We are a clever race. We’re not as smart as we think we are, but we are pretty damn smart. We are the only race who has managed to forcibly shift the eternal cycles of nature for our own benefit. We have bent the world to our will. And look how that’s turning out for us.
For the last 10,000 years our cleverness has set us apart from all other species on earth. For the last 1000 years, the pace of that cleverness has accelerated. In the last 100 years, it has been advancing at breakneck speed. Our tools and ingenuity have dramatically reshaped our lives. our everyday is full of stuff we couldn’t imagine just a few short decades ago.
That’s a trend that’s hard to ignore. And because of that, we could be excused for thinking the same may be true going forward. When it comes to thinking about technology, we tend to do so from a glass half full perspective. It’s worked for us in the past. It will work for us in the future. There is no problem too big that our own technological prowess cannot solve.
But maybe it won’t. Maybe – just maybe – we’re dealing with another type of problem now to which technology is not well suited as a solution. And here are 3 reasons why.
The Unintended Consequences Problem
Technology solutions focus on the proximate rather than the distal – which is a fancy way of saying that technology always deals with the task at hand. Being technology, these solutions usually come from an engineer’s perspective, and engineers don’t do well with nuance. Complicated they can deal with. Complexity is another matter.
I wrote about this before when I wondered why tech companies tend to be confused by ethics. It’s because ethics falls into a category of problems known as a wicked problem. Racial injustice is another wicked problem. So is climate change. All of these things are complex and messy. Their dependence on collective human behavior makes them so. Engineers don’t like wicked problems, because they are by definition concretely non-solvable. They are also hotbeds of unintended consequences.
In Collapse, anthropologist Jared Diamond’s 2005 exploration of failed societies, past and present, Diamond notes that when we look forward, we tend to cling to technology as a way to dodge impending doom. But he notes, “underlying this expression of faith is the implicit assumption that, from tomorrow onwards, technology will function primarily to solve existing problems and will cease to create new problems.”
And there’s the rub. For every proximate solution it provides, technology has a nasty habit of unleashing scads of unintended new problems. Internal combustion engines, mechanized agriculture and social media come to mind immediately as just three examples. The more complex the context of the problem, the more likely it is that the solution will come with unintended consequences.
The 90 Day Problem
Going hand in hand with the unintended consequence problem is the 90 Day problem. This is a port-over from the corporate world, where management tends to focus on problems that can be solved in 90 days. This comes from a human desire to link cause and effect. It’s why we have to-do lists. We like to get shit done.
Some of the problems we’re dealing with now – like climate change – won’t be solved in 90 days. They won’t be solved in 90 weeks or even 90 months. Being wicked problems, they will probably never be solved completely. If we’re very, very, very lucky and we start acting immediately and with unprecedented effort, we might be seeing some significant progress in 90 years.
This is the inconvenient truth of these problems. The consequences are impacting us today but the payoff for tackling them is – even if we do it correctly – sometime far in the future, possibly beyond the horizon of our own lifetimes. We humans don’t do well with those kinds of timelines.
The Alfred E. Neuman Problem
The final problem with relying on technology is that we think of it as a silver bullet. The alternative is a huge amount of personal sacrifice and effort with no guarantee of success. So, it’s easier just to put our faith in technology and say, “What, Me Worry?” like Mad Magazine mascot Alfred E. Neuman. It’s much easier to shift the onus for us surviving our own future to some nameless, faceless geek somewhere who’s working their way towards their “Eureka” moment.
While that may be convenient and reassuring, it’s not very realistic. I believe the past few years – and certainly the past few months – have shown us that all of us have to make some very significant changes in our lives and be prepared to rethink what we thought our future might be. At the very least, it means voting for leadership committed to fixing problems rather than ignoring them in favor of the status quo.
I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think technology is going to save our ass this time.