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Solutionism

This word is in the news because Evgeny Morozov uses it in a deeply derogatory way in his polemical book, To Save Everything, Click Here, which was published in Britain this week.

By solutionism, he means the mistaken belief that technology can benignly and efficiently solve all our problems and produce a world that is trouble-free. The temptation, he says, is to assume that a easy technological solution exists for all problems — from crime to corruption to pollution to obesity — which can be eliminated by digitally measuring, tracking and correcting our everyday behaviour. He argues that digital engineers, however expert in their fields, lack the skills to address issues with ethical, philosophical and human implications that derive from our natural states of being.

Two recent examples from discussions about the book:

It’s a book littered with -isms and -ists, pejoratives and insults: “solutionism”, “epochalism”, “Internetcentrists”, “technoescapism”, “technonaivety” (they’re all bad things). Everyone who disagrees with Morozov is blind or stupid or corrupt.

Daily Telegraph, 9 Mar. 2013.

Morozov says people like Zuckerberg and Bell espouse Silicon Valley philosophies that are pervasive but shallow. Bell’s desire to catalogue everything, for example, is an example of “solutionism”: the relentless drive to fix and to optimise; to take problems — in this case an imperfect biological memory — and propose solutions.

New Scientist, 23 Feb. 2013.

The term isn’t new — its relative solutionist is recorded from 1885 and came to mean a solver of crossword puzzles. Solutionism was used during the Troubles in Northern Ireland as a derogatory term for those people, also called solutionists, who urged facile solutions which ignored the complex human problems of the Province. The earliest example of solutionism that I’ve so far found is in The Soldier and the State by Samuel P Huntington, published in 1957. Two years later Edward Hodnett commented in The Art of Working With People: “Beware of solutionism — the flabby optimism that there is a simple answer and that it will yield to the magic of a personality, brainstorming, sitting down and talking things over, or other tribal nostrums.” In the way Morozov uses it, it can be traced back at least to this:

The rejection of politics among intellectuals often takes the subtler form of what I call technocratic solutionism. Experts who practice solutionism insist that problems have technical solutions even if they are the result of conflicts about ideas, values and interests.

Engines of Culture, by D M Fox, 1963.

In the US, solutionism is a registered trademark of The Dow Chemical Company, which employs it in the baffling advertising slogan “Solutionism: the new optimism”.

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Page created 23 Mar. 2013

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Last modified: 23 March 2013.