When you think of your ideal fridge, what do you imagine? Do you picture fancy temperature controls? Or maybe a built-in water filter, or easy clean shelves, or maybe even an auto-close function? Or maybe — and hear me out — you want a full-screen, integrated tablet, giving you, the lucky consumer, the ability to browse the internet or watch TV, all while pondering whether or not you should eat your partner’s leftovers and deal with the fallout. If you think that last idea seems absurd or unnecessary, then you might have to take it up with Samsung, whose line of Family Hub fridges incorporates such a feature, all for the low, low price of $3,000. But with such a hefty price tag, you have to wonder who’s buying these fridges? And more importantly, what problem are they solving?
The sad truth is, when it comes to technology, we typically don’t ask that last question. We often think that technology is synonymous with progress, and, in doing so, we assume its application will positively transform every aspect of our lives. In a weird way, technology has become the solution to every problem — even the ones that don’t exist. It’s why Ronald Reagan famously said that the “Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip,” and it’s why Samsung is sticking tablets into refrigerators. The idea that every problem can be solved through technological efficiency and innovation is called “solutionism,” and it’s become the default worldview since the 2008 financial crisis. There’s a problem, though: Solutionism is complete and utter baloney, and there are serious financial and political consequences to believing in it.
The Unholy Union: Venture Capital and Silicon Valley
Venture capital isn’t a term you’d typically hear outside of Wall Street. It refers to the financing and support of young start-ups, usually offered by specialized firms and individuals. It’s a high-risk, high-reward space where early investors can score ten- or even one hundredfold returns, or, just as easily, see their capital wiped out entirely. Since the fallout after the 2008 financial crisis, the rich and the privileged have pumped record amounts of capital into the space, with VC spending tripling to $160 billion in 2018. And of course, no industry quite captures the imagination of venture capital like tech.
But all this overabundance of funding has had a peculiar way of warping conventional business models. Where companies once generally looked to consumers to ultimately sustain their businesses, they can now reliably look to venture capital. In effect, this easy funding allows start-ups to kick the whole question of money-making further down the line. Their products need to be useful and profitable someday — but that day doesn’t have to be today, this year, or, in Uber’s case, in ten years. What’s important is that revenue is growing, “progress” is happening, and when the company eventually files for its initial public offering, everyone on the ground floor will be rich, regardless of the company’s long-term fate.
The only problem is, when you remove usefulness and profitability as indicators of success, you’re left with a lot of inadequate solutions. On the better end of this spectrum, you’re left with subpar solutions to existing problems, like thinking you can cut down traffic in LA by burrowing an underground tunnel and skating cars across one by one. On the worse end, you’re stuck with solutions to problems that don’t even exist, like “How do I know if the eggs in my fridge are still fresh?” Yes, a real company actually created a technological solution, so we could all remotely determine the freshness of eggs — because apparently reading expiration dates has gone out of vogue. All of this reeks of solutionism plain and simple — the uncritical application of technological know-how that inevitably delivers half-baked solutions. And, because solutionism is the direct outgrowth of the venture capital system that birthed it, it’s become an industry norm. That should scare us.
Enabling the Stupidest Solutions
When the richest and most powerful Americans believe an idea, you can bet your bottom dollar it will eventually become gospel for the rest of us. This has undoubtedly been the case with tech. In the words of the Columbia Journalism Review, the industry’s “defining idea is that we are living through a benevolent revolution, and that we’re all united by good intentions as we search for new models for our economy and our lives.” But being so gung-ho about technology and where it will take us can enable some of the stupidest ideas in Silicon Valley.
Case in point: Consider Juicero, which received $120 million in venture capital funding. Juicero was conceived as a “smart” juicer — one where you would shell out $600 for the main unit, then a monthly fee for the accompanying bags of freshly-cut fruit. Of course, there was an accompanying app that told you what was in each bag of fruit, and you could even scan a QR code on each bag to ensure it was still fresh. Nowhere did investors — including Google’s parent company, Alphabet — stop to ask if any of this was necessary, or even if the Juicero worked as intended. And spoiler: This brilliant juicer didn’t use 4,000 lbs of force to crush fresh fruit. Instead, Juicero simply shipped bags that were full of pulp, which anyone could squeeze out with their bare hands. The whole enterprise folded quickly — a dark footnote in the history of Silicon Valley.
It might be tempting to see Juicero has a wild one-off event — the poster boy of solutionism, but by no means an indication that such a mindset has become pervasive in our culture. But that’s far from true. Juicero wasn’t the worst case example of solutionism; it was just the most brazen example of it.
