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The Difference Between Disruptions and Solutions

How many problems can tech companies solve on their own without broad social consensus?
October 18, 2016

Last week I took one of those Uber Pool rides where you share a car with a stranger, and as often happens in Ubers with strangers, the talk turned to Uber itself. My fellow passenger, a guy named Daniel, praised the genius of Uber’s ride-dispatching algorithms and then proceeded to assert, with Uber-esque self-confidence, that what the country really needed was more Uber-like efficiency, especially in governance. Instead of suffering through dispiriting elections like the one we’re having this year, he suggested, we could eventually have algorithms determine the best possible courses of action in civic affairs.

The driver and I both said we found the prospect dubious, but it can be hard—and perhaps futile in a short car ride—to ratchet down the tech booster-ism of someone insistent on displaying tech savvy. Which is why I was impressed to read the next day that President Obama had tried to deliver the very same argument that the driver and I couldn’t quite muster. Speaking at the Frontiers Conference in Pittsburgh, Obama told the audience that not everything should be considered ripe for disruption—especially democratic institutions:

“Sometimes we get, I think, in the scientific community, the tech community, the entrepreneurial community, the sense of ‘we just have to blow up the system, or create this parallel society and culture because government is inherently wrecked.’ No, it’s not inherently wrecked; it’s just government has to care for, for example, veterans who come home. That’s not on your balance sheet, that’s on our collective balance sheet, because we have a sacred duty to take care of those veterans. And that’s hard and it’s messy, and we’re building up legacy systems that we can’t just blow up.”

He added:

“I don’t want this audience of people who are accustomed to things happening faster and smoother in their narrow fields to somehow get discouraged and say, ‘I’m just not going to deal with government.’ Because, at the end of the day, if you’re not willing to do … just get in the arena and wrestle with this stuff, and argue with people who may not agree with you, and tolerate sometimes not perfect outcomes but better outcomes, then the space to continue scientific progress isn’t going to be there.”

Obama’s admonition nonetheless retained an optimistic spirit—“I have no doubt that we’re going to be able to make enormous strides,” he said. And that combination will also infuse the MIT Technology Review EmTech conference today and tomorrow in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Before dozens of innovators began presenting their technological visions and innovations, publisher and editor in chief Jason Pontin told the audience he hoped the show could inspire without creating the impression that there are many shortcuts to innovation, especially when we’re trying to solve very big problems in areas from climate change to health care to education.

“In the jargon of Silicon Valley, we want ‘disruptions’: technological innovations that appear like miracles and disrupt tired ways of doing things, often by competing on price,” Pontin said. But for huge problems in the world, solutions “are not so easily won,” because “big problems are civilizational and they are really hard.” He added: “Big problems which are sometimes caused by technology can be solved by technology ... But the problem must be well understood; institutions must function; industry and entrepreneurs must create technologies that they can test, develop, and manufacture at scale; and politicians and the general public ... must care to solve the problem. There are no miracles.”

There you go, Daniel.

(Read more: Recode, “Why We Can’t Solve Big Problems”)

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