Silicon Valley wants to sell us solutions—but are we sure there’s a problem in the first place?

We’ve got 99 problems, and apparently the whole world is one.
We’ve got 99 problems, and apparently the whole world is one.
Image: Reuters/Albert Gea
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In Matt Damon’s 2016 commencement speech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he tells graduates that “this world has some problems we need you to drop everything and solve.” He rattles off at least 12, including economic inequality, the media, our political system, the banking industry, institutional racism, and water. In his closing remarks, he cites former US president Bill Clinton’s words—“turn toward the problems you see”—and leaves them with this question: “What’s the problem you’ll try to solve?”

Notice a pattern? In his svelte 3674 word speech, Damon uses the word problem 19 times, solve seven times, and solution three times.

Listen closely and you’ll hear his sentiment echoed almost everywhere, in the news, in the business world, and in our personal lives. Economic growth is claimed to be the “solution to all problems.” Therapy now has a specifically problem-solving modality. Mothers can find “solutions to childrearing problems,” designers can engage in “creative problem solving,” and Medicare is the “solution to America’s healthcare problems.” I call this the “problematization of the world“: the radical transformation of our way of thinking such that we come to see society as consisting of discrete problems to be fixed and solutions to be implemented.

But many of the problems that occupy our attention are not amenable to problem/solution thinking. For example, optimists believe that climate change can be solved before civilization collapses, while pessimists fear that it cannot—yet neither considers whether climate change may be some other kind of thing than a problem. It’s what philosopher Gilbert Ryle would call a “category mistake.”

The world writ large is not a problem to be solved. And this kind of thinking is precisely what got us into this mess in the first place.

The two kinds of problems

The concept of a solution seduces us into believing that the world comes split into a binary, and we just have to find the light switch in a dark room to fix it. The truth is that reality is ongoing and open-ended, our understanding of it always provisional. To believe that we can ever have a final or definitive understanding of reality is to court confusion, not to say disappointment.

The problematization of the world comes in two varieties. The first I’ll call the Get Rid of It view. We begin by zeroing in on an undesirable, unpleasant, or bad state of affairs—a toothache, extreme heat, economic stagnation, a biased media, marital woes—and then try to get rid of that state as quickly as possible. You want the toothache to go away right now, not in an hour. You need to smooth things over with your partner tonight, not tomorrow. And you want your bank account to swell, well, yesterday. Not only do you want to get rid of the bad, you also want things to return to at least a neutral state. You don’t just want your knee to stop hurting—you want it to become functional again. You don’t just want the network to not be compromised— you want it to return to equilibrium.

The second is the Give It an Upgrade view. According to this mentality, something is fine as it is—but it could be enhanced or upgraded to become ever better. A woman thinks her breasts are too small. Parents worry their quiet toddler won’t grow up to be a gregarious adult. An expensive music festival feels a little lackluster. Technical solutions—breast implants, socializing classes, microdosing on mushrooms—all imply a quiet, ambient sense of dissatisfaction with reality as it is, as well as a refusal to inquire into what is animating this dissatisfaction.

The problem/solution nexus is a form of delusion that places human beings as the masters of the universe, asserting that we can solve anything by submitting it to sheer will and ingenuity. However, the universe is much vaster and more intricate than our metaphysical hubris would lead us to believe, and Earth itself will go on, even if homo sapiens fails to make the transition to a renewable-energy future. Humility, not hubris, is what reality teaches the attentive student.

Finding our way out of problematization

We can be much more thoughtful, and now is our chance. The first step is to understand the world and ourselves as fully as we can. We need to set aside simplistic, hazardous constructions of problems and solutions, not to mention the sophisticated frameworks built on this shaky foundation. From there, we need to learn to ask wide-ranging, fundamental questions about life, and seek answers that give rise to further questions instead of blindly seeking a single answer.

How we de-problematize our problems depends on the way we think about what arises in our lives. Of the Get Rid of It view, we can ask, “Is it really true that a certain state is undesirable, bad, or unpleasant? And even if it is, must we desire to get rid of it, or could we devote ourselves to inquiring deeply into what surrounds it?” Of the Give it an Upgrade view, we can ask, “Is it true that we need an upgrade? Are physical beauty, amortality, superhuman powers really worth having? And why is the world, at all levels, simply not good enough for us?”

The world is a strange, mysterious, and wonderfully complex place. By suspending our need for answers in this fluid state of being, we can gain a deeper, more nuanced understanding of our reality.