When Solutions Are the Problem

One trait of Silicon Valley culture is their predilection to move to solutions and talk about innovation before or instead of talking about problems. Solutions and innovations get investment. Problems don’t.

Rather than talking about poverty, they invent Uber, which does provide some new options for work, but which in and of itself does not solve the poverty problem, and may actually make it worse.

Rather than talking about the problems caused by bad health information and attempting to carefully recalibrate the system so that it’s more equitable and inclusive, they invest in solutions like Watson or Meta, which so far have not helped, and are unlikely to benefit anyone but the most-privileged if they ever work, making them just another problem to be solved later.

Rather than wrestling with the dirty work of gatekeeping users and information like real editors and publishers, they let everything through in the guise of a “neutral platform,” and learn the hard way that while they were rolling out this solution, others were willing to carefully exploit their laziness to create real problems for society.

Addressing any problem without the first move being to create a solution or an innovation would mean actually tackling core issues, not just writing some code, spending some money, or declaring some policy.

Our community has imprinted with Silicon Valley strongly for a while — we talk platforms, innovation, and solutions — and this has led to adopting some of these same bad mental habits. For example, OA is a solution, but we never really talk about fundamentally addressing the problem it is intended to solve — ignorance and information inequity. Talking about that problem is much more complicated, as you have to talk about literacy, customs, economics, power dynamics, social justice, and other tough topics. Proposing OA without addressing these other thornier issues borders on the irresponsible when you look at it that way. In fact, it seems that ignorance, anti-science attitudes, and information inequities have all gotten worse since this solution was dreamed up.

In a recent interview on Kara Swisher’s Recode podcast, author Anand Giridharadas (“Winners Take All”) describes the difference between approaching problems rather than rushing to a solution. At first, his analogy confused me, but it became clear as he continued:

I make the following analogy to people, which is, some kinds of problems are like engines that need to be tweaked. Right? And there are many problems that are analogous to that. You turn this dial, you turn this, you tighten that and you fix the engine. Other types of problems are like crime scenes. A crime scene is a very different kind of problem than an engine that’s not working. You don’t show up at a crime scene and say, “You know what? Let’s just move forward. What’s done is done. Let’s just [clean this up].” Right? That’s a preposterous response to a crime scene.

A crime scene . . . you have to first look backwards. “Who did this? How did this happen? Where is the person who did this? How do we help the person to whom this has been done?”

Well, part of my argument is, if you look at some problems we have in our society and if you say we have a public school system where the teachers, if they were matched better with the neediest students, you’d have better outcomes. Yeah, that’s an engine problem. Great. Awesome. You can have an algorithm do that. . . .

But a lot of social problems are more like a crime scene. What men have done to women over hundreds of years is more analogous to a crime scene than an engine that’s out of whack. What white people have done to black people in this country is more analogous to a crime scene than to an engine. Frankly, the American economy that has allowed the very few to corner almost all the benefits of the future for the last 30 or 40 years for itself, that’s more like a crime scene than an engine that’s out of whack.

So, if you are addressing yourself to the problem of equality of women or rights for African Americans, how do you actually build an economy that’s more inclusive? Just getting in a solving mode is a kind of posture that favors power.

What has created ignorance and information inequality are deep, intricate, and longitudinal policy, economic, and social trends that aren’t solved by making articles free. As Giridharadas says elsewhere in the interview, making a very uncomfortable but important point:

. . . many of the winners in America get that kind of relationship where they’re happy to throw down scraps to the powerless, but they don’t want to live in a world in which they’re not powerless anymore.

Is OA just “scraps to the powerless”? It’s troubling to think of it that way, but in the realm of creating public science information, it feels akin to that. Free articles are pursued in the guise of an innovation and a solution, but the problems remain unaddressed, and are perhaps whitewashed by the feeling of generosity (a term Giridharadas also finds troubling, as it denotes power and pity, rather than respect and justice).

Another way Silicon Valley avoids addressing real problems is to talk about innovation. Giridharadas has another interesting critique of this attitude, contrasting innovation with progress:

I’m much more interested in the word “progress.” The reality is, we’ve had a tremendous amount of innovation over the last 40 years. Half of Americans, the bottom half of Americans, 117 million Americans, literally got no more money in their paycheck as a result of 40 years of innovation. We don’t have an innovation shortage, we have a progress shortage.

I remember when Harold Varmus introduced the first major OA proposal with E-Biomed. I asked him directly what he was trying to do with it. His answer? It was about innovation to see what the Internet might do to publishing. E-Biomed was his solution. He didn’t want to discuss the problems and how these came about and the complicated path toward unraveling them in pursuit of justice and long-term societal benefit. He didn’t want to lose any power, but rather renew it through his solution. He had a solution to impose on the world. He called it innovation. The problems would have taken too much time and entailed too much risk to power to address.

Contrast this to BMJ’s patient peer-review initiative, which was arrived at after a long period considering a set of problems around the quality, safety, value, and sustainability of health systems. Putting patients at the center like this is reminiscent of the shift Mayo Clinic and others have used to address these problems, as well. Such changes increase the power of patients in the system (peer review, medical care), and diminish the power of the authorities in exchange.

Giridharadas’ book outlines how elites spend time at Davos and Aspen under the pretense of doing good while they sit atop vast fortunes they shelter from taxation through various charity-based dodges. This makes them feel good, but they never consider doing less harm to begin with — paying their fair share of taxes, having lower salaries, expanding economic opportunity for others, ensuring environmental quality for generations, funding infrastructure and education sufficiently, and more. Instead, they — through action or inaction — hoard power and wealth, wreck democracies, degrade the environment, and gut public education, and then give a few billion here and there to assuage their guilt. Even Jeff Bezos’ recent move to raise wages for low-paid workers to $15/hour is small recompense for most. Donations and wages barely above the poverty level are akin to bandaids for bullet holes at this point.

It’s odd to say, but it may be in this era that if you are part of the solution, you are part of the problem.