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There Is No Uber for Preventing Injustice

Silicon Valley’s “solutionism” isn’t solving our biggest problems

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

When social activist DeRay Mckesson was arrested at a Black Lives Matter protest in July following the killing of Alton Sterling, racial tensions had just hit a fever pitch. If you watched a livestream of the protest or saw photos the next day, you may have noticed the police in riot gear or the passionate cries from the crowd. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff noticed this:

“Yes that is a @Twitter @blackbirds logo. Amazing to see tech as vehicle for social change. Respect.”

A day before Mckesson’s arrest, Twitter’s @blackbirds, an internal group of black employees who “celebrate and encourage diverse perspectives,” sent out a message announcing the return of its Black Lives Matter emoji — a tribute to Sterling and also Philando Castile. The same week, Facebook put a massive “Black Lives Matter” sign on its headquarters — which raised some eyebrows, given that the company had to tell employees months earlier that it was inappropriate to write “All Lives Matter” on the walls.

The technology industry has long worked to improve our lives in ways both mundane and meaningful — but with that ambition comes hubris. And right now, we’re witnessing one of its ugliest forms. Police brutality and racial injustice are more visible than ever, and the media is using all of Big Tech’s tools — Facebook Live, Twitter and Periscope, Google, and YouTube — to expose it. But the industry has an abysmal track record in terms of marketing to or hiring anyone other than white men. So the tweets, emoji, and public displays from tech companies following a series of black deaths is uncomfortable at best.

Silicon Valley was once just a place where computers were designed and search engines mechanized. It’s so much more than that now. Google X’s moonshots program aims to inspire big dreams in an increasingly depressing society (though it has its skeptics). Facebook has a plan to give the entire world internet (though everything comes at a cost). And Apple is moving into a spaceship. Whatever the issue, there is no problem too big and no fix too insignificant to spur a new feature, launch a startup, or incite a conceptual revolution.

There’s a name for this ideology: solutionism. Evgeny Morozov, a leading scholar on the subject, described it in The New York Times in 2013. “[It’s] an intellectual pathology that recognizes problems as problems based on just one criterion, whether they are ‘solvable’ with a nice and clean technological solution at our disposal,” Morozov wrote. “Thus, forgetting and inconsistency become ‘problems’ simply because we have the tools to get rid of them — and not because we’ve weighed all the philosophical pros and cons.”

Morozov, the author of To Save Everything, Click Here, is one of many people pushing back on tech’s fix-it attitude. He writes: “In the last few years, Silicon Valley’s favorite slogan has quietly changed from ‘Innovate or Die!’ to ‘Ameliorate or Die!’ In the grande scheme of things, what exactly is being improved is not very important; being able to change things, to get humans to behave in more responsible and sustainable ways, to maximize efficiency, is all that matters.”

The solutionism response to the murder of black people is revealing: If a startup could, it would pitch an Uber for Preventing Senseless Killing. Big Tech’s inability to recognize the ongoing reality of police killings reinforces the problems — lack of empathy creates lack of understanding. And lack of understanding leads to thoughtless business ventures.

At the intersection of being white, male, wealthy, and heralded as a problem-solving pioneer is a level of self-confidence normally reserved for superstar athletes and actors. A god complex has gripped these entrepreneurs, who cannot come to terms with the notion that they can’t engineer a technological solution to an ethical dilemma. For instance, there is a slew of products designed to keep people safe from problems like sexual assault and date rape. The products, of course, aren’t actively preventing these things — they can only thwart them, since they aren’t targeting the actions and behaviors at the roots of the problems. So it can obscure the problem with technology, rather than magnify it. One of these supposed solutions, a nail polish designed to change color when exposed to date-rape drugs, turned out to not work, leaving users of the product less safe, rather than protected.

Andrew Leonard, a longtime tech writer, describes the root of the solution-driven phenomenon like this: “Another way of phrasing [solutionism] is the startup founders are trying to ‘scratch their itch’ — solve a problem that is specific to them personally … you end up with Silicon Valley tackling mostly problems that bother white and/or affluent techies.” Think of issues like commuting and parking in big cities — both get plenty of attention. There’s a progression to this thinking, and then you get startups trying their hand at combatting homelessness, sometimes in disparaging ways.

Leonard credits some of his ideas about solutionism to a 2013 George Packer feature in The New Yorker. “It suddenly occurred to me that the hottest tech start-ups are solving all the problems of being twenty years old, with cash on hand, because that’s who thinks them up,” Packer writes. The mentality driving solutionism is as visible as it is flawed.

Solutionism manifests itself in other, less inflammatory ways, too. We’ve seen it in count-your-everything fitness tools. These watches and apps do more than count our steps; they work to inflate our egos, making us feel like we’re accomplishing more than we actually are. There’s a clearer path to our dream bodies if we know we took 500 more steps today than the day before.

Fitness trackers and the quantified-self movement persuade us to think of ourselves as businesses that simply need maintenance. In a paper titled Fatism, Self-Monitoring, and the Pursuit of Healthiness, Antonio Maturo finds that the massive amount of personal data these devices and programs make available to us cause us to look for issues in ourselves and ways to “fix” things.

In the paper, Maturo briefly describes Morozov’s ideas about solutionism, and how they relate to the increasing interest in the quantified-self movement: “More broadly, through quantification it is easy to transform complex problems into a set of simpler issues and find a (partial) solution for each of them.” Maturo briefly describes Morozov’s critiques of solutionism: “This is not a bad thing per se, yet when applied to dramatic social problems it can produce false answers.” In short, we are not businesses or corporations or gadgets — we’re humans. But a cocktail of narcissism, technology, and solutionism start to make us think about ourselves, and people in general, in ways that are more mechanized — less than human.

Some businesses repeatedly try to solve major, systemic problems, and in the process, find themselves thinking of people as broken businesses — this has been a persistent criticism of Airbnb. The home-away renting business has had major issues with racist behavior from users who’ve discriminated against black potential renters; it recently hired former attorney general Eric Holder to help create antidiscrimination policies, and the company held a nationally televised civil rights event at the Democratic National Convention. These efforts are significant, but the larger issue — that people are racist and will exercise this point of view — isn’t mitigated by linking up with BET. And these efforts — as well as the efforts of other tech companies — shouldn’t overshadow the fact that they are run mostly by white men and in many cases marketing to people at a certain pay grade in certain cities.

If we start to believe that technology can cure a societal sickness like police brutality, we shirk our responsibility to wrestle with these moral shortcomings ourselves and delay progress — we apply gauze when we need surgery.

Critics of solutionism say that this misplaced zeal can have serious consequences if it goes unchallenged and unchecked. This is more than a quirk; this is a social phenomenon with an observable pattern of tech-splaining in the face of societal flaws. It isn’t the T-shirt in the protest photo that matters. It’s who’s wearing it.