Institutions Will Seek To Preserve The Problem For Which They Are The Solution

from the the-shirky-principle dept

We already wrote a detailed analysis of Clay Shirky's recent writeup on complex business models. However, a few of you have sent over Kevin Kelly's recent post about Shirky's piece that also compares it to Clayton Christensen's Innovator's Dilemma, but thankfully highlights the one key line in Shirky's piece that may have gotten lost in the original:
"Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution."
Kelly calls this the "Shirky Principle." To me, it calls to mind Upton Sinclair's famous line:
"It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!"
They are not the same point, but they are related. In both cases, these are situations where people will often seek to preserve a problem or a falsehood, rather than recognize that it doesn't need to be that way. There are lots of industries where this is a major issue.

But, of course, the real problem is in how they go about trying to preserve that problem. They will go to great lengths to demonize the solutions. This is why the newspaper industry has, at times, lashed out at Craigslist and Google News -- two operations that have essentially removed problems that the newspaper business used to solve. It's why old school video guys lash out at YouTube or Boxee -- because they have removed problems that television used to solve. And, yes, it's why the RIAA and the MPAA lash out at file sharing apps and services -- because they have removed problems in distribution and promotion, that they used to solve.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  •  
    identicon
    Colonel Panik, Apr 9th, 2010 @ 8:03am

    Preserve The Problem

    "Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution."

    Never in a million years would I have thought of this.
    The truth of this is overwhelming.

    The medical/pharma industry vs cancer.
    Education cartel vs learning.
    Legal vs justice.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      icon
      Dark Helmet (profile), Apr 9th, 2010 @ 8:12am

      Re: Preserve The Problem

      "The medical/pharma industry vs cancer.
      Education cartel vs learning.
      Legal vs justice."

      UNATCO vs. Grey Death

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, Apr 9th, 2010 @ 8:44am

      Re: Preserve The Problem

      former US President/Oil Man & former US VP/defense, post-war rebuild contractor vs. "War" in Iraq/oil field security.

      not many people seem to care much about conflicting interests these days.

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      •  
        identicon
        Greg, Apr 9th, 2010 @ 11:20am

        Re: Re: Preserve The Problem

        Liberal Democrats (i.e., the current US President) vs welfare and all the leeching recipients.

         

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      •  
        identicon
        Bill, Apr 19th, 2010 @ 5:29am

        Re: Re: Preserve The Problem

        True. Now we have someone who has no background except in marxism. Look what we are getting now.

         

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      icon
      nasch (profile), Apr 9th, 2010 @ 8:50am

      Re: Preserve The Problem

      Agreed, except that even if educators did an awesome job educating children, there would always be more to educate, so not really a conflict there.

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      •  
        icon
        chris (profile), Apr 9th, 2010 @ 11:16am

        Re: Re: Preserve The Problem

        Agreed, except that even if educators did an awesome job educating children, there would always be more to educate, so not really a conflict there.

        the problem isn't one of quality, it's one of availability and affordability.

        you can't count on an industry that profits from scarcity to solve the problem of scarcity.

         

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      icon
      nasch (profile), Apr 9th, 2010 @ 8:51am

      Re: Preserve The Problem

      I thought of another one after hitting submit though, and kind of a disturbing one: police and crime.

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, Apr 9th, 2010 @ 10:26am

      Re: Preserve The Problem

      DEA vs America

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      identicon
      Chuck, Apr 9th, 2010 @ 11:07am

      Re: Preserve The Problem

      I don't think you understand the analogy... You can't "solve" learning or justice as those are on going problems or situations. Even if the education system was perfect, it wouldn't mean that people wouldn't need to be in school, there will always be children to educate. And even if the legal system were perfect, new people would still commit crimes. Even if cancer were cured, there would still be sick people and diseases.

      The point of this are that there are institutions that may not have to exist at all if you solved the problem.

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      icon
      Haywood (profile), Apr 9th, 2010 @ 11:19am

      Re: Preserve The Problem

      Internet security firms like Symantec, and McAfee VS viruses and Trojans.

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    MrSonPopo, Apr 9th, 2010 @ 8:21am

    Batman and the Joker

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Andy, Apr 9th, 2010 @ 8:24am

    More examples

    The Rainbow Coalition and Instituational Racism
    Unions and unfair labor practices
    ACLU and rights violations

    These organizations just keep finding more and more minute unrelated examples to justify their existence. There are leagal structures, societal norms, and business pressures that make all of these issues rare and easily responded to by the buying public. How long would Wal-Mart last if it put a "Whites Only" sign on the front door? There would be no need for Jesse Jackson or the courts as the stock price plummeted and the stores emptied.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      icon
      nasch (profile), Apr 9th, 2010 @ 9:15am

      Re: More examples

      Seriously, you think our civil rights are so safe these days there's no more need for the ACLU? And you read TechDirt?

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      •  
        identicon
        The Mighty Buzzard, Apr 9th, 2010 @ 9:21am

        Re: Re: More examples

        I'm pretty sure the ACLU doesn't give a happy damn if an actual rights violation occurred, as long as they can hype something up to be one and pull in more donations.

