Why We Can’t Solve Big Problems – MIT Technology Review

Source: Why We Can’t Solve Big Problems – MIT Technology Review, by Jason Pontin

Has technology failed us?

Apollo was not seen only as a victory for one of two antagonistic ideologies. Rather, the strongest emotion at the time of the moon landings was of wonder at the transcendent power of technology. … To contemporaries, the Apollo program occurred in the context of a long series of technological triumphs. … More, the progress seemed to possess what Alvin Toffler dubbed an “accelerative thrust” in Future Shock, published in 1970.

Blithe optimism about technology’s powers has evaporated, as big problems that people had imagined technology would solve, such as hunger, poverty, malaria, climate change, cancer, and the diseases of old age, have come to seem intractably hard.

Silicon Valley’s explanation of why there are no disruptive innovations is parochial and reductive: the markets—in particular, the incentives that venture capital provides entrepreneurs—are to blame. … the real difficulty with Silicon Valley’s explanation is that it is insufficient to the case. … the Valley’s explanation conflates all of technology with the technologies that venture capitalists like: traditionally, as Gibney concedes, digital technologies. … investments that required little capital and offered an exit within eight to 10 years.

VCs have never funded the development of technologies that are meant to solve big problems and possess no obvious, immediate economic value. The account is a partial explanation that forces us to ask: putting aside the personal-computer revolution, if we once did big things but do so no longer, then what changed? … venture-backed entrepreneurialism is essential to the development and commercialization of technological innovations. But it is not sufficient by itself to solve big problems, nor could its relative sickliness by itself undo our capacity for collective action through technology.

The answer is that these things are complex, and that there is no one simple explanation.

Sometimes we choose not to solve big technological problems. We could travel to Mars if we wished. … We won’t, because there are, everyone feels, more useful things to do on Earth. … Sometimes we fail to solve big problems because our institutions have failed. … research and development has fallen in the United States from a height of 10 percent in 1979 to 2 percent of total R&D spending … Sometimes big problems that had seemed technological turn out not to be so, or could more plausibly be solved through other means. Until recently, famines were understood to be caused by failures in food supply (and therefore seemed addressable by increasing the size and reliability of the supply, potentially through new agricultural or industrial technologies). But Amartya Sen, a Nobel laureate economist, has shown that famines are political crises that catastrophically affect food distribution. … Finally, sometimes big problems elude any solution because we don’t really understand the problem. … President Richard Nixon declared war on cancer in 1971; but we soon discovered there were many kinds of cancer, most of them fiendishly resistant to treatment

Hard problems are hard.

It’s not true that we can’t solve big problems through technology; we can. We must. But all these elements must be present: political leaders and the public must care to solve a problem, our institutions must support its solution, it must really be a technological problem, and we must understand it.

Source: Why We Can’t Solve Big Problems – MIT Technology Review, by Jason Pontin