Beyond "solutionism": what role can technology play in solving deep social problems

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I don’t get it: why propose a new, untested system when there are already lots of other, existing (read: ‘tested’) penal systems which don’t had the problems that the US penal systems have?

/ oh…I know, they weren’t invented by 'Mercans, so they can’t be any good.

// time to pull out this ole’ favourite…

Edited to add: Some/most of the justifications for Snow’s proposals are cost reduction (in dollars) of incarceration. Egad! Putting someone in prison should also cost society (in dollars) (it already costs society all sorts of other costs).

If it’s too cheap, say cheaper than paying a living wage, even more people will be put in jail.


The Google Social Problem Solution Cycle:

  1. VP accidentally discovers some social problem because a wildly idiotic NYT article about it floats to the top of his Google News feed
  2. Creates a billion dollar initiative to solve the problem with technology
  3. Spends a year or two building out office infrastructure for a software startup
  4. Staff plays lots of foosball, stays up late doing nothing, sleeps on bean bags in the commons room.
  5. Releases an app
  6. Everyone transfers back to Google’s search division
  7. Repeat

But prison rape is not the “problem” with America and its penal system.

Smith’s essay isn’t just a bad solution to the problem of prison rape (it is, a very, very bad one), it’s also attempting to solve the wrong problem…

False dilemma, Cory. I’m sorry, it just is.

Yes, incarceration rates are the primary problem. But it’s at least as troubling that, well, look at the Facbook feed of any local story on any local American news source. The don’t drop the soap jokes are there, trust me. Do you know anyone who doubts that rape culture exists? Show them the comments on any story about a molester going to prison.

It might not seem like a problem. I mean, hey, this guy did a terrible thing to a child, he deserves it! Well…actually…here’s the thing. I don’t know about the entire country, but where I grew up and still live, race is a part of the trope. Ol’ Bubba is a big ol’ black dude. It’s a stereotype that reinforces the notions that men are dangerous, and black men much more so. It reinforces the stereotype that you’re not safe around black men. It also reinforces the trope that men–especially black men–are rapists by default.

And sadly, there’s a certain level of truth to it. And we just expect that when Jared goes to prison, part of it is that he’s going to be raped, and we take a certain perverse pleasure in it.

The older I get, the grosser this Chris Rock routine seems


Could this be just human factors engineering (which has been around for decades), but taken to another level?


how do we help smart, well-meaning people address social problems in ways that make the world better, not worse?

Unfortunately the people in charge are often either not smart, not well-meaning, or neither.

Could be. My expertise was always testing things, to make sure it was a good thing, but mostly technologically speaking. But better overall? Who knows? Is having an artificial heart better than the alternatives (e.g., death from heart failure), all things considered (e.g., cost, quality of life)? Certainly having a better prosthetic heart valve is a good thing, as the cost (compared to an artificial heart) is lower, and the quality of life afterwards is much higher.

But the latter is a lot easier to make conclusions about than the former.

The author of the terrible essay is named Shane Snow, not Shane Smith (Vice founder).


A Skinner Box for everyone, and everyone in their place!


I think you’re right that it’s a false dilemma and that prison rape must be addressed. The suggested solution might work for this in limited ways for celebrity inmates.

Cory’s point about how tech owners are politically useless and often blunderingly harmful is valid, though. Corporate “smarts” are anything but smart—outside building new virtual properties to camp out on and steal from the rest of us.

It’s about market control and carving up society into privatized institutions, but as always, Cory could have put it better.


The best way I’ve noticed to look at these questions, is to ask, “whose problems are being solved?” Clearly the public safety is not being helped by all this handwringing. But the banksters too rich to jail, who belong to institutions too big to fail, have a pretty broad definition of what would solve the problem. Anything that costs them less and keeps people out of their hair will qualify.

If improving public safety is actually the real agenda, you gotta peel back a whole lot of rotton onion layers before you get to anything real. To my mind, it goes all the way back to, “does the economy exist to serve human beings, or do we exist to serve the economy?”


I think that the elephant in the room is using technology to automate resource management.

Most laws serve only to re-enforce an ad-hoc aystem of commerce and power/status games which are poorly thought out in the first place. Commerce fails both as a means of allocating people what they need, and as a way to manage planetary/ecological resources. The short of it is that “economics” has generally been a layer of tech grafted on to a primitive instinctual problem.

Without the perpetual problems of income, commerce, and hoarding (which are apparently not meant to be ever solved) this frees maybe 95% of people’s time to instead engage in meaningful social activity, arts and sciences, etc.


What a terrific essay! I’m looking forward to reading and rereading the Zuckerman essay and exploring the links. There’s so much there, but I wanted to read more about this question about, whose problems can we solve?

Talking about the workshop with my friend and colleague Chelsea Barabas, she asked the wonderfully deep question, “Is it ever okay to solve another person’s problem?”

On its surface, the question looks easy to answer. We can’t ask infants to solve problems of infant mortality, and by extension, it seems unwise to let kindergarden students design educational policy or demand that the severely disabled design their own assistive technologies.

But the argument is more complicated when you consider it more closely. It’s difficult if not impossible to design a great assistive technology without working closely, iteratively and cooperatively with the person who will wear or use it.

There’s an under-examined tension between the “consumer” receiving the technology and investors who profit from the technology. The professionals are primarily fiduciaries of the investors, via the corporate entity, not the consumers.

But for marketing purposes, it’s consumer “satisfaction” that’s emphasized. That’s true even though the satisfaction signifies only the fact that widgets were purchased and maybe more commercially popular than other widgets.

The purchase signifies that consumers were not"codesigners" and not democratically engaged for widget production and distribution.

For social problems exacerbated by phenomena like for-proft incarceration or for-profit permanent, supportive housing, ignoring the distinction between who is helped and who profits risks making problems worse — independently of whether a design is smart or not.


The problem is that Americans would much rather chose the less humane option that also is far more expensive and results in higher recidivism rates than one perceived as being “too soft” on criminals. We want to punish criminals, whatever the cost (both human and financial) to ourselves.


Perhaps… he did say that not only was it attempting to solve prison rape the wrong way, it was attempting to solve the wrong thing, though. It still squicks me out that anyone would think that attacking the rape issue is the wrong thing to do, ever.

But this is all beside the point, and I don’t want to derail the issue too far off. I wasn’t aware of this hilariously bad attempt to solve prison rape through VR.

No mention of the Autoblow?

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It won’t electrocute your dick

I think the prison industrial complex needs as few new ideas as possible.


The solitary VR prison is (ridiculousness and heartlessness aside) proposing to treat a symptom.

Even the most elegant and humane solution is less useful if addressing symptoms rather than causes.

Treatment can be very important, but we should prefer to cure society’s ills by addressing their roots.


I’m not against treating symptoms, but if that’s all we do - ignoring the roots (overcrowding, inhumane conditions, etc) of the problem - then we are destined to fail.

I want a painkiller while my broken bones are set, but not in lieu of the cast. Reducing suffering is a worthy goal, but it’s the whole “teach a man to fish” angle…

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Hej, heh, heh.

“Build a man a fire, you keep him warm for a night… but if you set a man on fire, he’s warm for the rest of his life.”


That’s the one!

There is, however, a market for enthusiastically consensual dick-electrocuters, of that I’m sure. Might not be as big as government contracts, but hey.