Problems vs difficulties

A month ago I thought I would be returning to regular writing on this blog, but then life intervened. It may still happen, but in the meantime here’s an email to a friend that is worth sharing.

Thanks for this. I thought the video was very good, as well as the website describing their Time Well Spent project. And the practices they recommend sound good to me, though I can’t give first hand testimony (except for ad blocking, a critical tool!) since I don’t have a cell phone.

I also like the idea of a “hippocratic oath” for designers, with caveats–I can’t imagine that companies will embrace the idea unless they see profits in it … but that could happen if people want it. And promoting the idea will increase people’s awareness of the possibility.

There’s a touch of historical ignorance at work here. Technology broadly defined has presented us with similar challenges for hundreds of years, which we’ve mostly failed to meet (or even recognize). Looking more deeply at some of those, e.g. the rise of the advertising model since it was invented in 1830 or so, would add some important perspective.

The proposed response reminds me of a distinction I first ran across in Jacques Barzun, one that has become a credo for me. Here’s a description (from someone writing about Barzun) that’s worth quoting at length (boldface is mine):

There is, however, a philosophical–even an existential–component to Barzun’s writings.  “The purpose I gradually fashioned took the form of a resolve to fight the mechanical,” by which he means any ossified system of beliefs and the behaviors based on them. Our great mistake, according to Barzun, is that we try to affect mechanically what is actually a condition–the human one: “The supposition is that what we face is a problem to be solved; and it is a foolish supposition. Human affairs rarely contain problems with solutions. They contain predicaments and difficulty, which is a very different thing.” And because life “overflows ideologies and coercive systems” and makes everything possible (including ideologies and coercive systems), he views our span on earth not as something to engineer to our advantage, but as a natural state whose unpredictability we must adapt to.

That’s an important two-kinds-of-people distinction for me: some folks think that life presents us only with problems to be solved–“just tell me what to do”–while others (a few, anyway) see the great majority of challenges as difficulties to be addressed on an ongoing basis. Here’s how Barzun put it:

A problem is a definable difficulty; it falls within certain limits and the right answer gets rid of it. But the difficulty–not the problem–the difficulty of making a living, finding a mate, keeping a friend who has a jealous, cantankerous disposition cannot be dealt with in the same way–it has no solution. It calls for endless improvisation, some would say “creativity”.

I thought about that when I read this answer in the Time Well Spent FAQ:

We don’t need more apps or technology, but we need to change the fundamental design for how devices orchestrate the interactions between us and the things that want our attention. Today the Attention Economy is like a city with lots of pollution and accidents. We don’t fix the city by telling residents to leave (turn devices off). We also don’t fix the city by extending the same structure of the city that led to the problems. We fix the cityby adding bike lanes, blinker signals and crosswalks to restructure people’s interactions so there’s less pollution and fewer accidents. We can do that with Time Well Spent.

I think the assumption here (a very common one) is that when difficulties exist in the environment, our job is to eliminate the difficulties rather than equip the inhabitants to deal with them. When they say “We don’t fix the city by telling residents to leave”, they locate the work to be done in the environment, not the inhabitants. As long as we adopt that attitude, we leave people prey to difficulties that are not solvable–which is most of them.

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