Beyond "solutionism": what role can technology play in solving deep social problems

Ethan Zuckerman — formerly of Global Voices, now at the MIT Center for Civic Media — has spent his career trying to find thoughtful, effective ways to use technology as a lever to make positive social change (previously), but that means that he also spends a lot of time in the company of people making dumb, high-profile, destructive suggestions for using technology to "solve" problems in ways that make them much worse.

Recently, Contently co-founder Shane Snow published a terrible essay proposing that prisons should be refashioned as a series of solitary confinement cells with Solyent feeds and Oculus VR headsets as a way of "solving" the "problem" of prisons, which, in his mind, is prison rape.

Prison rape is a terrible problem. People who made rape jokes about Brock Turner's 6-month prison stint were effectively advocating for punitive rape, the practice of which is a stain on the American conscience and a human rights abuse that every one of us should reject.

But prison rape is not the "problem" with America and its penal system. America imprisons more people — in real numbers and as a proportion of its population — than any other country in the world's history. It confines a mounting proportion of those people to private prisons where there are virtually no counselling, retraining, addiction recovery, or continuing education services. Worse: these private prisons divert some of the profits they reap by subjecting prisoners to inhumane conditions into lobbying for longer incarceration terms for more people.

Snow's essay isn't just a bad solution to the problem of prison rape (it is, a very, very bad one), it's also attempting to solve the wrong problem..

Zuckerman's take on Snow is a really important read, a nuanced and useful look at how, when and which technology can help with deep social problems. It takes on the "solutionist" critique proposed by people like Morozov, who attributes dangerous naivete to people who see technology as an important element of social change, and proposes a methodology beyond nihilist rejection of tech as part of programs of social reform.

The problem with the solutionist critique is that it tends to remove technological innovation from the problem-solver's toolkit. In fact, technological development is often a key component in solving complex social and political problems, and new technologies can sometimes open a previously intractable problem. The rise of inexpensive solar panels may be an opportunity to move nations away from a dependency on fossil fuels and begin lowering atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, much as developments in natural gas extraction and transport technologies have lessened the use of dirtier fuels like coal.

But it's rare that technology provides a robust solution to a social problem by itself. Successful technological approaches to solving social problems usually require changes in laws and norms, as well as market incentives to make change at scale. I installed solar panels on the roof of my house last fall. Rapid advances in panel technology made this a routine investment instead of a luxury, and the existence of competitive solar installers in our area meant that market pressures kept costs low. But the panels were ultimately affordable because federal and state legislation offered tax rebates for their purchase, and because Massachusetts state law rewards me with solar credits for each megawatt I produce, which I can sell to utilities through an online marketplace, because they are legally mandated to produce a percentage of their total power output via solar generation. And while there are powerful technological, market and legal forces pushing us towards solar energy, the most powerful may be the social, normative pressure of seeing our neighbors install solar panels, leaving us feeling ike we weren't doing our part.

My Yale students who tried to use technology as their primary lever for reforming US prisons had a difficult time. One team offered the idea of an online social network that would help recently released prisoners connect with other ex-offenders to find support, advice and job opportunities in the outside world. Another looked at the success of Bard College's remarkable program to help inmates earn BA degrees and wondered whether online learning technologies could allow similar efforts to reach thousands more prisoners. But many of the other promising ideas that arose in our workshops had a technological component – given the ubiquity of mobile phones, why can't ex-offenders have their primary contact with their parole officers via mobile phones? Given the rise of big data techniques used for "smart policing", can we review patterns of policing, identifying and eliminating cases where officers are overfocusing on some communities?

Zuckerman's piece is so good, I can't resist also adding this (but go read the whole thing):

Disability rights activists have demanded "nothing about us without us", a slogan that demands that policies should not be developed without the participation of those intended to benefit from those policies. Design philosophies like participatory design and codesign bring this concept to the world of technology, demanding that technologies designed for a group of people be designed and built, in part, by those people. Codesign challenges many of the assumptions of engineering, requiring people who are used to working in isolation to build broad teams and to understand that those most qualified to offer a technical solution may be least qualified to identify a need or articulate a design problem. Codesign is hard and frustrating, but it's also one of the best ways to ensure that you're solving the right problem, rather than imposing your preferred solution on a situation.

On the other pole from codesign is an approach to engineering we might understand as "Make things better by making better things". This school of thought argues that while mobile phones were designed for rich westerners, not for users in developing nations, they've become one of the transformative technologies for the developing world. Frustratingly, this argument is valid, too. Many of the technologies we benefit from weren't designed for their ultimate beneficiaries, but were simply designed well and adopted widely. Shane Snow's proposal is built in part on this perspective – Soylent was designed for geeks who wanted to skip meals, not for prisoners in solitary confinement, but perhaps it might be preferable to Nutraloaf or other horrors of the prison kitchen.

I'm not sure how we resolve the dichotomy of "with us" versus "better things". I'd note that every engineer I've ever met believes what she's building is a better thing. As a result, strategies that depend on finding the optimum solutions often rely on choice-rich markets where users can gravitate towards the best solution. In other words, they don't work very well in an environment like prison, where prisoners are unlikely to be given a choice between Snow's isolation cells and the prison as it currently stands, and are even less likely to participate in designing a better prison.

The worst thing I read this year, and what it taught me… or Can we design sociotechnical systems that don't suck?
[Ethan Zuckerman]