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What are we creating? A solution or a problem?

June 26, 2011

Writer – Ayan Ghosh 

Designers and inventors have a great sense of belief in their problem solving ability. They say that at a macro level design is ultimately aimed at creating, sustaining or increasing human convenience and efficiency. However, I feel that their ability to solve problems is shallow and short term. Yet, no one seems to be asking the question.

Historically there are myriad instances where convenience in one area has led to severe shortfalls in other areas, invariably in the unforeseen long run. For example, the invention of the automobile is indeed one of the most significant inventions ever, made possible by the invention of the internal combustion engine in 1859 by Etienne Lenoir. It leapfrogged an era of alternative energy replacing animal, steam, wind and water energy sources with fuel energy. Gottlieb Daimler, Karl Benz and Henry Ford immediately identified the new potential and perfected the assembly lines, thereby raising new benchmarks of speed and quality in mass production. It ushered in the era of the automobile boom worldwide. 

However, a hundred years later, it is the carbon pollution created by automobiles, which has led to global warming. Within just fifty years of its invention, in 1951 Elma Wischmeir became the millionth American to die on the highway. Nowadays millions of people (between 23 to 34) are victims of road accidents caused by automobiles around the world each year. Huge amounts of metal have mined out of the earth to meet the ever- increasing supply chains. Was all this taken into consideration at the time of the invention of the automobile, or were these seen as minor inconveniences in the attainment of the larger goal of mobility?

Going further back, Johannes Guttenberg made the first information revolution by inventing the printing press in 1454, which created a huge global requirement for paper. Paper still forms one of the most heavily manufactured items of daily consumption worldwide, and also one of the most wasted. Although it is biodegradable and recyclable, it has created severe pressure on the tropical rainforests around the globe, endangering several species in the process.

Similarly, the invention of dynamite by Alfred Nobel in 1867 for the purpose of mining and blasting for road construction has become one of the great killers over the last century and a half. The cell-phone might have revolutionized telecommunications but it has also led to subsidiary rise in health risks, privacy, crime and terrorism.

Computers might have revolutionized information accessibility and communication, but it has allowed the flourishing of pornography, cyber crime, hacking, internet fraud, and severe psychological, ergonomic and cognitive stresses. There are many more such instances that make me sceptical of the real value created out of new opportunities. I might be solving some problem in the short run, but in the long term it might create a cataclysmic butterfly effect. So where does the benefit of its invention fit in? I personally feel that each solution itself is not an end to the process but rather produces a new process itself. It is not a line but a circle, with the problem and the solution running around each other rather than being at the two ends with every design solution creating new problems or multiples of them.

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