Technical solutions generally don’t solve social problems

January 25, 2014 by Joshua
in Awareness, Nature

With a PhD in physics, a few patents, and several start-ups to my name, I have some experience with developing and building technology to solve problems. I consider knowing the limits of what technology can solve as important as how to use technology.

Social problems, I find, aren’t amenable to technological solutions. The big one I see is global warming. I see people suggest technologies to deflect sunlight, beam energy from space, and so on. They may contribute to some solution, but ultimately they can only address small parts of a system including population size, the economy, the environment, ecology, and so on. Each area is complex, suggesting simple solutions wouldn’t solve their problems, let alone a problem involving all of them.

When I see someone trying to solve a system with a magic bullet, it usually doesn’t take long to find flaws in it, and more importantly in the perspective of the person proposing the solution.

Alternatively, if I see a complex system, and social systems are usually more complex than technical systems, I look for systems-type solutions.

Or as I learned in shop class in school: the right tool for the right job.

Over time, I’ll add to this post as I come across examples of attempts to solve social problems with technological solutions that misunderstand the problem.

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2 responses on “Technical solutions generally don’t solve social problems

  1. Can you mention some social solutions that have solved social problems? Aside from things that have resulted in government laws.

    • The first thing that comes to mind is smoking and the change in seeing it becoming unhealthy — not just no longer cool, but repellent. The change resulted in laws, but I think that change happened before the laws.

      I’m not sure why you restrict resulting in laws. Many of the following social changes seem significant and were well established before laws:

      • Gay rights (still a long way to go)
      • Increased racial equality (still a long way to go)
      • India’s independence from England
      • Opposition to the Vietnam War
      • Many other civil rights and struggles for independence (South Africa, the U.S., etc)
      • Sugar is becoming seen as unhealthy
      • Same with hydrogenated oil
      • Fitness, among some groups (not universal)

      Those are the first examples that come to mind. The social changes didn’t exist in a vacuum. They led to legislation, military actions, and so on, but it seems to me that their leading to laws and so on indicates their success.

      Does that answer your question?

      I’m curious where your question comes from. Do you mind elaborating on it and your interests in asking it?

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