Three Cheers for Solutionism?

Economist Noah Smith is fed up with generic critiques of technological “solutionism,” specifically what he calls the “2010s consensus that technology is a sideshow compared to social movements.”

In the last decade, we’ve basically been taught to deride “solutionism” — while Silicon Valley techbros were bending their genius toward figuring out ways to sell more ads or lower taxi drivers’ wages, inequality was running rampant and parents were struggling to feed their kids. Instead of trusting wizardry to solve the world’s problems, we were supposed to place our faith in politics, in mass action, and in cultural change.

Except then consider what happened with COVID. Our leaders failed to fight the virus effectively, and the President actively sabotaged containment efforts. Culturally, we screeched our heads off about masks and herd immunity and “just the flu” and beach parties and school closings and bar closings and restaurant closings and dorm closings and so on and so forth. We didn’t implement strict lockdowns and we protested against lockdowns and we didn’t even obey the half-assed lockdowns we did implement. We became one of the planet’s worst-hit countries, despite having the planet’s most expensive health care system. We died in the red states, we died in the blue states. We died in droves, in hundreds of thousands. Collectively, as a society, we wrung our hands and ran in circles and screeched and died and screeched and died and screeched and died until scientists made vaccines against the virus.

Is this correct? In some ways, Smith stacks the deck in his favor. Scientific breakthroughs on vaccines can be produced by small groups of experts insulated from public pressure and the clown show of 21st century American politics. This was never the case with non-pharmaceutical interventions, even if I share Smith’s sense out of outrage and horror over America’s failed response to COVID.

Comparing them is a little akin to comparing World War II’s military-technical research achievements to the great campaigns of Europe and the Pacific War. The latter required extensive political and organizational coordination on a hitherto unprecedented scale, and buy-in from millions of ordinary people. The former were not exactly a bunch of eggheads in a seminar room, but they represent at least crudely processes that are largely autonomous from the need to attain large-scale consensus and cooperation.

Come next year, when we enter into the challenge of rolling out vaccines while preserving basic social distancing measures, we will get a reminder of how different these two kinds of activities are. I’m more optimistic that next year will be significantly better than 2020 was, but only guardedly. However, Smith is also on to something larger when he notes the dubious framing of how the answer to engineering our way to nirvana is supposed to be large-scale political and cultural change driven by mass popular mobilization.

‘Political solution’ in this framing seems to be a euphemism for either a deliberative process that harmonizes competing views or (more often) the imposition of one’s will on the body politic via political struggle. Neither look particularly promising in a polarized society in which merely putting on a piece of cloth held together with string has become a partisan issue. Moreover, Smith observes elsewhere that even in my home state of California – where GOP opposition has been virtually eradicated – single-party dominance has failed to resolve basic governance issues.

Certainly most thoughtful critics of techno-determinism likely will say that they aren’t categorically against the use of technology, but rather criticize a particular mindset that uncritically postulates that objective solutions can be discovered to objectively framed problems and then objectively implemented and accepted by a mostly cooperative public. However, it is hard to tell if they are talking about the technologists or themselves when they make this criticism. Statements like “if only we had the political will” to do something of interest are just as naive as “if only we had the right app.”

Technologists are often criticized for wanting to ‘route around’ the US political system, but given low institutional trust and increasingly low interpersonal trust, it is difficult to be entirely critical of that desire. The biggest problem with it is that it often devolves into fantasies of taking one’s toys and exiting into an autonomous space free of the need to gain mass consensus (seasteading!) or instituting impersonal mechanisms that suppress political resistance (make the AI president!) There are idiots. Look around. But we’re all idiots in some shape or form and we’re stuck with each other. What do we do next?

First, somewhat of a meta-point: indirection often is a very underrated way of creating change. Part of what this post is looking to encourage is something I sometimes refer to as the “Andrew Marshall style” of change. For decades, Marshall headed up the Office of Net Assessment (ONA) within the United States Department of Defense. Most people interested in defense and strategy, including yours truly, have in some way directly or indirectly benefited from ONA and its projects. But Marshall did so largely below the radar.

Demanding only autonomy, a tiny (by Pentagon standards) budget, a small office, and the freedom to report directly to the Secretary of Defense, Marshall at first glance took a rather counter-intuitive approach. But this was actually critical to his success. He was not a threat to other people’s bureaucratic rice bowls. But he preserved his own autonomy. And by slowly building up a network of relationships and becoming a hub for innovative work, ONA ended up exercising a profound influence on American national security and defense.

What is remarkable about Marshall’s success is that he propagated his particular institutional relationships forward through decades of changing political, economic, and bureaucratic turmoil while slowly altering the surrounding environment around him. It would be ridiculous to assert that Marshall is singularly responsible for any particular major shift in American national security and defense, but it is also very evident that ONA’s presence and persistence changed the boundary conditions of the US defense and security system.

While many technologists often valorize another Cold War American defense icon – John Boyd – Marshall is also a model worth emulating. Technology is complicated, frustrating, and more often than not disappointing relative to our ambitions. But it can change the boundary conditions of problems. Tweaking the boundary conditions of problems is a big part of how meaningful change can happen overall.

