For some in Silicon Valley, the rise of new data and communication networks creates unprecedented opportunities to solve problems like obesity, traffic, and flu pandemics. For example, an app like FitBit or LoseIt can keep track of calories and buzz a dieter once he goes over his daily limit. Futuristic early warning systems can warn drivers away from bottlenecks, and detect emerging influenza outbreaks.
Evgeny Morozov’s illuminating book To Save Everything, Click Here challenges both “internet centrism” and “solutionism.” The internet may, for instance, make traffic worse. Moreover, solutionism tends to “reach for the answer before the questions have been fully asked.” Is the problem really traffic, or something deeper in the way cities and opportunities are arranged? Solutionism tends to prioritize issues that widely accessible tech can address: small, algorithmically decomposable bits of wicked problems.
While a solutionist might think of gamified calorie counting as a wonderful new way to fight obesity, a more sober analysis of the problem will lead us to doubt the smartphone will make us svelte. Similarly, calorie counts may be a great disclosure tactic, but disclosure is only the first step on the road to changing behavior. And our food problem, like our traffic problem, may entail reconsideration of privilege, taste, and inequality as far deeper problems than individual struggles for self-control.
Big data has been linchpin of solutionist narratives about the future of tech in health care. However, there are still major challenges in data quality. Even if the data were perfect, causal inference still may be a challenge, as Hoffman & Podgurski explain: