As I remarked a moment ago, you can always find problems for which your new gadget is the solution. If a single buzzword has outweighed all others in advertisements for high-tech products over the past decade, surely it is "solutions." When you are convinced you have a nifty answer, everything begins to look like a problem demanding your answer. But it is worth keeping in mind that engineers, precisely because they are the quintessential problem-solvers, always try to address narrowly conceived, exactly defined problems problems they call "well-behaved." This requires stripping the problems so far as possible of complicating context. Without the reduction of context, there is no precise solution.
But, of course, the reduction tends to leave most of the important considerations out of the picture. This is why Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute reminds us, "If you don't understand how things are connected, the cause of problems is solutions."
This truth is not one you are likely to come across in contemporary journalism dealing with science and technology, where a standard formula runs this way: "Dr. Jones' new discovery (or invention) could lead in time to [your choice of solved problems here]." The discovery of this new genetic technique could eventually lead to a cure for such-and-such a disease. The further development of this new implantable device might some day enable the terminal heart patient to gain new life. How standard this formula has become is a good measure of how technocentric our society has become.
The enumeration of possibilities is usually reasonable. They could happen. The deception is in the one-sidedness. One way or another, it seems, the technical achievement just must translate into a social good. There is no equivalent standard formula that routinely acknowledges the risks of the new development. There is no recognition of the difference between solving a problem and contributing to the health of society. Yet solving problems is one of the easiest ways to sicken society. A technical device or procedure can solve problem X while worsening an underlying condition much more serious than X. How, for example, do you solve the problem of the harmonious meeting of minds? Here's one approach, taken from the call for papers circulated ahead of the Third International Cognitive Technology Conference held in San Francisco in August 1999:
Human minds are becoming increasingly networked. We are steadily approaching the Optimal Flow Point, a theoretical point in telecommunication when the technology allows any mind on the planet to reach any other mind in a minimal amount of time. Developments in satellite and cellular technologies are moving us to the point of spatial ubiquity, when any spot, no matter how remote or primitive, can be connected with any other in a worldwide telecommunications system.
As spatial ubiquity is approaching, time needed to contact any human being is being steadily reduced. . . . The networking of minds proceeds apace.
By all means, let the networking of minds proceed apace. And, yes, the "time needed to contact any human being" may be steadily decreasing. But it's worth remembering that this contact refers essentially to the performance of a technical system, not to the performance of minds. There is a difference.
By contrast with this contact time, the time needed to get in touch with another human being has not decreased at all. It requires the same cultivation of mutual caring and understanding, the same painstaking exploration of shared and unshared meanings, as it always has. In fact, there's a good case to be made that the time required for getting in touch is lengthening as we approach the Optimal Flow Point: it takes more effort to break through the busyness, distraction, and habits of detachment encouraged by all those technically enhanced possibilities of contact.
Here are a few other brief examples of the way solutions can work against the deeper requirements of health:
There's already wide recognition of the danger in solving the problems presented by medical symptoms. Aspirin, by eliminating pain, can mask an underlying illness or cover for bad habits that in the end may prove fatal. And by lowering fever, it can counter the body's healing processes. We may well be doing worse because of the means we have chosen for feeling better.
One reason for the huge amounts of time we spend watching television is that, as one commentator wrote, "It's a way to stop conflicts between kids and adults." Yes, in the heat of the moment you could say that television is an effective answer to the problem of family conflict. But won't this truce of convenience, this mutual disengagement, very likely lead to an even more radical parting of the ways somewhere down the road?
The same commentator remarked that "there are a lot of neighborhoods where you're better off staying in watching TV than going out on the street." In such neighborhoods the television may indeed be at least a partial solution to the problem of personal safety. But in a deeper sense you will find that television has helped to make the street what it is, if only by sucking what was once the vigorous communal life of porch and street, first into the family living room, and then into the isolated dens of individual family members.
The technical mechanisms for linking documents on the World Wide Web are thought by many to solve the problem of providing adequate context for documents. And they do help us to aggregate and structure a collection of texts, relating one passage to another, regardless of where the documents may reside physically. But, as all Web users have discovered by now, this solution can work against any effective grasp of context. Being a click or two away from everywhere is disconcertingly like being nowhere at all, which is the ultimate loss of context. True context arises from the conceptual threads we are enabled to weave through our reading, and this requires an inner work for which no information technologies can substitute.