Will Our Devices Solve All Our Problems?

Is technology leading us to assume that all human problems have a sleek and efficient solution? Evgeny Morozov, a contributing editor at Foreign Policy and author of the The Net Delusion, is concerned that this might be the case:

“I worry that as the problem-solving power of our technologies increases, our ability to distinguish between important and trivial or even non-existent problems diminishes. Just because we have ‘smart’ solutions to fix every single problem under the sun doesn’t mean that all of them deserve our attention. In fact, some of them may not be problems at all; that certain social and individual situations are awkward, imperfect  noisy, opaque or risky might be by design. Or, as the geeks like to say, some bugs are not bugs—some bugs are features.

I find myself preoccupied with the invisible costs of ‘smart’ solutions in part because Silicon Valley mavericks are not lying to us: technologies are not only become more powerful—they are also becoming more ubiquitous. We used to think that, somehow, digital technologies lived in a national reserve of some kind—first, we called this imaginary place ‘cyberspace’ and then we switched to the more neutral label of ‘the Internet’—and it’s only in the last few years, with the proliferation of geolocational services, self-driving cars, smart glasses, that we grasped that, perhaps, such national reserves were a myth and digital technologies would literally be everywhere: in our fridges, in our belts, in our books, in our trash bins.

All this smart awesomeness will make our environment more plastic and more programmable. It will also make it very tempting to design out all imperfections—just because we can!—from our interactions, social institutions, politics. Blinded by the awesomeness of our tools, we might forget that some problems and imperfections are just the normal costs of accepting the social contract of living with other human beings, treating them with dignity, and ensuring that, in our recent pursuit of a perfect society, we do not shut off the door to change. The latter usually happens in rambunctious, chaotic, and imperfectly designed environments; sterile environments, where everyone is content, are not well-known for innovation, of either technological or social variety.” (Read more here.)

I appreciate Morozov’s points—especially his sharp observation that technology can no longer be confined to a separate realm like “cyberspace,” but is everywhere in our lives. But I also see plenty of human messiness and irrationality that,  for better or for worse, is in no danger of being cleaned up and sanitized by technology.

What do you think?

2 Responses to “Will Our Devices Solve All Our Problems?”

  1. Barry Kort says:

    Technology reveals the power of functional thinking and functional problem-solving, leading to functional solutions, functional devices, and high-functioning systems.

    Our woefully dysfunctional political culture might learn a thing or two about functional thinking and functional solutions to complex problems.

  2. Mike Thayer says:

    In education, the field I choose to work in, technology has become a panacea – and has definitely led to the type of thinking among policymakers and foundations (see: Gates, B. and Broad, E., among many others) that Morozov so clearly describes. Most problems around student achievement can be resolved by the skillful deployment of technology, so it is believed. What they fail to recognize is the messiness of human nature that makes education so complex.

    Technology reveals the power of functional thinking only to the extent that one views the problems that exist through a functional lens: the idea that if we could just fix/create/develop technology X, then preferred outcome Y would follow. Unfortunately, technology X usually leads to outcomes Z, A, B, C, etc., as well as (maybe) Y. These other outcomes have consequences which cannot be predicted in advance – and in the world of education, may lead to the cure being worse than the disease.

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