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solutionism

noun [uncountable]

the belief that every problem has a solution based in technology

'Critics are likely to contend that, as with the much-lambasted private tech shuttles – e.g., the Google buses – a private version of public transit is just another form of tech solutionism, an abdication of the responsibility to seek the public good through public means …'

Wired 6th August 2014

Need to wake up by 6am? Grab your smartphone and set the alarm. Want to take more books on holiday than you can carry? Buy an e-reader. Driving to a place you've never been to before? Turn on the satnav. In today's world, 'tech' appears to be the answer to any day-to-day problem we might encounter, a situation in sharp contrast to times gone by, when we would have partly relied on human resourcefulness and mental agility to solve the same problems. This fixation with all things tech, the idea that every difficulty we might come across can somehow be ironed out with a technological solution, has recently been dubbed solutionism.

as technology continues to advance … there's a growing expectation that it can solve everything, and an increasing obsession with inventing these solutions via the right codes, programs and robots

Few would dispute that technology enhances our world, and that its solutions can sometimes offer social as well as practical advantages (I can testify, by way of example, that as well as effortlessly delivering us to the correct address, the purchase of a satnav stamped out all navigation-related disagreements in our car …). However, it's recently been observed by some that as technology continues to advance, and we're becoming more and more wrapped up in how it can improve our 21st century lives, there's a growing expectation that it can solve everything, and an increasing obsession with inventing these solutions via the right codes, programs and robots, arguably to the detriment of alternative ways of thinking. In this version of society then, it seems that the (technical) solution is king – hence the expression solutionism.

Like racism, feminism and many other -isms before it, use of the word solutionism is crucially connected with debate, and an ideology which provokes opposing points of view. Some would argue that with its attempts to effectively make life trouble-free via tech, solutionism might drive out imperfections, but in doing so shuts down other avenues of progress – ideas grounded in ethics and philosophy rather than technology. A small illustration of this is the use of personal tracking devices for energy or calorie consumption, where effortless access to accurate information might divert us from useful human responses – judgment, willpower, etc., and distract us from solving issues of wider concern – like climate change or better food regulation.

Background – solutionism

The term solutionism as a description of the (arguably flawed) idea that every social problem has a technological fix, is the brainchild of Evgeny Morozov, a Belarusian writer and researcher who studies the political and social impact of technology. Morozov introduced the concept in his book To Save Everything, Click Here (Allen Lane 2013), subtitled: Technology, Solutionism, and the Urge to Fix Problems that Don't Exist.

On the derivational model of other -isms, there's some evidence for use of the adjective solutionist to describe this kind of ideology (compare racist, feminist etc), though the word solutionist predates Morozov's writing, and is more commonly used as a noun that simply means 'problem-solver'.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 21st October 2014.

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