By Henrik Skaug Sætra (Last updated April 3rd, 2023)
The subtitle of the book (Technology and Sustainable Development: The Promise and Pitfalls of Techno-solutionism) refers to techno-solutionism. This is a term used by various authors in somewhat different ways, and following the release of the book I have been engaged in discussion about what it is, and perhaps more important what it is not. This page aims to explain how the concept is used in the book. It is also the beginning on further work aimed at exploring both techno-solutionism and its relationship with other concepts, such as techno-optimism, pluralism, unintended consequences, and prometheanism. I begin with a description of how I understand and use the concept, and then turn to important other sources information and use of techno-solutionism.
- Solutionism is a term used to describe an attitude to a wide array of situations that are perceived to involve significant challenges or opportunities. The attitude is characterized by a faith in humans’ ability to identify and implement novel interventions to overcome these challenges and exploit opportunities. Examples include climate change, covid-19, and issues related to discrimination. “Novel interventions” tend to entail radical and unproven action based on theoretical considerations or experiences from smaller-scale interventions or interventions in different contexts. An example could be geoengineering in the form of carbon capture and storage as a response to climate change caused primarily by rising levels of CO2 emissions. The challenges are often quite narrowly defined (e.g. CO2 emissions), and the interventions are aimed at solving that particular challenge in a way that allows us to achieve a particular goal (reduced emissions). Solutionism might entail a reductionist understanding of the problem in question and consequently lead to broader unintended consequences. However, some might adopt a solutionist stance despite serious efforts to understand these consequences, as the alternative to radical intervention is perceived by those with the authority to decide to be worse than the intervention (e.g. geoengineering of various sorts is perceived as beneficial despite high risks and uneven distribution of benefits and harms because the alternative – a radical change of the economic system – is perceived as either worse or impossible). Solutionist interventions often require that individuals, groups, and society change and adjust to the intervention to make it successful. Either through a change in action or through a change in the tolerance for, for example, surveillance, risk, or inequity. For example, covid-19 apps designed to track people and alert those who have been in contact with someone infected can be viewed as a solutionist intervention to allow people and societies not to change behavior while requiring the acceptance of less privacy higher risks related to the gathering of tracking data. Since solutionist interventions tend to be radical and require some form of change or adaption, solutionism is inevitably political and based on some explicit or implicit ideology. Solutionists can either a) deny this and portray their solutions as neutral, or b) acknowledge their own politics or ideology and assert that it is the correct or best position. Solutionism consequently requires the bracketing of values and politics, as this is the only way to arrive at straight forward solutions. Solutionism could be premised on the idea that interventions are of a technical nature, but they need not be. For example, attempts to organize societies or organizations in new ways through, for example, central planning or other forms of political, social, or economic reorganization, could be examples of non-technical solutionism.
- Techno-solutionism is a particular type of solutionism that focuses on the solution potential of technological interventions. In extension, this form of solutionism is tightly related to a faith in science and engineering.
Technological fixes/techno-fixed and social engineering (coming soon)
Techno-optimism and pessimism (coming soon)
Prometheanism and cornucopianism (coming soon)
Political ideologies/theories (coming soon)
Objections to techno-solutionism
The following is a tentative list of some of the main and most obvious objections to solutionism:
- Pluralism objection: Lack of acknowledgement of diversity of values and preferences
- Hubris objection: Complexity and limits of human knowledge will frustrate the efforts of solutionists.
- Holism/interdependency/complexity objection: Interlinkages between domains, levels, issues, etc., necessary entail effects beyond those aimed at, and the objection is based on the idea that these might be detrimental and that the solutionists is somehow wrong to intervene in ways that will have unknown and potentially drastic consequences.
Other usages and definitions of solutionism
The following contains a discussion of some of the various references to “solutionism” in other people’s works. Starting with Wictionary, which is not an authoritative source, we see that “solutionism” is there defined as “The belief that all difficulties have benign solutions, often of a technocratic nature.” This is arguably in line with my definition above, both through its reference to a “belief” and by saying that solutions are often (and thus not always) “of a technocratic nature”. The word does not appear in conventional dictionaries. However, the word has been used for quite some time, and following contains a collection of some examples.
The three first examples are named in Sean F. Johnston’s book Techno-fixers: Origins and implications of technological faith from 2020, in which solutionism gets some attention. First, Samuel P. Huntington used the term in his 1957 book The Soldier and the State. He connects it (as I do above) to conservatism, and writes: “Present in virtually all the strands of the new conservatism were a stress on the limitations of man, an acceptance of institutions as they were, a critique of utopianism and ‘solutionism,’ and a new respect for history and society as against progress and the individual.” Secondly, Edward Honnet used the term in the 1959 book The art of working with people. He writes: “Beware of solutionism — the flabby optimism that there is a simple answer and that it will yield to the magic of a personality, brainstorming, sitting down and talking things over, or other tribal nostrums.” Third, Daniel Fox used the term in the 1963 book Engines of culture. He writes: “The rejection of politics among intellectuals often takes the subtler form of what I call technocratic solutionism. Experts who practice solutionism insist that problems have technical solutions even if they are the result of conflicts about ideas, values and interests.”
