Solutions That Create Problems

There are many problems in this world for which we do not have a proper solution. Climate change is a good example of such a problem looking for a solution or, more accurately, a solution that could be easily implemented. If the market economy functions well, the recognition of problems by entrepreneurs will eventually generate a flurry of entrepreneurial activity that gives us the solutions.

Yet, in a world enthralled by new technology, we are often given what is best described as a solution looking for a problem — a new technology that excites people’s collective imagination with its perceived future potential without much real-word use today. For many, bitcoin is a perfect example of such a technology. Despite the hype, bitcoin does not solve any pressing problem today, albeit it may well become critical infrastructure in the future.

And then, there is a third category that is equally important to technological development: solutions that create more problems. Male hair loss products are a perfect example of this category. The problem of male hair loss is created just as much by the industry of hair loss products than by the fact that men naturally start losing their bodily hair as they grow older. Instead of wasting resources and human creativity on hair loss products, we could just accept that, well, men lose their bodily hair as they grow older.

Solutions that create more problems are everywhere: electric cars are great but need an infrastructure of charging stations; online conferences enable more inclusive participation but create a problem with attendees being on different timezones, bitcoins provide a new way to transfer value but suck an incredible amount of energy to produce. In these and many other cases, solving the problems that the solution creates may be a small price to pay for cleaner commuting, more inclusive events, or a better financial system.

However, sometimes a solution creates so many new problems that we might just be better off without it. My favorite examples are e-scooters and chatbots. Most human beings have two perfectly adequate means of moving short distances in the urban environment. These are known as legs. Therefore, the negative externalities that a person on an e-scooter imposes on others on the sidewalk just do not seem to be worth it. Also, I have never got anything done by ‘communicating’ with a company chatbot, whose main job seems to be to block me from talking to a human customer service representative. Bots may make customer service in some sense more available, but they also create a problem that the customer must learn how to talk to the bot — instead of the bot learning to understand the human.

These are, of course, merely my personal grievances with technologies that you may love. I am aware that e-scooters and even chatbots can be useful in some situations, but the main point is that many technological solutions create problems that need to be resolved in one way or the other. These problems, going back to the first category, then motivate a whole new wave of innovation. Eventually, there may be enough mutually interedependent technologies in place to make the original solution useful or seemingly inevitable.

This is how technology breeds more technology. Those who argue that technological solutions makes life better by solving problems that people encounter in their lives are right — but with the caveat that many of those problems emerged from the technology itself. New technology is great at solving (and creating) problems, but market-driven innovation does not encourage us to ask: Are those problems really worth solving?

Disclaimer. This is not an academic or even too serious piece. I wrote it because the dialectic between the three types of technological solutions is intriguing.

Entrepreneur, MIS scholar and thinker with thirty years of experience in digital technology — www.aleksi.info

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