We live in an uncertain age, an age of wicked problems.
A wicked problem is a societal challenge, like inequality in education or climate change, that cuts across multiple institutions and brings together numerous stakeholders with competing interests. Because of this, the more you pull at a wicked problem, the more you create another problem. You increase school funding to address achievement gaps between poor and middle-class students, and next thing you know, middle-class families overrun the well-funded schools, using their economic and political leverage to push out the poor kids the funding was designed to target. Oh, and there’s a fire and a new policy about seat belts on school buses, and the PTA wants to have a word with you. Wicked problem.
These tangled, layered and deeply urgent dilemmas seem to cry out for Professionally Smart People to comment on them, to make sense of them, to solve them, and often in opinion columns of 1,000 words or less. But wicked problems are so multi-faceted that it seems impossible not to make a mess of anything one chooses to comment upon. I have been known to give Professionally Smart People a hard time about the certainty with which they weigh in on any wicked problem, at a moment’s notice. These are the pundits who embrace certainty as much as I fear it. For if there’s one thing I know from studying wicked problems and reading the great writers who wrote into existence our world, it is that a smart person avoids certainty. The truly wise only concede a certainty when evidence and spirit compel it. Yet here I am, stepping up to the plate to offer a professionally smart opinion on things that matter.
One reason I’m choosing to do that is because, despite my suspicion of certainty, there is one thing of which I am nearly certain. It’s that of all the wicked problems facing the grand “us,” the biggest is the central assumptions about what will hold together our society.
There are many terms for the moment we are in. It can be called the network society, the technological age, late stage capitalism and globalization. There are catchier terms like “the twilight of the elites” and loaded anachronisms like “neoliberalism.” But from where I sit, so far away from certainty on so many things, all of these ideas are trying to capture the same dilemma: What is a modern democracy without big wars to propel our economies, institutions to tie a heterogeneous society together or a promised horizon where we can expect to turn the corner? I will call this wicked problem “the digital society.” It is a problem worth risking an opinion for.
The challenge is that wicked problems tend to bring out the shysters. It is easy for shysters to become “thought leaders,” to borrow Daniel Drezner’s version of the term in his book The Ideas Industry. Thought leaders have emerged as a stratum of people who profit from selling certainties in uncertain times. Every era has its show people who sell elixirs for all that ails us.
But never before has there been a means for selling a bottle of cure-all to so many people for so little. Where you once had to venture to town or pay money or commit your soul to be sold a simple solution to a complex problem, now you need merely click a mouse or tap a screen. Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has said of the history we are currently living that “we are building a dystopia just to make people click on ads.” In the digital dystopia she describes, our attention is the currency. And, perversely, our attention is both immensely valuable and absurdly cheap ― a jackpot for “thought leaders” looking to sell simple solutions to wicked problems. These elixirs need an antidote. I aim to make my column here one such remedy.
We may be leaving the golden age of U.S. higher education, science and cultural institutions, but knowledge isn’t dead yet. There are lessons to be learned not just from history but from histories: the lived and systematic experiences of people both like us and different than us. There are not many certainties among this knowledge, but there are deep insights about how people live with massive change, fashion new cultural norms from the shreds of dying dynasties and thrive despite the many oppressive threads that bind. That is what a new generation of people who are professionals and smart ― but not Professionally Smart ― can offer us: a new imagination for a nation hamstrung by wicked problems and overrun by shysters with cure-alls.
For my part, I will be inviting readers to reshape our attention economy by building a dialogue about how democracy and justice work in a technological, global society.
This isn’t just about social media, but about all those other problems we read about. Everything that keeps you up at night is running through the technological change that is reshaping how we work, go to school and form families. The “white rage” that flummoxed too many Professionally Smart People during the last presidential election was less about hillbilly elegies than it was about the technologies that are killing jobs and building new ones farther away than many can travel to work them. It was about the technologies that connect white nationalists in Idaho and Charlottesville to white nationalists in Sweden and Greece. It was about the technologies that make it easier to arrest people, but not easier to protect us from police brutality. The dissolution of the social ties that once led us to community organizations now drives us to form alliances online and off in ways that challenge almost all the social institutions built in the 19th and 20th centuries.
For all my wariness of the unearned certainty of certain “experts,” I believe there are people who possess certainties about this moment from which we haven’t yet learned enough. For example, there are communities who are building new ways to think about justice that is more restorative than punitive. They are tackling technologies of social control like surveillance and predictive policing algorithms. Others are using the same tools of social control to create platforms that empower people to build deeper, more meaningful ties that can change the world one link at a time. I am enthralled currently by apps designed to raise cash bail for defendants being held in jail before trial simply because they cannot afford to pay. One app, Bail Bloc, uses cryptocurrencies to convert registered users’ unused computer processing capacity into a bail fund. The black-owned app Appolition started as an idea on Twitter to routinize digital cash donations. These kinds of adaptations of technologies pull at the thread of revenue-generating incarceration, a predatory system that undermines the basic principles of modern democracy.
Of course, not all of these technological shifts affect everyone the same way. Changes in how we work mean more competition for well-paying jobs even as Silicon Valley titans salivate over eliminating most jobs altogether. Those changes weigh especially heavily on the economic stability of African-Americans and women who are, because of historical discrimination, more often the last hired and first fired in many industries. That is something social scientists often refer to as cumulative disadvantage. At the same time that cumulative disadvantages persist, the new technologies that make it easier for people to train for new lines of work can also become technologies that more effectively weed out potential job applicants on the basis of cultural traits like wealth, status and background. This too often hits already marginalized people the hardest. When cumulative disadvantages intersect with present-day inequalities, technology makes inequality more efficient.
As the sun sets on the elites and their institutions, the foundations of a new democratic social contract will emerge. Given whom technological changes hit first and impact the most, it is likely that those foundations are already being built. They’re being laid by immigrants, indigenous people, poor and working-class people and all manner of racial and ethnic minorities. I will start looking there ― not for certainties, but for hope.
Tressie McMillan Cottom is a professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University and the author of Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the U.S.