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 27 2013: Jason, I will be interested in hearing your reaction to Bono's presentation at TED 2013, which you must have seen since you are attending the event.

    He feels very strongly that people need to know what great progress has been made in the big areas of poverty, nutrition, and health so that people can see that the work is not hopeless at all.

    This position resonates with the finding that has been mentioned below and that also has been documnted by research. That is, people put less commitment into projects they think are too hopeless- too big to make a serious dent in.

    Bono puts on his statistics that to show the huge progress that has been made, even in Subsahara Africa.
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      Feb 27 2013: Fritzie, that is a great point! The need for an achievable "Vision" is what Leaders help to satisfy. That, in turn, motivates people to action.

      Related: In marketing studies of ads aiming to stop people from smoking cigarettes, it was found that images of the consequences of smoking that were too horrible had the opposite effect (because of "cognitive dissonance").
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      Mar 4 2013: Fritzie, I was pleasantly shocked by the scale and speed of the improvements that Bono described. I felt less optimistic than he that as these problems approach asymptote that the problems can be eliminated altogether. (At one point, Bono suggested that we might eliminate extreme poverty altogether by the middle years of the century.)

      By the way, we interviewed Bono in MIT TR here: http://www.technologyreview.com/qa/508771/bono-sings-the-praises-of-technology/
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        Mar 4 2013: I think he may have seen purpose in being a bit over-optimistic in his description to counteract the opposite bias.

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