On bullshit: 10 reasons to doubt that your ambitious digital disruptor really has the answer to your social problem

Digital services, start-ups and big companies regularly bamboozle people in control of public funds. Here’s ten ways to spot snake-oil and self-important self-interest

Tech failing yesterday (a blue screen of death showing error messages on a public display)

In the UK for at least a decade we have seen a succession of passionate, eloquent tech disrupters securing in UK terms relatively large investments to deliver digital services and applications to solve wicked social problems.

Some of these have been successful and some of them, well, haven’t. The most notable failure might be Your Square Mile, a site that intended to “join the dots between local individuals, community groups and charities, local authorities and businesses to create real lasting change.” Launched in a blaze of glory and other people’s money in 2010 as an important part of The Big Society, with the aim of signing up 3 million people, it still exists in a blaze of no one caring about it in any way. In fact, its failure to sign anyone up for anything was so startling that in created a small public outcry that put the final nail in the coffin of David Cameron’s Big Society.

The Your Square Mile story, and the subsequent scrutiny of how and why such a large sum of money might have been offered to a project that was, in hindsight, so obviously flawed, contains all of the elements of a particular variety of social action and technology folly. Somehow, the combination of some people who wanted to look proactive and forward thinking in the eyes of onlookers and some people who had control over large sums of money managed to be seduced by a project that was neither very different from many previous web powered endeavours; and one which made claims so wild that even someone who had never accessed the web would have raised two or more eyebrows when hearing.

In this narrative, which happens at every level from individual charity or public service up through the tree to government level, the heady cocktail of social aim and new technology seems to lead to a suspension of critical faculties. It as if the mention of the web or technology is a kind of magic; something that will dissolve all well established challenges and constraints in the pursuit of a social good.

This is not to say that digital technology and the web cannot contribute to changing the life situations of people experiencing challenges. It is to say that often people with pots of money and desire to capture the zeitgeist are often terrible at knowing what to back; so they back what seems plausible to them. Or, more correctly, they back people who seem plausible to them.

And here is the problem. People often fall for the disruptive technology project that feels best to them; especially if they are not experienced in deciding which tech projects to back. In the social or ‘helping people and society’ sector those with the cash are often not hugely experienced in the possibilities and drawbacks of digital technology. Feeling upon unfamiliar ground they cling to what feels comforting: snappily dressed, emphatic, confident people with slick presentations who tell them things they want to hear and who sound like what people who don’t know people who do good tech think people who do good tech sound like.

It is not the case that every person who secures funds for a digital project that fails to solve social problems is a charlatan. It’s often that their hearts are in the right place and that they fervently believe in the thing they’re trying to do. It’s not cynicism that makes them dangerous; it’s hubris. The combination of some experience of making tech and a messianic zeal can blind the digital disruptor to the actual material conditions of the people that he (and it often is a he) is trying to help.

So, were you in possession of a pot of cash and a burning ambition to resolve, mitigate or remove from people’s lives a social challenge, difficulty or problem; who should you watch out for?

Below are ten signs for spotting when your ambitious digital disruptor might not have the answer to your social problem

1. Knowledge, skills or experience in a particular field are to be discouraged/countered

Most areas of social change or social service have existing industries trying to make people’s lives better or meet their needs. There is a great wealth of experience, skills and knowledge to draw upon around the majority of wicked social problems. Be suspicious of a disruptor who has arrived with a fully formed project that does not appear to be based in a deep knowledge of the social sector in question. That they haven’t learned in advance of talking to you ways of thinking about the sector suggests they are not interested in learning about them in future.

The ambitious and dangerous digital disruptor is only interested in coming to the party if it’s their party and they get to sit at the head of the table.

2. ‘Why hasn’t anyone seen my simple solution?’

Social problems are complex. People devote their entire lives to understanding and acting in one tiny area of large, ever-evolving fields. People who present simple solutions without indicating the process of complexity by which they arrived at their solution are often either overselling what their technology can do or underestimating how complicated people’s lives are. Often both. When presented with a complex, wicked problem most people will respond with an idea that is very similar to everyone else’s first idea. A dangerous digital disruptor will think that they are the first to think of that particular solution, or that they have the chops to make it work where everyone else has failed.

3. Tech determinism — assumption of route to solving a problem is always tech

A digital disruptor who is not rooted in the social field they are trying to act in is bringing tech to the social party and only tech. Evgeny Morozov calls this solutionism: “ the idea that given the right code, algorithms and robots, technology can solve all of mankind’s problems, effectively making life “frictionless” and trouble-free.”. They are there to sell tech, and tech they will sell. To you, if you’re not careful. Often they will tell you the problem and why they are the solution. It might, however, not be a problem that people actually have; or it might not actually be a solution that really addresses it. But, in the presentation, it sure will sound like it.

4. The inability to see solutions that someone else might implement

Ambitious digital disruptors are ambitious for their solution to be the one that’s implemented. They want to do it. They believe in their solution. They will fight for their right (and your money) to do their project. They will not look at the problem and see that certain things might be done better by projects that aren’t theirs and people who aren’t them. Why would they? They have THE answer.

