Solutionism By Another Name — or, When You’ve Got Algorithms Aplenty, the Whole World Looks Like Data

Oh, look -- I think I see *two* ladies! Via  Knight Foundation
Oh, look — I think I see *two* ladies! Via Knight Foundation 

The flurry of recent “solutionism” talk, inspired by Evgeny Morozov’s recent book, made me recall a passage I pruned (probably for good reason) from an early (2009?) draft of my 2011 Click/Scan/Bold: The New Materiality of Architectural Discourse and Its Counter-Publics” article:

“Some pundits are already announcing the death of the much-hyped and derided ‘star’ architecture system and the baroque extravagances of digital fabrication, and hailing the beginning of a more realistic, sober, and sustainable period of design,” Architect Newspaper’s William Menking reported in a July 2009 editorial.[1] With “fewer private commissions on the horizon and government RFQs on hold, it is a perfect time for architecture and urban planning to rethink the basics of their professions and embrace a culture of research inside their offices” — or, [various design/blog/hack -athon] organizers might add, outside those offices, in places like Storefront or the Architectural League, or even on hotel rooftops. But would Menking have imagined that that architectural research would have encompassed processing economic and social data, mapping climatological and astronomical phenomena, pushing architects into other highly specialized fields? Mark Foster Gage suggests that “research architecture,” increasingly prevalent, often advances a hegemonic agenda:

While the mapping of ‘research’ is justified by assuming a legitimate cause-and-effect relationship between cursorily observed problems and their subsequent architectural solutions, a precedent-based approach [, one that understands architecture’s historical lineage,] is founded on the assumption that architecture is not only the solution to pressing contemporary problems but also a living trajectory of invention.”[2]

Research architecture often cultivates the “mistaken assumption that we are always more powerful in dealing with social injustice or inequality in our role as architects than in our roles as citizens or activists.” Design publications sometimes create space for writers and readers to play out these architectural-imperial fantasies: “If the world is framed by architecture, then the world can be rebuilt.” An underlying implication is that in order to rebuild the world, we have to frame its problems as architectural problems.

If all you’ve got is Revit or Catia or ArchiCAD or whatever — and if you’re out to change the world — the world’s problems tend to look like design problems: “We’ll just build them a new community center out of shipping containers, and fit it with a stationary-bike-powered water filtration system!” And maybe that’s just what they need.

A similar framing seems to be happening in other non-architectural design/tech contexts. Of course this isn’t a new phenomenon (the whole “if all you’ve got is a hammer…” maxim has been around for a while) — but the general data-fetishist/DIY hype seems to be rather novel. If you’ve got lots of programmers armed with lots of algorithms, “social change” could potentially be reduced to finding the right open data set and hacking the hell out of it.

All this effort is commendable, and I don’t mean to knock it. But perhaps we’d do well to think a bit more about the impetuses and ideologies behind, and methodologies implied by, these quick-attack “-thons” and “sprints” and “slams” (I really do think it’s useful to think of these things in terms of methodology). I co-organized one such event in 2009, and, honestly, it left me feeling super-conflicted and unsure of what on earth I’d just done. I’m glad people like Morozov, Jake Porway, and the folks at the University of Amsterdam are thinking about these things.

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[1] William Menking, “Thought Process” Architect’s Newspaper, July 29, 2009, 5.
[2] Mark Foster Gage, “In Defense of Design” Log 16 (2009): 42.

7 replies on “Solutionism By Another Name — or, When You’ve Got Algorithms Aplenty, the Whole World Looks Like Data”

Hi Shannon,

It is interesting, there seems to be a level of reflection in the implementation of these solution, sometimes self-organizing, software-oriented methodologies (what exactly are these, anyways?). Often a hackathon can be more of a yackathon, talking about the ideas, problems, limitations of the technology or the messiness of the data. This, I think, is leading to some meta-hacking, hackathons on hackathons, or just questions.

