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A critique of Solutionism, the “California Ideology 2.0″

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
15th September 2013


Solutionism is ultimately central planning by another name. The arrogance of the urban planner reappears as the arrogance of the agent-based modeller and the Internet entrepreneur: the plan is still monolithic, but now takes the shape of a network. As Steven Johnson says, when his “peer progressives” see a social problem, they design a peer network to solve it. But what has happened to the citizens in this network? They have been reduced to dumb followers of simple rules.

Excerpted from Tom Slee:

(from a review of Evgeny Morozov’s To Save Everything, Click Here)

“One of the remarkable insights of computer scientists (and social scientists and natural scientists in the computer age) is an understanding of how great complexity and diversity can be generated by populations of simple agents following simple rules. Just as schools of fish and flocks of starlings create sweeping artistic displays by pursuing simple individual rules, so the rich tapestry of city life emerges from simple everyday interactions. The ideas of network theorists lend themselves to talk of self-organization, non-hierarchical structures, and informational cascades. Computer scientists take ideas such as the “Game of Life”, the stunning images of fractal shapes, and the rich behaviour of networks to illustrate how complexity arises from simplicity. From spin-glasses in magnets to the sorting and emergence of patterns revealed by Schelling and his intellectual descendants, simple “micromotives” give rise to surprising and intricate patterns of “macrobehaviour”. Such agent-based thinking seems at first to mesh perfectly with Jacobs’s closely observed studies of city life. She famously focused her piercing, analytical eye on the details of every day life in large cities, and used her observations to challenge and then triumph over the grand visions and arrogance of top-down city planners. It’s the bottom-up nature of her approach that inspires: the planners are trying to impose patterns on populations from above but they miss the relationship between the large and the small. It is tempting, then, to take the descriptions of Jacobs’s cities and encode them in algorithms: agent-based simulations of the effects of block size on pedestrian traffic patterns seem almost mandated, so obvious a next step do they seem from Jacobs’s chapter on the topic.

Yet this step, I increasingly believe, is a mistake. Solutionism is ultimately central planning by another name. The arrogance of the urban planner reappears as the arrogance of the agent-based modeller and the Internet entrepreneur: the plan is still monolithic, but now takes the shape of a network. As Steven Johnson says, when his “peer progressives” see a social problem, they design a peer network to solve it. But what has happened to the citizens in this network? They have been reduced to dumb followers of simple rules. The richness and complexity – all the interest, in fact – lies in the structure of the network. If the outcome isn’t what you want, well tweak the incentives, adjust the topology of the network, provide an additional option for the nodes (sorry, people) to choose from. For all its talk of bottom-up, decentralized thinking, the Internet-centric solutionists end up with an impoverished perspective of individual behaviour.

Just because complex and rich behaviours can arise from simple rules doesn’t mean that people are simple beings. Any theory that applies both to murmurations of starlings or spin-glasses of magnetic ions as well as to cities of humans is, almost by definition, missing the distinctive features of human societies. Complexity can arise from simplicity at the small scale, but macro-level complexity also arises from micro-level complexity. The subtle and ill-understood nature of our own needs and interactions will defeat the best efforts of solutionist planning, just has it has defeated those of central planning and of free markets.

In his final chapters, Morozov appeals to this particularist view of the world, in which each node of a network is different from others, and in which general solutions don’t exist. To discard the importance of the details of our daily interactions, as the solutionists inevitably do, is to inevitably provoke unexpected responses, unintentional side effects, and unanticipated breakdowns of the solutionist schemes. When Brian Chesky of AirBnB complains that there are 30,000 different cities in which he wants to operate, and that it’s just not practical to negotiate with each one, he is not designing a bottom-up solution, he is imposing a top-down network. He is demanding that cities become “legible” in James Scott’s terminology, to his overarching (and simplistic) algorithms.

To reach for an alternative vision, Morozov looks to artists who have engaged in “adversarial design” to illustrate the importance of acknowledging micro-level complexity. But to look to the artificiality of the arts is second-best here; there is enough variation and richness of detail in the normal everyday world to illustrate the importance of variation and local knowledge and unanticipated interactions.

But despite these minor complaints, “Click Here” is an admirable and significant achievement. It identifies and makes a valuable and intellectually adventurous assault on what is becoming an increasingly obvious problem: the appropriation of democratic and “bottom-up” visions by those who seek to impose their own top-down networks on the rest of us, and who reduce us to simplistic nodes in the process. This is a valuable book: now if only someone could make a TED Talk of it.”

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