Welcome to Emerging Futures -- Volume 84! What's the Problem with Problems?...
Good Morning generative problems in the making,
It is the last day of Ramadan – a happy Eid al-Fitr to all who celebrate.
This week we want to continue building on our critical examination “problems”. Over the last couple of weeks we introduced games (Part 1 & Part 2) and how thinking about games could lead us towards a different approach to how we understand problems.
This week we want to set the stage for offering an alternative view of problems by critically examining our classical model of problems. We hope to show three things:
We are not going to lay out an alternative in this newsletter – that will come next week.
Lets jump in:
A good place to start is by looking at our everyday use of the word “problem”.
If we look at the synonyms for the word “problem”we find: difficulty, issue, trouble, worry, mess, muddle, mix-up, snag, hitch, drawback, stumbling block, obstacle…
And then the antonyms for “problem” are: advantage, agreement, assistance, blessing, peace, benefit, certainty, opening, solution…
We equate a problem with a snag, a mess, an obstacle to be overcome with a solution. And once it is overcome we are back at rest – having peace and certainty again.
It is not simply a confusion of words – these seemingly neutral terms form a very particular and powerful approach to innovation. This approach is an overcoming-to-return-to-original-state approach – in which we are always in a loop of overcoming the obstacle with a solution to return to the prior state of blessed certainty and peace. Historical anthropologists have clearly shown how this is a very particular greco-jeudeo-christian historically grounded approach to reality – a version of the garden of eden story. Knowing this should already give us pause… Why are we using a historical religious story as our generic model for approaching problems?
What is important is that there is:
And where does creativity come into this equation? The role of creativity is in step three – the invention of a solution. Notice here that the problem is taken as a given and that creativity only begins with working on the solution – creativity only comes at the end.
Lets take a close look at this process:
Now, one could, quite reasonably ask: but what about the critical activity of uncovering real problems? Surely there is more nuance to this approach?
Of course the critical activity of trying to uncover and determine what is a real problem (versus a superficial one) plays an important role. This question affords us the opportunity to examine the approach more closely:
We can see that what is meant by “peace” is something deeper and more fundamental. The goal and the starting point in this approach is always to get to “real problems” – to begin from human nature and a set of universal human needs – and that trying to really address these leads to dealing with “real problems”.
In this approach there is always a critical activity of uncovering and determining what are “real problems” (something addressing a fundamental universal human need) versus what are just superficial problems (why can’t I get my hair to be the right shade of blue?).
Once we critically determine what is a real need and a real problem then, and only then, do we apply our creative skills to solving the problem and returning via the real solution to a stable state of human nature – or as close as we can pragmatically get.
Let's take a look at this expanded description of the classical process:
There are four main issues with this approach to problems. Let’s get into these one at a time:
1. This is a linear process and it assumes a linear model of causality. And this is true even if we put in a number of recursive loops into the process. Circles and loops are inherently linear processes that lead back to prior state. We can iterate, test, develop alternative hypothesis, empathize and seek feedback, evolve the solution, reframe the problem and much else – but none of this changes the underlying linear logic:
What is the problem with being linear?
Quite simply – this is not how causality actually works except in the most limited of circumstances (and even then it is more an illusion of how we are approaching an event).
In most circumstances most of the time causality is non-linear and it is emergent.
Why does this matter? What is important about this for reconsidering the status of a problem?
If we have the wrong model of causality – we are almost certainly never going to effectively engage with whatever we think we are engaging with – we will be fooling ourselves with a magic act.
What is critical to remember with emergent systems: the system (assemblage) generates, in a non-linear manner, a set of possible outcomes – some of which we like and some of which we don’t. For example, once we develop a system with cars we will also have car accidents – this is not a failure of the system it is an inherent outcome. The car accident is not a failure of the system, it is part of what the system does – its generative logic. This is the same with police brutality or structural racism – they are outcomes (not accidents) of the generative logic of the emergent dynamics of our system/assemblage.
Treating some of these possible outcomes as “problems” and others as “solutions” is to misunderstand how they all emerge from an assemblage. There is always a field of multiple possible outcomes that emerges from the dynamics of reality (the assemblage):
Making a change to one thing in a linear manner in a dynamic non-linear emergent system will always lead to radically unexpected results. Another approach is necessary (this will be the focus on next week’s newsletter).
2. This brings us to the second problem – the belief that there are universal fixed starting/ending conditions (universal human nature, universal needs, etc.)
“The abstract does not explain, but must itself be explained; and the aim is not to rediscover the eternal or the universal, but to find the conditions under which the new is produced (creativeness).” (Claire Parnet & Gilles Deleuze)
The search for stable unchanging essences that sit outside of the dynamics of reality is another illusion that an understanding of emergence dispels. Even if there was an original state of some thing it is (1) always part of a dynamic non-linear assemblage, and (2) the moment something emerges it has a so-called “downward” causal relation on the state of the system . Which is to say: things – outcomes shape the very things that gave rise to them: The new emergent whole makes its parts. And whatever original state there might have been is irreversibly changed by what has emerged. There is no abstract ahistorical unchanging category of fixed human needs, or human nature – these are what Parnet and Deleuze point out as needing to be historically explained (the Marshall Salins text “The Western Illusion of Human Nature” (referenced above) does a remarkably good job interrogating the illusion of ahistorical needs and human nature).
