DAS: Problem-based Problem solving.

Note: This is the fourth of a handful of articles I began writing over two years ago, long before Ethereum was launched, when the current technology was little more than a few ideas a handful of people were discussing. They were originally posted on Quora, and I will be reposting them here, as some of the concepts discussed are becoming more relevant than ever, while some may simply be considered interesting in a historical context.

Problem-based Problem Solving

(Originally posted March 16, 2014)

Solving Solutions
Earlier today someone came to me and asked if I had a string. I didn’t. But I assumed they were going to use the string to solve a problem — so I asked them what that problem was. It turns out they didn’t actually need a string — they wanted to tie up some flowers and herbs and to dry, and had decided that would be best done with string. So they asked me for string.

The trouble was — we didn’t have any string. The search for string was an impossible problem which would have ended in disappointment. But once the actual problem was identified, it became clear that we could solve it easily. In fact, not two feet away I had some twist-ties that worked perfectly for the job. This person didn’t come to me with a problem — they came to me with a solution to their problem, that had I not questioned more deeply would have left them with an unsolvable dilemma. That’s solution-based problem solving. You’ve already found a solution, and now you’re trying to solve the problem of implementing that solution.

This habit exists among all scopes of life — business, personal, and political. People have a tendency to identify the first idea they have as the ultimate solution to the problem. They then spend all of their time attempting to implement a solution that may be suboptimal at best, or completely wrong in the worst cases. I’m sure more money than could be comfortably admitted has been lost in dead pursuits of bad solutions.

In contrast, problem-based problem-solving is when you start with the core problem and attempt to solve for that.

Solving Problems
Einstein once famously stated that if he had an hour to solve a problem, and his life depended on the solution, he would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question, and this would allow him to determine the solution in the remaining five minutes.

There’s great insight here. How can we claim to have solutions for all the world’s ills when we don’t really even know what the problem is? Thousands of politicians all over the world can espouse an unimaginable number of solutions to the problems which face humanity. But there is no accountability, no rationality, and no meaningful process used to come to those solutions. Someone comes up with an idea based on some hare-brained view of reality, and then everyone fights over whose terrible idea gets implemented.

A question we should be seriously asking ourselves in the 21st century is — Why are fighting about politics as if it’s a religious debate? And another one is — Why are we attempting to subject as many people as we can to our poorly thought-out solutions to complex problems? We have scientific methods for developing hypotheses and testing them. Don’t cities seem like really great places to test policy and attempt social experiments? Maybe we could look at politics as what it really is — human beings prodding into the darkness, attempting to find solutions in a world that is far more complex than we were designed for. But to do that, first we have to start being honest with ourselves and admit that we are in uncharted territory.

Electing Incompetence
Popular opinion is not the best way to determine what policies go into effect to solve problems, and it’s a pretty terrible way of determining who gets to represent us. Let me provide an example that brings to light how this is true:

Imagine a world in where doctors do not go to school and study medicine, instead they run a campaign to be a doctor and are voted into the position of “Doctor”. Whoever could fund a campaign, organize a team, and craft the best message gets to perform emergency surgery on your child, medical knowledge be damned.

Now imagine that the techniques of surgery are dictated by popular opinion of the people who voted the doctor in — or even worse — by the corporations who funded his campaign.

What about Dentists, school teachers, or scientists? What if they were also decided this way? It’s clear that this makes no sense. It is obvious that the skills necessary to successfully politic your way into a position are completely decoupled from competency required to perform well at that position. Just because you’re able to coordinate a campaign doesn’t mean you have any meaningful insight into how the world should be run, how to teach a class, or how to perform open heart surgery.

A New Way
But why does this seem reasonable? In politics, as a theory, this idea is great — citizens elect a one of themselves as a representative to hold power, and if that person does a bad job the people take their power back and give it to someone else. It’s a less-terrible version of the way things worked before — Kings had divine right to the throne, or tyrants bloodied their enemies into submission for the right to dominate. In that light, electing someone to represent your group seems pretty sensible. Much better than having your head bashed in with a club.

But it’s a new world, and it’s clear that politics bordering on religiosity is not the optimal way to run a society. There is a new and complex social order, with people running much more advanced social operating systems within their minds. It’s not the middle ages, it’s not even the 1800’s. People are more educated, more connected, and more capable of engaging the world now than they were 200 years ago. We no longer travel by horse and buggy, so why are we still using a political system as antiquated?

Fighting for which side’s poorly formed solution is going to lead us to peace and prosperity is not the optimal method to the problems we face. Chances are the Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Communists, and any other isms or rats are completely wrong. So what we need isn’t solutions — it isn’t even a framework for determining solutions.

What we need first is a framework for determining and clearly defining the problems. Then, and only then, can we even begin to ideate on possible solutions to those problems. Once we have developed a number of workable solutions we can then apply them on a small scale in communities or cities, expand them to counties, then states, then countries, then the world.

Doesn’t that seem like a better way to do things?