What solutionists miss.

What is Solutionism and why it is flawed?

The last decade has witnessed dramatic technological progress. Smart technologies have been an irreplaceable part of our life, from iPhone to self-driving cars. A great number of aspects were improved by technology. For example, online courses provide education opportunities for students from all backgrounds, sensors installed in trash bins reduce garbage-collection costs, self-driving cars and algorithm give an outlook of a safer road. This list can be extended on and on.

Solutionism interprets issues as puzzles to which there is a solution, rather than problems to which there may be a response.

—– Evgeny Morozov

Some believe that technologies can provide solutions to all difficulties and the potential to improve everything. Such ideology is called solutionism, this term was first used by Morozov with its origin from the architecture, referring to an ‘unhealthy preoccupation with sexy, monumental, and narrow-minded solutions’

Bringing new technological innovation as a solution is not always satisfactory. Moreover, the results brought by new technologies will generate unexpected problems. For example, Introducing the online learning system focuses too much on learning facts, but ignores the training of using such knowledge which is easier to conduct in classroom study. In Neil Postman’s six questions to ask of a technology, measures guided by solutionism often fail to identify the key issues in the problem, as they are complex social events rather than purely technical problem.

  • 1. What is the problem to which this technology is the solution?
  • 2. Whose problem is it?
  • 3. Which people and what institutions might be most seriously harmed by a technological solution?
  • 4. What new problems might be created because we have solved this problem?
  • 5. What sort of people and institutions might acquire special economic and political power because of technological change?
  • 6. What changes in language are being enforced by new technologies, and what is being gained and lost by such changes?

ETC as an example

Solutionism fails in many aspects; The following example works to illustrate the invisible standards and infrastructure underlined in the technology innovation. Electronic toll collection (ETC) on highway is a device used for charging vehicles automatically without stopping. This idea was first put up by Nobel Economics Prize winner William Vickrey, and this system has significantly reduced traffic congestions and shown successes in many countries. However, the promotion of this technology in China came across obstacles. ETC was both introduced to China and Japan at the end of last century. But in 2011, usage of ECT was 87% in Japan but 30% in China. Until 2020, the figure increased to 66%. It is not rare to see few cars pass though ETC-only lanes while there is a long queue for manual toll lane.  

A toll gate in Changzhou, Jiangsu province, August 18, 2018

So, what stays in the way of popularization of ETC in China? Three reasons can be listed out in terms of Neil Postman’s criteria:

  • Transformation of payment methods in public

As a must have in some countries, credit cards are not popular in Chinese market. Mainland China did not produce its first credit card until 1985. Majority of Chinese still used cash as their main payment method in 2012, only 40% of retail payment was through cards. The transformation of payment habits is a long process, which further requires the popularization of card machines and raising public awareness of card use.

  • Lack of standardized infrastructure

Implementation of ETC was not merely a technical issue, a careful consideration of users and prior requirements was required.  Apart from the card problem, different charging standards on ETC in different provinces made the system function less effectively and extra waiting time was even needed. When cross-province journey was made, some technical problems occurred which made the waiting time on ETC lanes longer. Also, the financial policy bonding one car and one card together added to the inconvenience of using ETC as some drivers with multiple cars need to apply for a new credit card to use ETC services.

  • Neglection of drivers from different backgrounds

Credit card issue in China was not easy ten years ago, a proof of minimum income or a deposit was needed in some banks, which showed potential bias towards certain group. Research has shown that income and education level had a positive effect on the likelihood of credit card ownership. There are a great number of Chinese truck drivers from low-income families, having a credit card is difficult for such group, let alone using ETC services on highway.

See the invisible

Standardization is an important part in innovation, but not as visible as other social problems such as gender and race.  Scientists look into the future, but easily overlook the sociotechnical standards. To use vaccine passports during covid time, a great deal of elderlies cannot have access to public spaces simply because they do not have smart phones. Nordmann (2021) made an insightful claim about living in the current technological world: ‘Sleepwalking through our technological world, we need to be awakened by a luddite experience.’ I am not claiming that innovations are bad, and people should escape from modern technological life to a world without technology at all. Rather, I am claiming when a new technology innovation is brought out, be an epistemological Amish, cautious to adoption of new technology: Be mindful about what is happening in the technology world and the hypes proposed in the seemingly perfect pictures.

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