Thursday, September 18, 2008

To Solve a Fact

I just watched Clay Shirky, whose thoughts I absolutely love, give a keynote speech at the Web 2.0 Expo in New York.

He talked about the internet, information overload, publishing, and filtering.

Before the internet, because publishing was expensive, we filtered content (media) and then published it. Now, because publishing is no longer expensive, everyone can publish, and lots of people do, filtered only by their own personal sense of which thoughts of theirs they (or the social media infrastructure into which they dump their thoughts or record their lives) consider newsworthy. If we want to filter all that information, if we want to find quality, however we define that, we need to filter after publishing has already happened.

And we're still working on that, still trying to figure out how to do that gracefully, dynamically, in ways that evolve with the evolution of the tools with which we gather information.

It was a good speech. Not as exciting to me as some other Shirky. But certainly worth more thought and maybe, someday, some written response.

Right now, however, I'm tangentially locked in on a quote that Shirky presented with reference to the information overload problem.

Yitzhak Rabin, a man that had significant experience with a long-standing problem, once said:

If you have the same problem for a long time, maybe it's not a problem; maybe it's a fact.

And that's a statement that worries me.

Problems beg solutions. Facts beg acceptance. And I like solutions better than acceptance.

I think acceptance is dangerous.

It doesn't have to be. Some people will read or hear that Rabin quote and see real value in it, see the pragmatism, the honesty, and the call to action. If Israeli-Arab conflict is a fact, some people will recognize that it's still a fact to be actively managed, a fact to in some sense accept but a fact that requires mitigation of the sort that strives to make it no longer a fact.

Some people, however, will take that word fact too deeply to heart and get conservative,* get complacent, admit helplessness, and decide not to devote energy to changing something that, by some definitions at least, is unchangeable.

If the conflict is a problem, however, it must, by definition, have solutions, and I think it's useful to acknowledge the existence of solutions. It fights the feeling of helplessness. It fights complacency. It fights conservatism. It motivates.

Anyway, I think I might have digressed into something of a downward spiral of semantic frustration, but hearing that quote set me spinning, and I'd rather spin out in the open and hope someone responds and sets me straight or soothes me, so I figured I'd crank out another high speed, impulsive post to close out my 48 hours or so in New York.

Time to go catch the Chinatown Bus (and want to talk to the driver and ticket man but probably get shy about it and just sit and listen to their conversation, which, most definitely, will be in Fuzhou dialect and almost entirely incomprehensible, especially to a Chinese student that has been totally slack for a solid 9 months).

*Note: I define conservatism as the tendency to preserve and protect the status quo, even if it's suboptimal, and I don't like it. I don't think I've ever written much about my thoughts on consevatism as I define it, but I do explain myself a little bit at the end of this post, so, if you're curious or think I'm crazy, have a look, and let me know what you think. I'm still pretty confused about conservatism and how I feel about it, so I'd much appreciate any thoughts you might have.

Posted by email from Radical Transparency (posterous)


Jefferson Parke said...

Hey Jake,

I would imagine that as long as enough people classify a condition as a problem then it's a condition that can be improved. Perhaps two or more problems whose improvement, or resolution, is dependent on one another becomes a deadlocked fact -- ala Arab-Israeli conflict. Hopefully the condition of unsustainable consumption isn't at cross-purposes with anything more than complacency.

Hope all is well!

Jake de Grazia said...

Good thought, Jeff.

Two problems, each solvable, start interacting, get tangled, knotted, complicated, and we freak out and give up. Hmmm.

Almost like the two problems clash such that a new equilibrium dawns: the forces that would make them naturally evolve to solution hold them tight in conflict and make the situation "fact."

Ok. But. I'm still not sure I buy it. That's still a "problem." A problem with solutions. Solutions that will certainly require more creativity than the solutions that would solve either of the problems in isolation, but solutions nonetheless.

Deadlock is breakable. It has to be. Or, well, it HAD BETTER be.

And, yeah, let's hope. Who knows what other problems are in the unsustainable consumption tangle, and who knows which of those problems people regard as "facts." We'll see. And we'll solve them. Not overnight. But eventually.

Vicki Brown said...

Let's try some examples:

1) Every 12 hours or so I get really tired and have to sleep. That's a problem. How do I solve that so I can stay away.

Not a problem - it's a fact. Your body and mind need to rest.

2) When I drink a lot of water, I need to visit the facilities. That's a problem. How do I solve this problem so I don't need to pee!

Not a problem - it's a fact. Your body flushes waste products using the water you drink.

3) When I swim, I have to keep coming back up for air. Even when I take a tank of air, it runs out. It's a problem.

Not a problem - it's a fact. Human breathe air.

Maybe what you're _viewing as a problem_ isn't a "problem" at all.

Vicki Brown said...

stay awake (of course) not "away"

Jake de Grazia said...


This might take us deeper into linguistic distinctions, and I'm not sure that'll be useful, but we'll see.

The need for sleep is a fact. The need to pee is a fact. And the need to breathe is a fact.

Feeling tired is a problem, however. We can solve it by sleeping. And we can solve a bladder that's communicating fullness with discomfort by peeing, and we can solve the anxiety of asphyxiation by drawing breath.

So maybe we can see the distinction like this, see the world like this:

We're operating in a forest of facts. The facts are the parameters of our lives, the frame conditions of our existence. Our navigation through the world is shaped and directed and limited by the facts.

By directing and limiting us, the facts contribute to a series of problems that we face: conflicts, misunderstandings, inequalities, sadnesses and doubts.

We can't change the facts (not very quickly at least; evolution might be a fact changing force, but that's probably another discussion for another day), but we can (and sometimes must) address the problems, try to solve them.

Our solutions won't be solutions, of course, if we don't craft them to fit within the reality the facts create, but, if they do fit, then they destroy problems, remove misunderstandings, etc. from the system.

We can't take away the fact that we have to pee sometimes, but when that fact creates a problem (a full and uncomfortable bladder), we can solve it, and we can live happily with it.

I think my reaction against Rabin's comment stemmed from his implication that the Arab-Israeli conflict was a fact to be accepted and not a problem to be solved. Yes, it's true that there are facts involved in that conflict. There are unchangeable realities that are causing lots of problems, but, in my opinion, to surrender to hopelessness and call those problems unsolvable is unacceptable. It clearly won't be easy to bring about a world in which a Muslim region accepts a Jewish state and a Jewish state accepts its Muslim citizens, but to consider that conflict a "fact" is to give up, and I think it's crazy not to keep trying to eliminate the conflict.

If nothing else, it's a lot more fun to try to get somewhere than to admit it's an impossible journey.