Scientism, Solutionism, and Hackathons Pt.2

(Read Pt.1 here)

“Solutionism presumes rather than investigates the problem it is trying to solve, reaching for the answer before the questions have been fully asked.” – Michael Dobbins

My last post left off talking about how scientism relates to technologism, which in turn relates to solutionism. I believe that the commonality between these three is a near total belief in systematic, orderly approaches to problems, and the failure to acknowledge nuance, pure subjectivity, and comparative ethics.

First, there is the orderly approach to problems. City Atlas made this post which riffed off of Sasaki’s piece I mentioned last time.

Peo­ple seek short­cuts to hard prob­lems. Put another way by David Owen in an essay in the Wall Street Jour­nal, “[W]e already know more than enough, and we have for a long time. We just don’t like the answers.”

The rea­son for this is that the answers are some­times ugly. If we can cre­ate a pro­gram that allows us to geolo­cate road­kill, we con­sider our­selves smarter, hav­ing dis­cov­ered an elec­tronic “solu­tion” to this prob­lem plagu­ing soci­ety. We can sit back, happy that we used our incred­i­ble intel­li­gence to tackle an issue with­out even leav­ing the house. But what we, as a soci­ety, really need if these “solu­tions” are to become tan­gi­ble, is some­one who is will­ing to go out and actu­ally scrape a flat­tened squir­rel off of the side of the street.

This sentiment is pretty close to Stephen Duncomb’s thoughts on what he terms “ether activism” – when we throw out media activist strategies whose main goal is raising awareness, or merely providing the spectacle of a new narrative in contrast to the status quo. Civic apps can be like this – the products of a hackathon draw from really compelling concepts like big data or open government, with the idealistic notion that people are making an effort to produce something meaningful (versus nothing at all). But change is hard, and Duncomb believes that these transformative spectacles or narratives (“I Have a Dream”) “really has to be tied into on-the-ground organizing, and very specific programs. ” During the Civil Rights era, social movements followed the spectacles of Birmingham and King’s speeches. The Black Panthers may be remembered for their militancy, but their substance was in the social programs they ran in Chicago and other cities, such as Free Breakfast for Children.

Civic apps are media activism. The products of socially conscious hackathons are idealistically intended to bring people together to work on issues in the public interest, without presuming a consensus on policy, strategy, or the systemic problems behind those issues.  But the solutionism that happens in that context is a descendent of the technologist culture that spawned it, which is in turn a child of scientism. It is the presumption that we either understand an issue enough to create an effective response utilizing tools that are “safe” – like the methodology of scientists, the work of programers and civic hackers are objective, impersonal and easily subject to review. Like digital media itself, it is easily replicated, indexed, and modified. It relies on static results (or results that can be projected within reason).

Going back to the Pinker / humanities scholars debate, Ross Douhat believes that this method dictates a utilitarian worldview, and points out that “Pinker seems to have trouble imagining any reasoning person disagreeing about either the moral necessity of ‘maximizing human flourishing’ or the content of what ‘flourishing’ actually means — even though recent history furnishes plenty of examples and a decent imagination can furnish many more.” People and society cannot be quantified so cleanly. Katherine Hayles’s  “condition of virtuality” is about how there is a cultural perception” that “material objects are interpenetrated by information patterns”; the perception “finds instantiation in an array of powerful technologies.” At the same time, media and technology is not just an extension of the world, but an “institution”: after they are brought into our culture they become part of a reflexive feedback loop, and they change the culture that invented them.

In one of my interviews while researching this recently, I talked with someone who has been researching and working with data science, who had some qualms about in the future, if we allow the determinations of big data to interpenetrate our culture, how this might modify human behavior and society. As a metaphor, we can think about how one drives in the lines on the road – perhaps the car is capable of driving anywhere, over corners, perpendicular to the road, but we drive in the lines because we are encultured to doing so. The norms of traffic being what they are, only the inept would disobey the rules. Is there a possible data hegemony in our future? We can only hope not, because while traffic laws change the way we drive, the the utilitarianism of virtuality and scientism could change the nature of what it is to be human.

Gram Slattery has a great set of reasons why the humanities are still important, and I think it’s easy to see how those perspectives could inform technologist products and civic hacks:

Happiness and fulfillment don’t arise solely from indicators calculated by the World Bank, the U.S. Government, the IMF, and various NGOs. These indicators are a big piece of the puzzle — that’s why the social and hard sciences are so valuable — but they’ll never soothe our eternal angsts and self-doubts, or answer our most pressing existential questions.

That’s where the humanities come in.

How do reconcile our sense of autonomy with a world dominated by Big Data and big corporations? How do we harmonize our desire to live meaningful, purposeful lives with the knowledge that the bureaucracies, municipalities, countries, and companies that we’re part of existed before us and will exist long after us — with the knowledge that these structures are only growing and that our contributions are only becoming more insignificant with the passage of time?

When addressing these questions, Pinker would apparently put his faith in “cognitive psychology,” or biological analyses of the brain’s functioning. But what happens when these methods make us even more anxious?

How do we deal with a modern anxiety based, as TNR literary editor Leon Wieselter put it, on our “massified, datafied, quantified society,” in which we fear being reduced to “a sum total of materialistic influences”?

Here, subjecting ourselves to more experiments and data-based analyses won’t work; in fact, it’d backfire.

Wieselter’s “sum total of materialistic influences” – this is virtuality, yes? Is this descending into an argument about whether or not people are more than the sum of their parts?

I don’t know, but I do think this: empirical methods and science is reflexive to the point where it can acknowledge when there is a lack of information and an inability to provide definitive answers. In academia, scientists are willing to admit their faults (usually) and the limitations of their work. As my interviewee pointed out, this is not always true in the commercial sector or in the government. We like shortcuts, easy answers, and the feeling like we have done something by tabulating data. And while visualization is a good step to recognizing problems, it is not a solution in and of itself. At the same time, there is the assumption that big data = complete data. We do not always have all the information to make a completely useful result. But if Google Maps only shows me the best restaurants as they appear on Yelp (with it’s problems) or as submitted by usrs (because everyone has a computer) or from a “dead” dataset (how many of those restraunts are still open or have there been changes in management?)  how can I honestly expect to eat a great meal tonight, much less solve world hunger, increase voter turnout and stop climate change?

I kid, but seriously. There is a politics, an ethic, and a space for interdisciplinary work with all these issues. This brand of scientism/technologism/solutionism seems to erase the human problems that are inevitable when working in the real world.

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