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Jason Pontin

Editor in Chief/Publisher, MIT's Technology Review

TEDCRED 100+

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"Why Can't We Solve Big Problems?"

I'll be giving a TED U Talk in Longbeach at the end of the month. I'll be asking "Why Can't We Solve Big Problems?" I think that blithe optimism about technology’s powers has evaporated as big problems that people had imagined technology would solve, such as hunger, poverty, malaria, climate change, cancer, and the diseases of old age, have come to seem intractably hard.

I'd love to know what the TED Community thinks our difficulties are - or, even if the idea is true at all.

Here's a URL to the story I wrote in MIT Technology Review on the subject: http://www.technologyreview.com/featuredstory/429690/why-we-cant-solve-big-problems/

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    Feb 13 2013: Technology is solving big problems, but new problems crop up all the time. Entropy in all contexts is a constant, and human beings can only do so much, so quickly, to stem the onslaught of new / evolving problems.

    Another factor to consider when it comes to human civilization is that, as much as we change the external world / reality, we are still guided largely by human nature, something which hasn't changed substantively in thousands of years; further, human nature easily and quickly reverts to primal instincts, often with dire consequences.

    Our best tools for fixing humanity's problems usually involve improving the way we approach or understand the world and each other.
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      Feb 14 2013: We exist an increasingly complex system. These "new problems" that you speak of are an emergent property of our increasing complexity. "Fixing" the problems, implies the wrong headed notion of installing our sense of order and control on nature, instead of better understand the "system" and its complex nature.
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        Feb 14 2013: I wouldn't call vaccines, for example, wrong-headed, nor many other medical and scientific breakthroughs. Nor would I agree that attempts to heal the environment are wrong-headed.

        To put a very fine point on it, if an asteroid were approaching the earth, should we use our knowledge and skills to attempt to avert a collision, or simply "understand the 'system' and its complex nature"?

        You seem to be, potentially, mixing problems created by humanity with those created by nature. Whatever the case, I would suggest it's in our best interests, and perhaps those of the world, that we continue to try to find solutions to problems. This is what humans do, it's how we adapt. It is our nature.
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          Feb 14 2013: How much complexity theory do you understand?
          The asteroid problem is not an "emergent property" of increasing complexity. Global warming is. DDT was intended to address a "problem." How did that work out?
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        Feb 14 2013: I was addressing the original question about tackling big problems, not just the subset of problems created by humankind. In any event, we can choose to address the problems, or not. Perhaps the issue you're having is with my terminology 'fix.' By 'fix' I simply mean address, deal with.
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          Feb 14 2013: "I seek not to know the answers, but to understand the questions" Master Po.
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      Feb 14 2013: Michael,
      You say...."....as much as we change the external world / reality, we are still guided largely by human nature, something which hasn't changed substantively in thousands of years; further, human nature easily and quickly reverts to primal instincts, often with dire consequences."

      To some extent, I agree with your statement, and on the other hand, I like to think/feel that with evolution, we are learning, growing and becoming more aware? If we continue to reinforce the idea that humans are NOT changing....that we are guided simply by human nature....that we revert to primal instincts...,.are we reinforcing the attitudes and behaviors we would like to change?

      I very much agree...
      "Our best tools for fixing humanity's problems usually involve improving the way we approach or understand the world and each other."

      How about if we change our perception of humans and recognize that we may be evolving beyond primal instincts? New approach?
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        Feb 14 2013: I agree with you, Colleen: we are evolving emotionally, intellectually; we are on the whole moving in the right direction with, of course, some notable exceptions. What I was referring to was our core nature, our instincts, our animal side...the id, if you will, not the super ego, to lift some Freudian terminology.

        You make a great point: it's important for us to appeal to humanity's better self, to ask and help people to think beyond their own self interest, to consider others. In other words, to evolve their thinking.
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          Feb 14 2013: I agree Michael, that it is important to appeal to humanity's "better self", and encourage people to think beyond their own self interest and consider others....evolve.

          I think I understand what you refer to when talking about our core nature, instincts, and animal side. I believe those elements of "us" are evolving, to the point of being able to see beyond instinct and animal behavior. We are multi sensory, multi dimensional human beings, and if we are more aware of the possibilities, we could change some perceptions and have a new approach.

          As long as we continue to reinforce the idea that our core nature, our instincts and animal side cannot be changed, that is the reality we create.

          For example:
          I co-facilitated "cognitive self change" sessions with offenders of domestic violence who were incarcerated. The guys often said something like...it's natural...instinctive, to slap somebody who tics us off. That is just "natural".

          You see? If we continue to reinforce the idea that there are natural animal instincts at our core, which cannot be changed, I think we do a disservice to humanity.
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        Feb 14 2013: I don't know if we're capable of changing our instincts. I see cake, I want it; but my higher mind tells me, "Hey, that belongs to my wife. Don't touch it." The goal is to teach people to think things through. I know that my children, who are not yet four, have very base instincts. My job as a parent is to help them evolve their behavior. Do I change what is deep down inside? Maybe. But I know I can help change what is closer to the surface.

        Great points, Colleen.
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          Feb 14 2013: EXACTLY Michael! I don't think we can change our instincts either. We CAN however, change the way we use the information. I totally agree....give people the tools to be able to think and feel things through.

          Many of the old instinctive behaviors were knee jerk reactions without any thought or feeling. Absolutely.....we can support others in the quest to evolve behaviors. I don't think we want or need to change what is deep down inside. We CAN change how it affects us and others. We CAN change our thoughts, feelings and behaviors to be more beneficial to ourselves and the whole of humankind.

          One of the first steps in this approach, is to discontinue talking about abusive, violent animal behaviors as something natural that cannot be changed. As thinking, feeling, intelligent, evolving human beings, we have choices:>)
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      Feb 14 2013: Let's compare these two statement:

      One thing to keep in mind: our beliefs shape our world view. That is to say, the entire construct of what we feel and know is shaped by our beliefs, whether those beliefs originate from faith or reason."

      "Our best tools for fixing humanity's problems usually involve improving the way we approach or understand the world and each other."

      Understanding the world often conflicts with our beliefs about the world. Which do we reshape?

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