TED Conversations

Jason Pontin

Editor in Chief/Publisher, MIT's Technology Review


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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 16 2013: Technology is nothing more than Convenience given physical form, so the answer does not lie with technology itself. It is a tool that requires correct and purposeful use to achieve anything of merit. The actioneer (human being, to be clear) is still the vital spark and without it, technology is just another thing to be consumed.

    The difficulties in "solving the big problems", I believe, stem directly from the threshold between the individual (self) and the many (community). Each is as important as the other but, in my view, they pull in different directions at times.

    This is not really a new concept but I think it's the key to dealing with social issues and problems.
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      Feb 16 2013: Scott,

      Well said.

      As for how this threshold between Self and Community the connects solutions to problems that you suggest. It might be at once well-served and yet also undermined by technologies. This effect likely lies around the dynamics of individuals and the social realms they interface, which, not surprisingly can be amplified by technology. In both positive and negative ways by both the connective, collective and awareness-enhancing features and/or the insidious insolation if not anti-social effects over-dependence on technology can result in.

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        Feb 17 2013: Hi Andrea,

        it's the old "double-edged sword" thing, I guess. I have fleeting concerns for the younger generations but try to balance my views, as you say, with the belief that the mad advance of digital technologies won't wreak complete social havoc either. In fact, I feel it has lent a new facet to 'mainstream' media that will help keep the headlines somewhat honest. Of course, we now live in the Age of Propaganda so we need, more than ever, to breed a healthy amount of skepticism in our kids.
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          Feb 17 2013: Hi Scott,

          Agreed, but I'd amend your 'Age of Propaganda'. We've been in it since early 20th Century when Edward Bernaise, et al were called in to 'manipulate the masses' through psychological techniques applied to marketing. I'd say we're at the peak of this Age. One hopes a realization that we're being 'sold' bills of goods will inspire us to eschew such tactics.

          The internet in particular has been a critical force in social change to, as you note: keep things honest. I look at civic engagement outcomes, and there's no Q this effect is building transformative momentum worldwide.

          The best evidence is we're seeing an acceleration towards an impending disruptive clash, I expect. As powers-that-be push back on the emergent power of open, democratic ideals and practices many in tech are employing to illuminate consciousnesses for greater good. As transparency-preferring techies use their unique power to hold gained positions for open dialogue, widespread awareness and related outcomes. Needless to say the powers-that-be are deploying their own technologists. Why I think an impending clash looms large.

          All of this much informs a For-Benefit technology company I'm just now raising capital for: WetheP. It will marry online and offline techniques that maximize the best of both while minimizing their less constructive features, too.

          Needless to say I'm excited about what we're doing--and go so far as to say its 'huge.' In great part because we are at this crossroads were synthesizing the expedient and profoundly extrapolative power of tech with the intrinsic wisdom and authenticity of 'real-world' human interactions, which can achieve a far more sustainable and beneficial interdependence.

          A critical place leadership must engage is business. So, last year I wrote this essay "Killer App for Angel Investors: Authenticity" http://bit.ly/HID9yF to set the tone.

          I'm delighted themes like 'conscious capitalism' are coming into media focus. There's hope!

    • Feb 16 2013: Making our daily choices we automatically choose what is better for 'me', in the hope it will be better for all. ( in case we think about 'all ') And it's wrong. It doesn't work this way, but the other way round : what is better for all , eventually will be better for 'me'
      I agree with you and ' not really a new concept ' :)
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        Feb 17 2013: I agree. I believe that many people do make choices for the greater good as well as themselves. People are, for the most part, willing to build and create, support and encourage. Yay for humanity!

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