The Ugly Side of The Hyperloop
It’s a fairly uncontroversial statement to call Elon Musk a polarizing figure. On one hand, the software engineer behind Paypal has almost single-handedly revolutionized the automobile market after acquisition of Tesla, making the Model S the most popular luxury sedan on the market. On the other hand, he made the financially shady decision for Tesla to buy out his relatives’ failing solar business, misled the public about a possible Tesla buyout in order to spite short sellers, and called the British diver who helped rescue the trapped soccer players in Thailand a “pedo guy” on Twitter. But as loud as these headlines are, people often forget that Musk is quietly pushing for a transportation revolution across America and the world. It’s called the Hyperloop, and it’s a terrifying example of solutionism that common folks, investors, and politicians are rallying behind.
In typical solutionist fashion, the Hyperloop is an extravagant answer to a relatively banal problem: How do we make public transportation more efficient? Musk proposes creating a 350 mile tunnel with very low air pressure, in which you could jettison pods back and forth with the help of electromagnetic propulsion. Sounds a good deal fancier than a train, right? And evidently a good deal faster, too, with Musk estimating top speeds north of 600 mph. Maybe more optimistically still, Musk estimates that the cost of building a Hyperloop between Los Angeles and San Francisco would run between 6 and 7.6 billion dollars — well short of the near $100 billion the state’s latest high-speed rail project might cost when all is said and done.
But Musk, like other solutionists, often ignores the fact that the problems he aims to solve typically don’t exist in a vacuum, as explained by technology critic Evgeny Morozov. Believing in the superior and transformative power of technology alone can cause people to disregard the realities of politics, regulations, finance, and competing private interests. On paper, the Hyperloop may sound like the second coming of Christ in futuristic train form. The reality isn’t nearly so rosy. An analysis by Nicholas McLean at the University of Queensland showed that Musk’s initial projection of $17 million per mile could balloon tenfold. And while companies like Virgin Hyperloop One — spearheaded by Richard Branson — are quick to trumpet their own studies demonstrating the feasibility of the Hyperloop, these studies are riddled with holes. As René Lavanchy found out after interviewing a director of Black & Veatch, a company commissioned for one such study, all the technological assumptions behind the Hyperloop were simply taken as fact. She was told, “We did not evaluate VHO’s technology; we made an assumption that they can get up to 500–600mph as promised.” So far, though, the fastest speeds a Hyperloop test has reached is a paltry 288mph. Perhaps worst of all, though, is the sheer inefficiency of the Hyperloop, which can only move a mere 3,360 people per hour. That number pales in comparison to a subway (36,000) and even a high speed rail (12,000). All of this begs the question: How is the Hyperloop a better alternative to existing solutions to mass transit?
Nevertheless, this reality hasn’t deterred various governments around the world from investing in the technology. A Hyperloop system is being built between Mumbai and Pune, an exploratory agreement has been reached to build one between the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and another one is being built in South Korea. Indeed, even in the US, officials are talking about building a system between LA and San Francisco, Kansas City and St. Louis, and DC and Baltimore. But one has to question the wisdom of throwing federal funds at a system that has yet to be proven, especially considering transportation is just as much a city-planning and logistics problem. Moreover, if Musk’s grand dreams of hurling people through tubes at near supersonic speeds never materialize, who pays the price? Taxpayers, of course.
Skepticism as a Way of Life
In one of his more vitriolic takedowns of tech advocates, Morozov seems to also be speaking about his distaste for Musk and solutionists more broadly: “[P]erhaps this is what the Hybrid Age is all about: marketing masquerading as theory, charlatans masquerading as philosophers, a New Age cult masquerading as a university, business masquerading as redemption, slogans masquerading as truths.” To Morozov, who is currently finishing his doctorate in the History of Science at Harvard, the most important thing is that we cut through the “bullshit.” He doesn’t offer much advice on how to live our lives going forward, except that we all critically examine the narrative that technology is good, just as we view Big Pharma and Big Oil with skepticism.
However, there’s no telling what it will take for society as a whole to adopt this position. It might require a trial by fire, as the first batch of companies built on the back of solutionism finally go public — the likes of Uber, Lyft, and potentially, WeWork. We might have to be burned, whether as investors or taxpayers, before we finally start questioning technology alone as the solution to all our problems. Before then, though, we can expect to see many more Juiceros and Hyperloop hypebeasts pop up.