How 'there are no technical solutions to social problems' is wrong

April 26, 2016

One of the things that you will hear echoing around the Internet is the saying that there are no technical solutions to social problems. This is sometimes called 'Ranum's Law', where it's generally phrased as 'you can't fix people problems with software' (cf). Years ago you probably could have found me nodding along sagely to this and full-heartedly agreeing with it. However, I've changed; these days, I disagree with the spirit of the saying.

It is certainly true you cannot outright solve social problems with technology (well, almost all of the time). Technology is not that magical, and the social is more powerful than the technical barring very unusual situations. And in general social problems are wicked problems, and those are extremely difficult to tackle in general. This is an important thing to realize, because social problems matter and computing has a great tendency to either ignore them outright or assume that our technology will magically solve them for us.

However, the way that this saying is often used is for technologists to wash their hands of the social problems entirely, and this is a complete and utter mistake. It is not true that technical measures are either useless or socially neutral, because the technical is part of the world and so it basically always affects the social. In practice, in reality, technical features often strongly influence social outcomes, and it follows that they can make social problems more or less likely. That social problems matter means that we need to explicitly consider them when building technical things.

(The glaring example of this is all the various forms of spam. Spam is a social problem, but it can be drastically enabled or drastically hindered by all sorts of technical measures and so sensible modern designers aggressively try to design spam out of their technical systems.)

If we ignore the social effects of our technical decisions, we are doing it wrong (and bad things usually ensue). If we try to pretend that our technical decisions do not have social ramifications, we are either in denial or fools. It doesn't matter whether we intended the social ramifications or didn't think about them; in either case, we may rightfully be at least partially blamed for the consequences of our decisions. The world does not care why we did something, all it cares about is what consequences our decisions have. And our decisions very definitely have (social) consequences, even for small and simple decisions like refusing to let people change their login names.

Ranum's Law is not an excuse to live in a rarefied world where all is technical and only technical, because such a rarefied world does not exist. To the extent that we pretend it exists, it is a carefully cultivated illusion. We are certainly not fooling other people with the illusion; we may or may not be fooling ourselves.

(I feel I have some claim to know what the original spirit of the saying was because I happened to be around in the right places at the right time to hear early versions of it. At the time it was fairly strongly a 'there is no point in even trying' remark.)

Written on 26 April 2016.
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Last modified: Tue Apr 26 23:50:13 2016
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