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False Problems and ‘Solutions’

February 2, 2014

False Problems and Solution

“There are no problems… only solutions!”

That naive, stupid, misleading statement was what I had to endure being lectured on first lesson back, first day of school, by the deputy principal in his address to year 12.

His point was noble – he wanted people to not see problems as impossible to solve. He wanted problems solved. He offered solutions to some problems that he mentioned. The ethic of working hard and smart to break through walls that must be broken is one that should be instilled. Resilience and fortitude must be inculcated in students. But… that’s not what he said. He said ‘there are no problems… only solutions!’ Which is a ridiculous notion.

If there are no problems then what are we solving?

That’s what the deputy didn’t quite get. Problems and solutions are necessarily intertwined. Having one without the other is a bad mix. Problems without solutions are… problems, and they irritate us. But what about a world without problems but ‘solutions’? In that case you’re inventing problems so that you can solve them. And that’s just ridiculous. Why waste resources attacking things that aren’t actually ‘problems’ ? Why make us paranoid about new and overhyped problems? Why focus on making people dissatisfied with their present state?

It’s what I call a ‘false problem’ , an argument that can be levied against consumerism– the idea that much of what we are sold is not necessary; it doesn’t actually solve pre-existing problems. What it does is make our range of problems that must be solved larger. That means rising real incomes are sucked up into achieving the same freedom from problems formerly seen.

Now, solving these problems do raise our standard of living. We have cleaner homes, better food, more attractive citizens etc. These things are all good, but arguably we could be using gains from technology in a better way. We adapt to our ever rising standard of living and so inherently we’re always going to be dissatisfied with the fact that ‘things could be better’. As Owen Wilson’s character in Midnight in Paris says “but that’s because life’s a little unsatisfying”.

Don’t let it be mistaken that I’m against the development of mass markets. I’m not. They can be panaceas to many problems. For instance, over 1 billion have been lifted out of poverty since 1990 due to trade for instance. Yet, I think there are more effective panaceas to the, at times, unsatisfying nature of life. Experiences and camaraderie between friends. If you read the study on happiness I linked in my recent satire, you’d have seen that the first principle was ‘Buy experiences instead of things’ . Follow that study for your happiness in life.

Take the cure of experience rather than items. You can buy items still, but try to buy less. Peruse public libraries, do what you must. Experience.

Of course, new problems do develop, and we ought to be solving as fast as we can. That’s why we have made significant progress over time. Let me give an example.

The 1800s and the industrial revolution meant massive pollution in the air. Before that you’d have the detritus of horses in the streets. In some places sewerage systems wouldn’t have been well developed. In essence, smells to shrivel the nose, right? And, smells that probably overpowered that of human toil’s sweat. As time has gone by we’ve managed to sanitise many of those smells, so the problem of ‘body odour’ has gradually become more noticeable and necessary to address. That’s an example of solving problems as they arise, not manufacturing problems to be solved.

Remember, if there are no problems, then what are you solving? Identify which problems ought to be solved and then work hard, yet efficiently to solve them. Now, that’s much better advice.

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