Moving on, we see that D. P. Baker, in the 1984 book The Library Media Program and the School, uses solutionism to refer to a “hankering” or “passion”, and states: “Solutionism is just a belief that for every problem there exists a solution; and successful persons are those who solve problems.”
In 2005, Gilles Paquet wrote in The New Geo-Governance: A Baroque Approach of solutionism: “The ‘liberal constitutional project’ (as Stephen Carter labels it) is predicated on the belief that only the central government has the capacity to appreciate the nature of today’s problems, and to suggest meaningful solution. ‘Solutionism’ or ‘ultrasolutionism’ is indeed the name of the game: issues are interpreted as puzzles to which there is a solution, rather than problems to which there may be a response.” (Paquet 2004b).
Pacquet thus describes solutionism in general, and shows that it can be meaningfully distinguished from techno-solutionism.
Much current usage of the term follows Evgeny Morozov’s usage of the term in his 2014 book To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism. While my definition and those references above refer to an attitude (or hankering/passion), Morozov is often assumed to have turned it into a fallacy. The subtitle states as much, and in the chapter “Solutionism and its discontents” he develops his own use of the term. This is how he describes it: “I call the ideology that legitimizes and sanctions such aspirations “solutionism.” I borrow this unabashedly pejorative term from the world of architecture and urban planning, where it has come to refer to an unhealthy preoccupation with sexy, monumental, and narrow-minded solutions—the kind of stuff that wows audiences at TED Conferences—to problems that are extremely complex, fluid, and contentious. These are the kinds of problems that, on careful examination, do not have to be defined in the singular and all-encompassing ways that “solutionists” have defined them; what’s contentious, then, is not their proposed solution but their very definition of the problem itself. Design theorist Michael Dobbins has it right: solutionism presumes rather than investigates the problems that it is trying to solve, reaching “for the answer before the questions have been fully asked.” How problems are composed matters every bit as much as how problems are resolved. … Solutionism, thus, is not just a fancy way of saying that for someone with a hammer, everything looks like a nail; it’s not just another riff on the inapplicability of “technological fixes” to “wicked problems” (a subject I address at length in The Net Delusion). It’s not only that many problems are not suited to the quick-and-easy solutionist tool kit. It’s also that what many solutionists presume to be “problems” in need of solving are not problems at all; a deeper investigation into the very nature of these “problems” would reveal that the inefficiency, ambiguity, and opacity—whether in politics or everyday life—that the newly empowered geeks and solutionists are rallying against are not in any sense problematic. Quite the opposite: these vices are often virtues in disguise. That, thanks to innovative technologies, the modern-day solutionist has an easy way to eliminate them does not make them any less virtuous.”
However, the definition of solutionism and the evaluation and critique of it, are two different things, and in the definition presented at the top of the page, solutionism is not defined as a fallacy but as an attitude. The term could be taken to be pejorative, but it need be, and as defined above it does not necessarily entail a fallacy in terms of facts or logic. We might criticise solutionism and argue that we believe that it is an unfortunate attitude with negative consequences if acted upon, but others might conceivably hold opposite and logically consistent views.
Evan Selinger builds on Morozov in the 2023 Slate article The Delusion at the Center of the A.I. Boom: Rampant solutionism. Here he describes solutionism: “A term coined by the technology critic Evgeny Morozov, technological solutionism is the mistaken belief that we can make great progress on alleviating complex dilemmas, if not remedy them entirely, by reducing their core issues to simpler engineering problems. It is seductive for three reasons. First, it’s psychologically reassuring. It feels good to believe that in a complicated world, tough challenges can be met easily and straightforwardly. Second, technological solutionism is financially enticing. It promises an affordable, if not cheap, silver bullet in a world with limited resources for tackling many pressing problems. Third, technological solutionism reinforces optimism about innovation—particularly the technocratic idea that engineering approaches to problem-solving are more effective than alternatives that have social and political dimensions. … But if it sounds too good to be true—a new ending to a bad show!—we know that it probably is. Solutionism doesn’t work because it misrepresents problems and misunderstands why they arise. Solutionists make these mistakes because they disregard or downplay critical information, which often is about context. To get that information, you need to hear from people who have the relevant knowledge and experience.”
Finally, literature on the use of – and ideas behind – solutionism related to crypto can be found on this Crypto Syllabus page on solutionism.
Johnston’s book Techno-fixers: Origins and implications of technological faith (2020) also contains a note on the attempt to “appropriate” solutionism: “Usage of the term ‘solutionism’ initially referred to ‘confidence that solutions can be found’ and described a generic optimism related to American international and economic policy. It has been more recently appropriated to label the philosophical (or at least marketing) view of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. See Morozov, To Save Everything, Click Here. As argued in chapter 5, such groups are, in fact, the inheritors of a longer and more nuanced tradition.
This page will be alive for a while, as I grapple with the final form of the definition. I want to thank Evan Selinger for engaging with me on this topic, and for being the inspiration for a more in-depth description of the concept than what can be found in the book.