I’ve been involved with a few of the OccupyData events and our next event is a sharing/discussion event about hackathons – their politics, potentials, outcomes. One of the researchers from DMI at Amsterdam might be joining us for that and would be really great to have you there, if you’re available. Timing is strange, it is on a Sunday afternoon in Wolman Hall. There’s an open call for topics and questions on the website, but the site is acting up in the past few days, so here’s the post to the meetup:

So many thoughts that I would really like to explore with others, but part of questioning the ideologies behind hackathons, etc might involve a comparison of the language used at these different events. Media Studies grad student, Nathanael Basset, is doing work on that for his MA thesis. He has come up with some interesting observations attending a number of events in a short period of time. Some organizers are trying to make a distinction lately about civic hacking and political hacking, suggesting that civic hacking is just about improving existing systems and that it is not political. Apparently, OccupyData has received honourable mention in the political hacking category. This framing of civic data transformation and app development as apolitical has me thinking that there is a potency to these methodologies, a risk that self-organized, collaborative research & design might actually do something that can’t easily be quantified and measured.

You’ve got me really thinking about the hammer analogy now. Which is great, thanks.


Thanks so much for this fabulous response, Christo! It’s great to know that you’re gathering folks to engage in this kind of meta-discussion. The whole hack vs. yack” debate, as you probably know, has been big in the digital humanities for a while, but that discussion has focused, for the most part, on how people can most productively spend their time — talking about making stuff, or shutting up and making stuff — and on whether or not scholars really need to know how to code in order to credibly critique digital technology. In recent years, that discussion seems to have evolved into one questioning the problematic distinction between hacking and yacking, thinking and making — and wondering about the theory embedded in our technical tools and their processes of design. There’s a lot of talk of ideology, too — and concern about the “dark side” of DH. Maybe these two worlds — Digital Humanities and hackathons — are experiencing a similar, if differently paced, evolution in their own self-reflective discourse.

Thanks for letting me know about the event on the 28th! It sounds super-interesting! Since I’m not teaching this semester, I’m out of town a lot; I will be here that weekend, though — and I’ll try to stop by if I can! I would be great if, in your discussion, you were able to take up this whole political vs. civic hacking distinction — seems specious to me. Simply “improving existing systems” is apolitical? Perhaps less overtly or self-consciously political, but I’d say there’s clearly a politics (however fraught) embedded in the processes and outcomes of this work.

Again, thanks, Christo!

Hi Shannon, since I made the distinction between civic hacking and political hacking (or “hacktivism”) I guess I could try to make it clearer.

What I see as civic hacking is a type of advocacy, where technologists, developers, and data enthusiasts believe that open government and transparency will allow the citizenry to better interface with and improve city/state/federal(?) government. Civic hacking is about working with the state through techniques more akin to advocacy. In NY, my working example is Code Across America/OpenNYForum and the “Roadmap for the Digital City” Bloomberg’s office put out awhile back. I wouldn’t say it isn’t political, but it certainly isn’t antagonistic or transgressive – instead it normalizes hacking as a legitimate means of civic engagement.

On the other hand, political hacking or “hacktivism” is the more perhaps stereotypical idea of hacking that we think of – data activism, projects that aren’t done as an appeal to government but in response to it, meant to organize people and appeal to publics and communities rather than the state itself.

Morozov’s solutionism is an interesting critique of “big data” answers and using apps and such to solve social problems – I’m not sure if I’d completely agree though. Christo pointed this thought out to me – It’s one thing if Silicon Valley opportunists and people at TED want to solve problems very far away with their tech solutions. But what if people try to take it into their own hands, whether through the hackathon format, or by becoming makers, sharing skills and organizing horizontally? The critique is worth hearing though: you might be interested in David Sasaki’s post on it and some of the links in there. But I think hackathons point to a model of network power and collaboration, in that they increase the agency of all the participants and their relationship to knowledge and power. They may not be about the projects as solutions (which aren’t always sustainable anyway) but I think there is really positive potential in the sort of relationships they foster.

Thanks for this really thoughtful explanation, Nathaniel. I agree that the impetus(es) (e.g., working with or outside of/ counter to the gov’t) and instigator(s) (e.g., whether it’s a networked-citizen-based effort or some TED crap) for these projects make a huge difference. There are politics and and ideology in all of these actions, though, and I’m glad you’re trying to tease out the differences.

By the way, I assume you’re familiar with Usman Haque’s critique of open data? (we read this piece in my Materiality class). This looks promising, too.

Again, thanks for your comment — and for directing me to Sasaki’s post!

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