In the New York Times Sunday Review yesterday, Evgeny Morosov defines “solutionism” as “an intellectual pathology that recognizes problems as problems based on just one criterion: whether they are ‘solvable’ with a nice and clean technological solution at our disposal.” Observing that “Silicon Valley’s technophilic gurus and futurists have embarked on a quest to develop the ultimate patch to the nasty bugs of humanity,” Morosov highlights proposed technological solutions to such universal problems as forgetfulness and inconsistency.
Reading the editorial, I couldn’t help but think of how modern reproductive technologies offer their own form of “solutionism.”
When Morosov states, “Solutionists err by assuming, rather than investigating, the problems they set out to tackle,” [emphasis mine] I immediately thought of all the tales I’ve heard of people (like me) who have a genetic disorder and choose to have children who might inherit the disorder, and of people who have received a prenatal diagnosis of some unexpected condition, whose medical providers assume that the condition in question—osteogenesis imperfecta (my bone disorder), Down syndrome, or whatever it might be—is obviously and universally bad, tragic, a problem to be solved. They frequently fail to investigate, or encourage their patients to investigate, what life with the condition might actually be like. Which means they fail to discover, or allow their patients to discover, all that is not bad, tragic, and problematic about life with a particular condition, but is rather rich, meaningful, or at the very least, completely normal (that is, not terribly different from life without that condition).
I have gone on record, here on my blog and elsewhere, about my empathy for families for whom a child’s genetic condition is perceived as a problem, as a reason for some measure of grief because of the potential limitations and suffering their child (and they) will likely experience. I adore my daughter who inherited my bone condition, and I have lived a vibrant, full life with the same disorder, but I still grieve the suffering, pain, and limitations it has brought into both our lives. I don’t know that I will ever get to a place where I can see a genetic mutation that causes a toddler to break her leg after a minor fall, or that causes a 40-something mother to be hobbled by severe arthritis, as a value-neutral “difference.” In many ways, our OI has indeed been a problem in our lives, one in need of a solution, whether that be effective treatments, accommodations, or a cure.
That said, however, I still see and fear the danger of “solutionism” as applied to child bearing, genetic screening, and prenatal diagnosis. What’s missing from so many conversations, both cultural (taking place on op ed pages, in the blogosphere, in med schools, in politics) and private (taking place in exam rooms between medical folk and patients, and in bedrooms or kitchens between prospective parents), is that crucial step of investigation. Investigation starts with that vital intention to seek trustworthy information about the problem being considered, and to see how people who have that problem actually live, and in many cases, thrive. Such intention leads us to learn that the phenomenon assumed to be purely problematic is actually many-sided, posing both problems and solutions, offering both enrichment and difficulty to human lives.
To illustrate this last point, Morosov describes a computer scientist’s vision of a device that would allow you to record your entire life, so you could look back on your actions and decisions, be confronted with your many inconsistencies, and correct them. But, Morosov argues:
This sounds nice in theory, but in the world that we actually inhabit, [this] quest for consistency borders on the tyrannical. In his brilliant essay “In Praise of Inconsistency,” published in Dissent in 1964, the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski argued that, given that we are regularly confronted with equally valid choices where painful ethical reflection is in order, being inconsistent is the only way to avoid becoming a doctrinaire ideologue who sticks to an algorithm. For Kolakowski, absolute consistency is identical to fanaticism.
“The breed of the hesitant and the weak …of those …who believe in telling the truth but rather than tell a distinguished painter that his paintings are daubs will praise him politely,” he wrote, “this breed of the inconsistent is still one of the main hopes for the continued survival of the human race.” If the goal of being confronted with one’s own inconsistency is to make us more consistent, then there is little to celebrate here.
In other words, and to put it much more simply, technology often offers to fix problems that aren’t really problems, even if they do sometimes cause pain.
Morosov urges that, “Whenever technology companies complain that our broken world must be fixed, our initial impulse should be to ask: how do we know our world is broken in exactly the same way that Silicon Valley claims it is?”
In a similar vein, whenever today’s parents are offered technological solutions to the “problem” of having less-than-perfect babies (the irony, of course, being that all parents always have less-than-perfect babies), our initial impulse should be to ask:
How do we know that our children will be broken in exactly the same way that the medical folks and/or our culture claim they will be?
There is no doubt our children will all be broken, imperfect, subject to pain and limitations. Some of that pain and brokenness might indeed be caused directly by a genetic condition that is, with the use of genetic and reproductive technologies, avoidable. My family has the four dozen broken bones, worn-out joints, limps, and scars to prove that a genetic condition can lead to very real, significant pain and problems.
But much of our children’s pain will also come from others, those who are unable or unwilling to see past their differences. A whole lot of it will come from simply being human. Alongside the certainty of tears and pain lies the near-certainty of joy, fellowship, learning, love. And that won’t be apparent unless we set aside our assumptions and really look at how our various imperfections and perceived “problems” can actually add much of value to human life.