Widgets Magazine


Solutionism and its Discontents

We live in a world that has a lot of problems; that much is for certain. Here on the Farm, we see problems every day — the expected mixture of the simple and the insurmountable. There are problems everywhere, palm trees and eternal sunshine notwithstanding, and they range from our problem sets to the California drought to world poverty. But Stanford University is a place where to not have all the solutions seems to be an act of defiance against God.

To be honest, unlike Stanford’s own Evgeny Morozov, I do not intend to excoriate “solutionism” — the idea that every problem can eventually be solved. One of the great selling points of Stanford is the hope that permeates it: the belief, so stubbornly upheld on campus, that anything is possible. This belief is a hope that lights the lamp of progress, because a belief in the possibility of progress is part of what ultimately makes progress possible. But this belief is also a disorienting one: it seems that the problems we face at Stanford are viewed not as issues in and of themselves, but as mere foils to the forces of inevitable progress.

What progress do we seek? The popular critique of Stanford solutionism typically limits itself to technology, but that’s silly — we don’t set our sights so low. The “New Progress,” both at Stanford and beyond it, is not merely technological but social and economic all at once. It is subsidiary to no political creed: the Republican attempting to prevent broken families with government subsidies is as solutionist as the Democrat attempting to legislate equality. And as you might agree, the policies that a solutionist mindset can support are not necessarily wrong.

In fact, I contend that the effects of solutionism are not where that ideology ultimately falls short. At its core, solutionism is a product of three foundational misconceptions: the illusion of uniformity, the illusion of uniqueness and above all the illusion of inevitability.

The first, uniformity, is the easiest to refute. Stanford is often labeled as the beating heart of American solutionism, but while the Silicon Valley that it fosters is founded upon the belief that problems have solutions, the Valley itself is a contradiction (or subversion) of that belief. Glitzy startups and the bright-eyed entrepreneurs that create them fail all the time: Just because people can propose a solution to a problem doesn’t mean that it is the right one or that it is practical.

Moreover, although Stanford and Silicon Valley are intertwined, they are not the same. We are not frozen in an endless monolith: Stanford is not purely high technology and palm trees, although that is the image we like to cultivate. That much should be obvious to anybody living here, but even so, startup culture — the primary institution of solutionist thought — largely influences what the rest of the world thinks of us. We’re seen as the guys waving our smartphones all over the place, blithely yelling “There’s an app for that.”

Solutionism’s allure is also intertwined with the common perception that its movement is historically unique. I don’t mean this as a criticism of Stanford — the opportunities the University offers us are very hard to replicate. But if I may offer a more subjective opinion: We view technology here, broadly, as a continuing and perhaps even self-sustaining revolution. And in order to succeed, every revolution must first convince its people that it will succeed where others failed.

Improvements in technology, while special, are nothing new. The explosion of scientific progress that we are lucky enough to celebrate is, to be fair, unprecedented. Even considering this, however, people have always tried to solve the problems we face. Some of these movements have failed; others have succeeded, and their successes are the foundation of the world we see today.

A belief in uniqueness is ultimately what sustains the myth of solutionism: If solutionism had existed before and failed, its impossibility would be immediately obvious. But if solutionism is mistakenly held to be unique, in that false uniqueness lies a hope that all problems can eventually be solved. If so, anything is possible: compromise is a swear word. “Are you playing God?” the biologist Craig Venter was once asked. His immortal reply: “We’re not playing.”

Carried away by our emotions and our hope, at times glory almost seems inevitable. To be sure, there is no issue with hope. But the popular conception of solutionism goes beyond that. Solutionism is not just a belief that everything can be solved but a belief that everything will be solved. It preaches not just possibility but inevitability. And in that regard it is an utter delusion.

The increasing prevalence of startups selling innovation that is often marginal at best — ask any venture capitalist about the success rate of an entrepreneurial investment — indicates that while there is plenty of intelligence to go around, we may be trying too hard to find the next Google. There is far too much money in the system, and if we will assume for a second that an investment is a declaration of confidence, it’s then painfully clear that we suffer from an excess of hope. It is Alan Greenspan’s “irrational exuberance” all over again.

Ultimately, however, I choose to take heart in the hope that we uphold. It is en vogue in this country to be upset with our government only because we still expect and hope for so much from it. Similarly, if we express disappointment with the world we have today, it is only because we know that the future can be better. Solutionism preaches that problems exist and it preaches that solutions do too. Within limits, that sentiment is heartening.

With that in mind, even if we assume that every problem can be solved, we cannot assume that every problem will be. And while the personal freedom that we cherish implicitly argues that different people can have different solutions to the same problem, we don’t really give variation and ambiguity the honor that they deserve. It is both acceptable and unavoidable to have no solution or multiple solutions. In this tension between our reality and our dreams — “crawling between earth and heaven” — we find art. You do not solve the human condition. You seek to live with it.

