14 September 2017

Solutionism - The Role of Technology in Solving SocioTechnical Problems

It all began, over a year ago (June 2016), with what author Ethan Zuckerman described as hate-linking. Through this practice, Zuckerman stumbled upon and read an article by Shane Snow who is the co-founder of a content-marketing platform. Briefly, in his article, Snow advocates for change in US prison systems - to lessen the financial burden and remove instances of violence - by locking everyone in a room...indefinitely and by feeding them the Silicon Valley version of Ensure. The role of technology - a crucial point to Zuckerman's response - in this prison life would be to give all those incarcerated access to VR (virtual reality) equipment and video games to socialize and learn. Snow's thought is that with less contact, there will be less violence and deaths.

In his lengthy response, The Perils of Using Technology to Solve Other People's Problems for the Atlantic, Zuckerman systematically pokes holes in Snow's proposed solutions to the US prison system (as a design developed out of context and without input from those living and working in such a system) and questions the role of technology as the prolific savior in sociotechnical issues.

As an engineering instructor at MIT, Zuckerman is interested in finding ways to: disrupt better, challenge knowledgeably, and engaging (or codesigning) new and better technology alongside the intended or target audience. Zuckerman drives home what he sees as an issue in (most) engineering design processes where many of the technologies we benefit from, weren’t designed for their ultimate beneficiaries, but were simply designed well and adopted widely.

Zuckerman draws attention to Evgeny Morozov's critique of “solutionism” which Morozov describes as the act of focusing on problems that (only) have “nice and clean technological solution at our disposal.” The problem with the solutionist critique, Zuckerman argues, is that it tends to remove technological innovation from the problem-solver’s toolkit. He advocates that robust solutions to social problems must incorporate technology as one of many levers toward social change.

Zuckerman mentions the work of Genevieve Bell at intel to briefly mention the role of ethnography and ethnographers in collecting important user information in the design process. He writes:
Understanding the wants and needs of users is important when you’re designing technologies for people much like yourself, but it’s utterly critical when designing for people with different backgrounds, experiences, wants, and needs.

Although an older article, Zuckerman's response to Snow's design situates anthropological and ethnographic analysis into the heart of the design process, where the heart does not represent the centre of a process, but the life blood of design and innovation. It's here that the expert - that is the user or client or target audience - and their knowledge is paramount.

Quick Links: 
  • Perils of Using Technology to Solve Other People's Problems: What will it take to design socio-technical systems that actually work? Ethan Zuckerman in the Atlantic (June 23, 2016)
  • How Soylent and Oculus Could Fix The Prison System (A Thought Experiment) - note, this has been revised due to feedback from the wider community - Shane Snow (Sept 23, 2015) 

  • For more links about technology on AnthroEverywhere!
  • Isuma TV - Indigenous Media collective (Sept 4 2017)
  • Anthropology Podcasting (Aug 24 2017)
  • Remembering & Memories: there's an app for that... (Jul 17 2017)