The Meta-Problem of the Modern World

   When I was a young boy, maybe eight or nine years old, I had a fearful dream … that all the problems of the world would be solved before I’d have my chance to help solve them. Granted I was an odd kid, and perhaps this is an instance of ‘only in America,’ but I doubt any child any­where has this worry today. As I recall, this ‘nightmare’ followed an episode of The Twenty-First Century with Walter Cronkite.1 Yes, most adults probably knew better, and surely some knew much better. After all, a popular president had been murdered in the street, the opening shot of a decade of assassination; the cold war was still raging with its omnipresent threat of nuclear annihilation; Vietnam involvement was deepening and becoming messier by the day; drugs/hippies were happening…. And of course, whatever problems had been solved for us were by no means solved for the other America.2 Nevertheless, there was a feeling of an almost irrepressible progress, not only technological, but political, economic, social, moral, even spiritual, a manifest destiny for the coming century. We’d solve not only America’s problems, but all the worlds’.

In retrospect, it’s clear any such 1967 optimism was misplaced. Few would argue that today the world is better, safer, or in any way on a better trajectory than it was fifty years ago. One such indicator is that although we worry far less about the great threat of that time, nuclear annihila­tion may well be more likely today. We only worry about it less only because (1) now there are so many additional cataclysmic threats even more likely than nuclear annihilation, and (2) it increasingly seems as though there is little to nothing we can do about such threats … or for that matter, the innumerable smaller ones.

Still, there was some justification for the sense of progress at the time. One way to think about progress and its opposite as a problem-solution ‘race.’ At any given time, any system has both an existing stock of problems that is trying to mitigate as well as a flow of new emerging problems with which it must deal.3 Progress is when problems are being resolved more rapidly than new ones are emerging.

In 1967, despite all the problems in America, there was a sense that solutions were outpacing problems, that we were working down the stock of problems in the country, even ameliorating mankind’s longest-standing problems of disease, poverty, shelter and sustenance, and making startling advances on our species’ wildest dreams of space flight and exploration.

Maybe it was even reality. Within twenty-five years the cold war was over; apartheid, another once-apparently intractable problem, was peacefully resolved; and many of the other foremost problems of the 1960s — hunger, racism and sexism — were significantly ameliorated.

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  Now, however, it seems clear that problems are outracing solutions, and it’s not even close. America circa 1967 had lots of problems (Figure 1), and although there were also many new problems forming and feeding into the broth, there was also an ability to deal with these problems through advances in science and knowledge; a widespread sense, however tenuous, of a public sphere; and of these forces having influence on organizational, institutional and national decision-making.

Figure 1: America 1967 Problem Cauldron

Graphics assistance by Darshi Mody

As a result, the stock of problems in the country while never, of course, approaching a level to justify my childhood fears, almost certainly did not worse over the next quarter century, and probably declined. But also sometime in this period, the rate of problem creation began to supersede the ability to mitigate them.

Today, continuing increases in population growth, consumerism, and technological potency lead to ever more rapid rates of problem creation (the diameter of the inflows to the left on both diagrams) — as well as accelerating the magnitude of these problems! Still, the overall stock of problems might conceivably be manageable, if in fact capacity to manage problems could keep pace (the diameter of the outflows to the right on both diagrams). (Fig 4 right), But it is increasingly clear that this is not the case – resulting in cauldrons on the verge of catastrophic overflow.

Figure 2: An Over-flowing 2017 Problem Cauldron

Graphics assistance by Darshi Mody

To manage problems, the modern world depends not only on knowledge acquisition, but the intelligent application of this knowledge. Advances in science and technology over the past fifty years which have, for the most part, exceeded those imagined in Cronkite’s Twenty-First Century, yet our ability to solve problems may well have declined, and at the institutional level and above – may well have declined precipitously.

Although today we have unprecedented storehouses of knowledge – as well as ability to create, disseminate and access knowledge – actions, small and large on every level from what to eat to global decisions about war and “development” remain tragically uninformed. Academics working in the social and professional disciplines routinely speak of a “theory-practice gap”, but this “gap” is by now a chasm. And unless it can be bridged consequences will no longer simply be tragic, but cataclysmic.

Indeed this is the meta-problem of the modern world. Yes, there’s global warming, a biotic crisis (massive extinctions), pestilence, rising sea levels, flood, extreme weather events, human displacement, overpopulation, water pollution, air pollution, and despite the fall of communism, increased militarism and warfare; as well as alarming array of other potential economic, biologic and ecologic catastrophes, and now of course Trump. But the meta-problem is the inability to solve problems.

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  This past year I accepted a position to develop the research methods curriculum for a new doctoral program for working professionals– the Philadelphia University Strategic Leadership program – with the goal of addressing what may well be the transcendent challenge of our times –bridging this Knowledge Application Chasm.

In a series of articles, I’ll be elaborating this thesis, exploring causes and consequences, as well as what we can do to bridge the chasm. I’ll begin next with a post about exponential growth in knowledge creation.

Please share here any general thoughts about the project or this post including any article or question you think we may want to consider. I hope to elicit guest columns as well. Perhaps you can suggest or even write one?

Kind regards, Steve4

Notes

  1. The Twenty-First Century (TV Series 1967–1970 ) with Walter Cronkite. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0287889/
  2.  The phrase comes from a 1962 book, “The Other America: Poverty in the United States” by Michael Harrington, (ISBN 0-684-82678-X). The book was made famous by an influential article – a very long book review – that appeared in The New Yorker, January 19, 1963. “Our Invisible Poor” by Dwight MacDonald attracted the attention of President John F. Kennedy, and led to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s subsequent “War on Poverty.”

    See also: Isserman, Maurice “Michael Harrington: Warrior on poverty”. The New York Times, June 19, 2009.

  3. Economics, accounting and other fields including System Dynamics distinguish between quantities that are stocks and those that are flows. A stock variable is measured at one specific time, and represents a quantity existing at that point in time (say, January 31, 2017), but which has accumulated in the past. A flow variable is measured over an interval of time. Flow is roughly analogous to rate or speed in this sense, and stock to distance traveled.

    For example, a budget surplus (or deficit) is a flow variable measuring the amount by which revenues exceed (or are exceeded by) outlays in a particular period, usually one year. Net accumulation of all historical surpluses and deficits represents the [total] net financial asset position. Among federal governments, positive net financial asset positions are sufficiently uncommon that we don’t have a word for it, and we refer to the accumulated (net) deficits as the national debt (though some countries such as Norway, the government’s total financial assets do exceed the total debt http://www.nationaldebtclocks.org/debtclock/norway).

    Over the previous two presidential administrations (those of GW Bush and Obama), US annual federal budget deficits averaged nearly $1 trillion, that is annual expenditures exceeded revenues by nearly $1 trillion annually. As of January 31, 2017, the national debt is approximately $20 trillion (see http://www.nationaldebtclocks.org/debtclock/unitedstates and https://www.thebalance.com/us-debt-by-president-by-dollar-and-percent-3306296).

  4. Thanks so much to