The Long Tail of Technological Solutionism

They are driven by a pervasive and dangerous ideology that I call “solutionism”: 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.

- Evgeny Morozov, via the New York Times.

This is a familiar theme and one that I’ve resonated with for some time now. When a “happiness sharing app” can get over $1 million to expand essentially yet another photo sharing platform[1], it’s not clear that these are even first-world problems these startups are trying to solve.

The criticism and snarkiness comes pretty easily, but there is something to be said about technology’s ability to make lives easier over the long haul, even if the immediate focus is on the 1% of the world who can afford the latest and greatest. With hardware cheapening over time and software looking for new markets to conquer, technology at scale has a tendency to tickle down to less first world countries and touch the global populace in some form.

Cell phones are the canonical example of a first world product that has made its way around the world; all signs point to the smartphone evolution in doing the same, and in so bringing modern computing to areas of the world that may have never been able to afford a computer. Facebook’s start as an exclusive network at Harvard was about as elitist as you can get – but now it claims market share in the poorest countries and has brought communication in a way that the wider internet could not.

Of course, the eventual commoditization of neat technology does not excuse a lot of the pointlessness and superfluousness[2] that exists in the silicon valley bubble, and there’s little excuse other than to reaffirm the statistic that the vast majority of these startups and their cute apps won’t survive long enough to engage in any sort of tail usage. Let’s be honest and admit that most are in it for the money, that we in the first world have a lot of trouble relating to problems not of our environment and surroundings, and that even if we were sympathetic to more global issues, we wouldn’t have the faintest idea on how to build a sustainable business out of solving them.

So it may be okay to use and root for that huge company to continue to succeed; their global footprint is the long tail of technological advancement that would have the impact that we ourselves cannot provide.

Footnotes    (↑ returns to text)
  1. With the prerequisite lip service paid to big data analysis and gentle hints of monetization.
  2. Apparently this is a word!