The process of emergence is not unidirectional and because of downward causality (really it is systems causality) there are and never can be any unchanging essences:
Now it is important to say that we experience many localized issues in our daily lives where something does not work (say a toaster), we can take it apart, identify the issue, repair the issue, put things back together and the thing will work again. We are fixing such localized issues all the time in a simple, linear, and reversible manner – toasters, cars, shoes, etc. And given the ubiquitous nature of this activity in our daily lives it is understandable that we generalize from this type of experience to a more general approach to life, which in turn leads to our classical approach to problems.
But, this generalization does not work outside of engaging with very particular and very limited circumstances.
That said, we think that this does give us a sense of why this profoundly flawed model exists – we can and should understand what compels and supports this classical approach to problems in our culture…
3. Let's move onto a third critical problem with this approach: That the activity of innovation only begins with the development of a solution: In the classical approach we tend to jump right to solving problems – without ever inquiring into the construction/conditions of the problem itself (really the assemblage and the dynamic of emergence). The activation of creative practices only comes at the end and the problem (once uncovered) is taken as a given:
Again this is an understandable state of affairs – and an approach that can be quite helpful with immediate issues like a toaster that will not toast. And this approach to creativity is certainly something reinforced by our system of schooling – in almost every class at every moment students are bombarded with pregiven problems that they are judged on how well and quickly they solve:
But why are we not deliberately pausing to inquire about the nature and construction of the problem?
Here we need to shift our approach – it is not about simply coming up with better questions. That would leave the structure of the classical approach in place – it is in fact what this approach is all about:
Rather, to inquire about the nature of the problem is to critically inquire about this entire approach and its process:
“The solution necessarily follows from the complete conditions under which the problem is determined as a problem, from the means and the terms which are employed to pose it.” (G. Deleuze).
The important thing to note at this point is that creativity should not be something that only comes into play in regards to solving the problem. We need to radically rethink creativity and its role in the entire process.
While this is something we will focus on in our next newsletter, from the perspective of emergence we should be able to see that the problem/assemblage is itself generative – which is to say creative. Creativity does not come after a problem to solve the problem – rather creativity is in and of the problem (when, as Deleuze notes, we look to the “complete conditions under which a problem is determined as a problem”).
“What is missed is the internal character of the problem as such, the imperative internal element that decides in the first place its truth of falsity and measures its intrinsic genetic power” (Deleuze)
But we are getting ahead of ourselves…
(NOTE: In regards to getting ahead of ourselves… As you can see from our quotes in the newsletter, quite a bit of our thinking and experimenting with this question has been strongly influenced by the work of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995). The work of his that is most influential for us on the critical rethinking of problems is Difference and Repetition. It is a difficult work, but take a look at pages 153-167. There are a number of good introductions to this book, but in regards to this question, the best introduction is a wonderful book by Audrey Wasser The Work of Difference – which is on creativity and literature (don’t let that discourage you – take a look at chapter “A Genesis of the New: Deleuze” – really insightful). The other useful (and much more accessible text by Gilles Deleuze, is Bergsonism – and the wonderful chapter: Intuition as Method. We have also written extensively on this topic, that might be worth a visit:
4. The fourth major issue with the classical approach to problems is that this approach assumes that problems disappear when solved:
Again, this is a quite understandable approach if one generalizes from simple everyday experiences like fixing a toaster. But this is not something that we can generalize outside of this limited context.
Now in the classical approach to problems there is a category of problems that resist easy solutions – what are called “wicked problems”. These are categorized as larger socio-technical problems such as “hunger” or “poverty” (again assumed to be real ahistorical human needs) that in problem-solution model will have no obvious solution.
This variation to the classical model was first proposed by Horst W.J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber, in an essay “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning” (1973). Where they laid out a the issue with this category of problems:
But – and this is why we bring this example up – you can see that none of the terms are altered – all the same assumptions are in play – they are just now introducing vagueness and difficulty into the system. While the defining of “wicked problems” pointed out a fundamental weakness in the approach (in the paradigm) – rather than moving to develop an alternative approach/paradigm – the wicked problem logic just continues to patch…
But, (another but) – and this is a teaser for where we wish to explore next week: no problem disappears when it is solved. The Wicked Problem approach notices the open and generative nature of problems, but miscategorizes it as a type of problem – rather than a challenge to the whole framework/paradigm.
Problems are generative and creatively lead to a field of possible outcomes. The problem as a dynamic assemblage is a historically contingent emergent creative space to be explored – whether the problem is “how do I relate to my gods?” or “poverty” or “what is the square root of x” or “why does this chair suck?”
What makes a problem worth having is its genetic power to produce a field of qualitatively novel outcomes… What do we mean by this? Here the last two weeks of discussions about games are helpful: Think about how the total logic and conditions of a game (the games “problem” ) is generative – it produces a novel way to be alive – a novel form of agency. Exploring this can give one a different sense of the genetic/creative power of problems that do not disappear with the resolving of the game.
However we use the classical approach to problems – and whatever exceptions we make (e.g. wicked problems) – the basic linear logic and set of concepts remains unchanged and fundamentally flawed. Trying to endlessly repair and augment a model that cannot function outside of small highly circumscribed cases such as mending my toaster is a fatally flawed exercise.
Next week we will begin exploring alternative approaches to “what is a problem”.
Till then, we would love to hear your thoughts on this – getting feedback and questions over the few weeks has been really helpful to us (thank you to everyone who has written to us or talked with us!).
Have a wonderful week living the generative agency of problems!
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