in the first place? This how, this why, is what Sasaki argues is most important. The how and the why should drive the creation of apps, not the other way around.

Long on apps, short on solutions. Photo:

Sasaki, a judge at many popular hackathons and app contests, notes that he can’t think of a single “civic” app (a program designed to improve society and/or a local community) that he uses regularly. He can, however, think of plenty of commercial apps (designed for everything from retouching his pictures to planning his workout) that he uses almost every day. Viability, Sasaki argues, is a huge problem for the “solution” apps that come out of these hackathons and contests.

Solutionism is being marketed by Dow Chemicals as “The New Optimism” and got a positive spin from an unconventional marketing campaign in 2011 involving a “Giant Chalkboard” in SoHo with a series of esoteric formulas (which were later revealed to be the solutions to many of humanity’s most significant advances). This application of the term, a bit different from Sasaki’s, champions discovery. A miraculous series of solutions, after all, is what has brought us forward from our prehistoric days.

Solutions are good. On that, we can all agree. But, as David Sasaki reminds us, we must seek real solutions, and only after we have asked the right questions.

Sure, there was an old-fashioned “app” for napkins, but was it a real solution?              Photo:

Perhaps the reason for the proliferation of apps and the dearth of actual solutions is that the solutions themselves take more work. It is relatively easy to sit at a computer and create a program that does a “civic duty”; it is significantly harder to go out into the world and use the information that the app gathers to improve your community. Jean-Claude Juncker, Prime Minister of Luxembourg, frames this problem in the context of politics: “We all know what to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it.” Actually doing the right thing is not only difficult, it’s downright socially toxic.

People seek shortcuts to hard problems. Put another way by David Owen in an essay in the Wall Street Journal, “[W]e already know more than enough, and we have for a long time. We just don’t like the answers.”

The reason for this is that the answers are sometimes ugly. If we can create a program that allows us to geolocate roadkill, we consider ourselves smarter, having discovered an electronic “solution” to this problem plaguing society. We can sit back, happy that we used our incredible intelligence to tackle an issue without even leaving the house. But what we, as a society, really need if these “solutions” are to become tangible, is someone who is willing to go out and actually scrape a flattened squirrel off of the side of the street.

With such an abundance of apps, the exciting results of hackathons and contests, the solutions are out there. What we need to do now is the dirty work that gets us from “solution” to actual progress.