Three Ways to Tackle Societal Problems, Or The Importance of Technological End Runs

Most solutions to societal problems fall into one of three categories—cultural, legal, or technological. Consider a disabled man, who lacks the use of his legs. We want to ensure that this man has equal access and isn’t unfairly discriminated against. We can institute:

  • A Cultural Solution — Encourage everyone to be considerate of this man’s needs.
  • A Legal Solution — Enforce laws that make it illegal to not provide equal access to this man.
  • A Technological Solution — Just give the man robot legs and call it a day.

Cultural solutions generally don’t hurt, but they tend to be slow-moving and in the worst cases can be completely ineffectual. Legal solutions require the use of centralized state power, and are thus subject to all the associated problems. Even in the above example, the potential for governmental abuse is clearly present: it’s not hard to imagine a bureaucracy imposing excessive fees and requirements on businesses and individuals, all under the pretense of making things more “handicap-friendly.”

Technological solutions, on the other hand, have the potential to bypass both cultural lethargy and bad policy. If you actually want to change the world for the better, with a reasonable amount of effort and on a reasonable timescale, technological solutions have a lot of advantages.

Good philanthropic institutions tend to understand this truth. For example, if you want to help solve the problem of STDs and unwanted pregnancies by encouraging condom use, you can institute:

  • A Cultural Solution — Just tell people to use condoms. (While sex education is certainly a good idea, it is far from a complete solution given how intractable horny people are.)
  • A Legal Solution — Mandate the use of condoms. (If this sounds absurd, note that my county just voted to force porn actors to wear condoms in all sex scenes.)
  • A Technological Solution — Design a better condom that people will be more likely to use.

This might seem like an obvious point I’m making, but I find that all too often people tend to inadvertently leave technological solutions out of debates. Many arguments get bogged down in fights between two competing legal solutions. Meanwhile some lateral technological solution is just sitting there, waiting to be exploited. Often times, the energy that is spent fighting over competing policy visions, could be better spent fostering some engineering project. For example, what would save more lives per unit of effort? Fighting a difficult political battle to enact tougher gun control laws aimed at criminals who are already set on breaking the law? Or researching biometric locks that might at least do away with the significant number of accidental gun deaths?

The importance of technological solutions is particularly important to remember today. As technological progress accelerates, many old cultural and political debates become susceptible to technological end runs.