Getting 2-3 promising vaccines in under a year is a great example. Vaccines do not change the massive amount of political and institutional failures America has experienced since the COVID-19 outbreak began. However, consider the alternative world without vaccines that we were in only a short time ago. We had all of those problems but without any kind of roadmap as to how we might escape them. Now we have a hazy but nonetheless meaningful idea of how long it could take to get back to normal, even if there is no really coherent shared idea of ‘normality.’ This is worth celebrating!

Even without a vaccine, we would be much worse off than we are now if everything from the physical network backbone to distributed work solutions did not perform well under significant stress. The Internet, also created originally in part for the purpose of scientific collaboration, enabled scientific researchers around the world to work together at breakneck speed to learn as much as possible about a novel virus and figure out how to attack it. Outside of the US and most successfully in Taiwan, governments have also found success in working together with the private sector to manage information flows during the pandemic.

Beyond COVID, what might this mean? Even in the best of times, the most we can often accomplish on the most intractable social problems is to muddle through. They have no inherent point at which they officially stop being problems, and often no inherently correct shared framing. It doesn’t mean that action is pointless, but true students of politics often understand that politics is a secular activity instead of a means of bringing about religious salvation.

It seems unwise to stake our hopes on some kind of decisive reckoning at which political solutions will somehow materialize and then be imposed on our friends, neighbors, and co-workers. Much for the same reason that many of us find that we cannot get even members of our own family to take sensible COVID precautions no matter how much we plead, cajole, and threaten them. Still, we have also seen what happens when we simply stand still and do nothing.

“Techno-scientific” changes in the surrounding environment can do a number of salient things. They can provide tools we did not have before to mitigate problems. They can subtly influence or even shift the dynamics of particular interpersonal and institutional relationships and interactions. New frontiers to explore can distract people that otherwise would make trouble, and a bigger pie can make people feel more generous than they otherwise would be. While much has been made of the costs of technological disruption, breaking up established social hierarchies can be necessary for the system as a whole to survive and grow.

Preventing stasis and injecting more slack into the system are both means to the same end: propagating the system forward into the future. So technological “solutionism” (a term I have always disliked due to its imprecision), is both more and less important than ever. It certainly falls short of the hopes of its biggest boosters and the fears of its opponents. But if you are a technologist looking to make a difference now is as good of a time as ever. What can you do?

America in 2020 is a place with stagnating physical infrastructure and very little movement on long-term problems. It is, of course, also a place where there is significant innovation in making software tools for people to fight each other on the Internet. This in and of itself seems like a mismatch to be rectified, as the intensification of disorder-stimulating software raises the pressure on the rusting and decaying hardware underneath it. All things being equal, America needs improved energy solutions more than it needs another conflict-stimulating social network site. What people do online will become less salient if the physical world is suddenly more attractive and exciting to be a part of.

Alternatively, maybe you could carefully study the ways in which the technical architectures underneath modern social networks build-in intractable moderation conflicts and try to further alternatives that take the heat off our fractured informational environment. Current social networks do not really fit with evolved human sociality. Could you build better ones, and maybe (one day) get rich from it? We’re growing more rather than less online as time goes on, and online is becoming more rather than less game-like. Absent less destructive ways to interact with each other, our social media woes will only get worse.

That’s just a couple of ideas. The sky is the limit, as they say.

Sometimes creating structures that reduce the transaction cost of innovation can be more important than any particular innovation. Creating regional technical innovation clusters is a policy mechanism available for doing so. But it can also be a smaller and less ambitious individual initiative. Throughout much of 2020, individual expert communities with different forms of expertise necessary to combat COVID clashed with each other as much as they cooperated. Could there one day be an easy way to form ad-hoc emergency organizations with multi-disciplinary expertise during disasters like the COVID-19 pandemic? Maybe you can make one.

There is also more to the Marshall model than just indirect tweaking of the system’s conditions over time. There are a lot of similarities between ONA and the tech startup world. ONA is small and prefers a small core team that can rapidly identify and experiment with emerging problems and methods. But it is also the antithesis of the “move fast and break things” mentality. Marshall did not seek out conflict with stakeholders. Instead he cleverly convinced them he was too small to justify worrying about until he had amassed enough institutional buy-in to be untouchable.

At that point, realizing that his funny little office was a big deal was much too late. There is something to learn here about how avoiding rather than seeking out conflict – tech companies sometimes can operate on the principle that its better to seek forgiveness than permission – can yield cumulative dividends. Picking fights with the press and politicians – and a larger attitude that casts people outside the campfire circle as brainless “NPCs” – creates backlash and opposition that may not actually be inevitable or necessary.

So in closing I do not find, as Smith does, that “solutionism” has been validated by America’s heavily uneven COVID-19 response. But America’s COVID-19 experience also illustrates the need for indirect ways of modifying the structure of our problem even if we find ourselves constrained in attacking it more directly. Techno-scientific progress, pursued more humbly but also without apologies, has always had the promise to deliver such structural modifications and still has promise today. We should remember this long after COVID has receded and we can congregate freely with each other.