It is not possible to solve all of our problems, and the solutions we may find are not necessarily the solutions that everybody will accept. While we should never temper our aspirations, we should certainly adjust our more single-minded expectations. A single solution is not necessarily real or universally desirable. If we would have peace in our society, we must accept that compromise is inevitable — and the compromises we must make are not just with others but also with ourselves.


Contact Winston Shi at wshi94@stanford.edu

About Winston Shi

Winston Shi was the Managing Editor of Opinions for Volume 245 (February-June 2014). He also served as an opinions and sports columnist, a senior staff writer, and a member of the Editorial Board. A native of Thousand Oaks, California (the one place on the planet with better weather than Stanford), he graduated from Stanford in June 2016 with bachelor's and master's degrees in history. He is currently attending law school, where he preaches the greatness of Stanford football to anybody who will listen, and other people who won't.
  • winter

    1. SV startups don’t provide solutions to problems. They frame it that way as a marketing ploy. (This is perhaps a very poor summary of Morozov’s “solutionism” as I understand it.) In truth, like all businesses, they attempt to detect and capitalize on consumer market opportunities; but meaningful problems do not substantially drive the consumer marketplace.

    2. By their nature, companies are noticeable. That’s the purpose of advertising. And people and the media like talking about fun and distracting things like consumer electronics and apps. So it’s not surprising that we hear a lot about those things.

    3. I appreciate your piece, but I want to make one very strong criticism of it. By their nature, solutionist approaches must appear to fail to solve meaningful problems: if you set out to appear to solve a made-up problem, then only merest chance will permit you to solve a real one. (In fact, to be more precise, a solutionist approach cannot possibly fail (nor, of course, succeed) to solve a meaningful problem, since the approach was not intended to solve one in the first place, but only to appear to, and failure is not possible when action also was not.)

    So here’s my criticism: You seem to be inferring from apparent failures the impossibility of real success. It may well be that we cannot solve all real problems; surely we have known this for all of human history (why else is there prayer?). But as solutionism is nothing other than an advertising conceit that has currency right now, it would be an utter and tragic mistake to infer anything at all about the nature of problem solving from this bubble of solutionism.

  • Winston Shi

    Hi, this is Winston – thank you for responding.

    I believe that while many startups in Silicon Valley may manufacture problems in their advertising or at the very least make mountains out of molehills (akin to Listerine manufacturing the fear of bad breath), the broad belief underpinning solutionism is that technology and policy can solve the problems that do exist. Communism is the most obvious example, but any attempt at a utopia or something similar will do, and Silicon Valley is at times a capitalist version of this. But even trivial (the seemingly manufactured, that is) problems ought to have answers under a solutionist approach, so there is room for both the trivial and the profound.

    Solutionism is both advertising and philosophy. So I don’t believe that you can simply confine the ideology of solutionism to the packaging it uses. It goes deeper than that. Besides, there are plenty of solutionists tackling hard problems. Venter is a case in point.

    Ergo, we are now addressing solutionism as a philosophy that at the very least aspires to coherence. And if you contend, as do I, that “surely we have known this [impossibility of total solutionism] for all of human history”, then you also must acknowledge that real success from a solutionist standpoint is impossible. You only need to prove that one thing is impossible or variously resolved for the entire artifice of solutionism to crumble, whereas solutionism needs to be both all-encompassing and inevitable to bear itself out. So the most limited argument, which I explore, is not that everything is impossible but that not everything is possible in the way that solutionists believe.

    Moreover, much of my piece is devoted to explaining how the concept of “real success” that you argue exists actually doesn’t. The success of the ideals of personal freedom and a free market actually underlines the fact that “real success” is a chimera – people have different views of success, and it would be insensitive at best to attempt to argue that only one version exists or that it always must exist. Solutionism is a farce, but I don’t go any further in my assertions, and that is ultimately what I infer about the limitations of problem solving. I don’t propose any revolutionary thought – rather, this line of philosophy is fairly conservative. It’s not sexy, but here I stand, and I can do no other.

  • winter

    Cool. Thanks for the response.

    In some ways, I probably could be accused of solutionism as I understand you to mean it. I should think about whether the fact that “people have different views of success” means that in fact I need to back away from thinking I can solve the problems in which I’m interested.


  • Winston Shi

    Solutionism implies or at the very least tends to embrace overriding paradigms. Hence my point about uniformity – the illusion of solutions that are universally applicable.

    Nobody’s saying that you can’t try to solve your own problems. I contend only that finding these solutions in not inevitable and that the solutions you find may not necessarily apply to me – and even if they arguably did, it’s still up to me to decide that. Far too often people expect not only that solutions be found but that they be universally accepted.