5. Belief of abstract problem solving without social, economic or political knowledge

In the use of tech to overcome social problems; to ensure their success many projects require that people using the service behave in ways they do not currently behave. Your Square Mile required people to both post local opportunities on a specific website and also to search that website for local opportunities. Only then could the promised social change happen. For a site that was intended to build civic action and social interaction; it actually required of people to already possess it in abundance and also to use it to make a website that did not belong to them successful. Ambitious digital disruptors often have projects that make perfect sense on paper but which crumple when exposed to the actual realities how the world really works for their intended beneficiaries.

6. Belief that everyone want the same thing as you / sees the ‘thing’ the same way as you do / benefits from something that benefits you.

The world of TED talks trains us to speak about our personal connection to a social problem before we can talk about our solution to that social problem. The challenge is that in the case of many social problems the people currently experiencing them are not relatively well off and well educated white men between the ages of 25 and 40. By being an ambitious digital disruptor you are not representative of the groups of people you wish to help with your digital disruption.

This leads to projects based on what people should do or want rather than projects based on what people actually prefer or require. Couple this with messianic zeal and you have an ambitious digital disruptor telling a room full of people who live with a particular social problem how to live their lives so that their ambitious digital disruption will work for them.

7. Desire to solve a social problem via an unrelated activity that you think is great fun

In the UK, the sharing or collaborative economy where people share things in ways often in ways enabled by the web, has sometimes created digital projects where this sharing has promised to solve social problems. Successful examples of the sharing economy include Uber and AirBnB; which are in essence clearing houses for people who have something to offer for money and people who wish to purchase it for money. In the quest to find technological solutions to dwindling central government investment in local government, there have been a number digital projects that have sought to mobilise people to carry out activities that might benefit those who may previously have received a service funded through taxation.

Often these projects have focused on mobilising the people with something to give at the cost of understanding the people who might be its recipients. Your ambitious digital disruptor might tell you that they have solved the problem of meals on wheels or ended social isolation by organising for groups of joggers to visit older people in their homes; but it does not necessarily follow that activities that their digital disruption implores people to carry out match with what people who have a problem wish to happen. But the people who have the problem are seldom in the room when the pitch is being made; so that may not be obvious when the siren song of solving a social problem without requiring money raised by taxation is sung.

8. Wanting to change the job to fit the tools

Allied to the solutionism of no.3 above are projects that require entire swathes of public services to be reconfigured so that they can work or which claim that they will disrupt the conditions of the delivery of those public services and replace their function while in fact doing something different instead. A phone line might be replaced by a chatbot; but what people really wanted was a chat with a person rather that a fixed set of provided information.

The ambitious digital disruptor may actively wish for their disruption to reconfigure all of the existing activities of professional and voluntary organisations providing solutions to their problem of choice or, through lack of knowledge or zealous commitment to their idea, not realise that this would be required. Once they have the opportunity they’ll suggest that everyone else needs to change to make their project work.

9. We get a slice of the money. Forever.

In a classic business sense disruption is finding a business model that once introduced to the market will make it impossible for everyone else to do business in the way that they previously had. The ambitious digital disruptor moving into the social problem space may talk a very good game about disrupting the problem; but hidden in that either wittingly or unwittingly is a wish to disrupt the market. Which means finding a way of inserting themselves and their idea into the stream of money that is currently flowing in that particular sector. An ambitious digital disruptor wanting to solve social problems may not see that they are ultimately trying to break completely the existing ways of delivering services and place themselves there instead. Or they may, because they can see that they would get to keep the money if they were successful. In the same way that robots have reduced much manual labour to obsolescence, so the digital disruptor might be aiming to do the same in an area of social problem. And much like robots and labour; they know that it’s the people who invent the robots who get to keep all the money.

10. Bullshit

The combination of the other nine points creates the perfect conditions for bullshit in the classic Harry Frankfurt sense. The ambitious digital disruptor is in a position where it makes sense to tell you what you want to hear. As Frankfurt says; most of us are confident that we can detect bullshit which is why so many of us in the right conditions are susceptible to falling for it. Bullshit is always about telling us what we most want to hear at the time we most want to hear it. Solving, mitigating or resolving social problems is hard. Anyone who undertakes it should be filled with reasonable, creative, curious, valuable doubts. It would be foolhardy not to be.

When we are sitting with a pot of cash and an audience, we want to be certain that we are putting that money to a good and wise use. So we back certainty. Or we back people who seem certain.

The more someone shares something closer to the truth with us about how digital technology might change things and what they’ll need to do to get there; the more we feel uncertain. When a project is honest about the risk it represents; we can’t help but wonder if it’s worth it.

So we fall for projects that probably won’t ever come close to satisfying the real needs and want of people in our communities because we just wanted someone to reassure us that we aren’t going to waste our money.

When we don’t really know what we’re in the market for but we know we want something we’re hugely susceptible to the salesman’s smile. And their exciting; involving; emotive; ambitious; world changing bullshit.

There are great digital innovators out there but they’re often drowned out by the much louder voices of those who have certainty their digital product or idea is the right one.

Falling for any of the above is understandable; but it’s often very hard to forgive. Digital disruptors can be very convincing. But in the end it’s not you they’ve got to convince: it’s people who really need something better to happen in their lives. It’s those people who won’t forgive you.

(This post was prompted by a discussion with Shirley Ayres and Paul Taylor)

Mark Brown is development director of Social Spider CIC. He does mental health, digital stuff, writing stuff and thinking stuff. He is @markoneinfour on twitter. His DMs are open.