         

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      •  
        identicon
        Ronald Amon, Aug 28th, 2012 @ 6:26am

        Re: Re: More examples

        ACLU picks and chooses their cases. Do they really help the rest of us? Debatable. The Middle Class? More of an ACLU war on them. Nothing hard and substantive in case representation. Safe areas. That no one likes. As in defending an Islamic woman who came here and is upset that she can't cover up and still keep her very public job? Give me a break.

         

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Apr 9th, 2010 @ 8:26am

    Batman and the Joker

    /Discussion

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Apr 9th, 2010 @ 8:30am

    Scary example...

    "Palin/Bachmann 2012."

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    JJ, Apr 9th, 2010 @ 8:35am

    Demotivational Poster

    Despair, Inc, the guys who make those funny "demotivational" posters, has had one for years which says: "If you're not part of the solution, there's money to be made in prolonging the problem." This conveys a very similar idea.

    (It's absolutely true, and I've seen it firsthand in the financial software consulting industry... but consider the ancient software used at doctors offices, airports, libraries, the DMV, some of which dates back to Windows 3.1 or earlier. There are huge consulting industries built around this ancient software, since it's much cheaper and easier to help people use crappy software than to build a viable competitor.)

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    icon
    Steve R. (profile), Apr 9th, 2010 @ 8:36am

    So True!!

    GOOD POST. I liked the link to The Shirky Principle. Glad to see there is actually a name to this syndrome. When I get home night, I will once again be doing the traditional tossing out of all the junk mail appeals for solving this and that problem.

    Just recently, I saw a TV add that looked quite expensive (and on location to-boot) for donations to help some impoverished group. My response, why was the money spent on a glossy tear-jerk TV add when the money could actually have been used to help that group?!?!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    icon
    mike42 (profile), Apr 9th, 2010 @ 8:53am

    Politics

    When Bush was voted in with a Republican majority in both houses, I expected anti-abortion legislation. Didn't happen. Wonder why? Look at a bumper-sticker.

    If abortion was illegal, they would lose the majority of their supporters.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Apr 9th, 2010 @ 9:01am

    The chronic pushing for more IP law and/or enforcement comes to mind here, lead by DRM (and now collection letter) companies waving red flags about piracy, which leads to stories about piracy killing this or that, which leads to more folks learning about the processes of piracy, which become more interesting when folks get the stick end of DRM tech crippling products they paid for...

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Vasco DaGameboy, Apr 9th, 2010 @ 9:02am

    Nowhere is this more true than in government and the associated bureaucracies. For example:

    The Rural Electrification Administration, whose initial purpose was to provide electricity to rural areas. It still exists, albeit under another name. I challenge anyone to point out a rural area in America that is devoid of electricity.

    The Federal Helium Reserve was established after WWI to ensure a supply of helium for dirigibles. It still exists and is governed by the Dept. of the Interior. The alarmism surrounding the depletion of helium for scientific purpose is breathing new life into this project, which has been vestigial almost from the beginning.

    Amtrak was supposed to last two years. That was in 1970. Marvel at our brilliant passenger rail system, replete with bullet train service coast to coast!

    Need I go on?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Apr 9th, 2010 @ 9:30am

    Dea and the war on drugs. surprised that hadnt gotten mentioned yet.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Apr 9th, 2010 @ 10:47am

    the real shirky principal: "use really bad concepts to slam people and call them dinosaurs, but only when it suits your agenda"

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, Apr 9th, 2010 @ 11:41am

      Re:

      Look out! Another agenda! But it's from an anonymous coward, quick, everybody, let's listen to this agenda.

      You're so cognizant. Do you have a website with which to visit so I may learn more of your ironclad position?

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    icon
    Jupiter (profile), Apr 9th, 2010 @ 12:30pm

    Might be first great quote of the 21st century, and maybe the
    only path to ridding ourselves of 20th century corporate rule.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Mayor Milobar, Apr 9th, 2010 @ 2:35pm

    correlation does not imply causation

    copyright violation trolls/techdirt

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    David Smith, Apr 19th, 2010 @ 9:38am

    Sounds like Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Roland Dobbins, Apr 19th, 2010 @ 1:56pm

    It's called 'The Iron Law of Bureaucracy'.

    This phenomenon is actually called 'The Iron Law of Bureaucracy', and was first articulated by Dr. Jerry Pournelle about 40 years ago.

    I know it's hard for the precious Web 2.0 younglings to understand, but they did not in fact invent everything nor have all insights worth having; perhaps one day they'll learn of the concept of 'prior art', and possibly even read a book or two (Kindle is fine).

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    icon
    jupiterkansas (profile), Apr 27th, 2010 @ 9:04pm

    William Inge

    just found this William Inge quote:

    Every institution not only carries within it the seeds of its own dissolution, but prepares the way for its most hated rival.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    icon
    Huizer (profile), Apr 27th, 2010 @ 11:00pm

    The problem is me

    Every problem you solve was created by yourself...

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Save me a cookie
  • Note: A CRLF will be replaced by a break tag (<br>), all other allowable HTML will remain intact
  • Allowed HTML Tags: <b> <i> <a> <em> <br> <strong> <blockquote> <hr> <tt>
Follow Techdirt
A word from our sponsors...
Essential Reading
Techdirt Reading List
Techdirt Insider Chat
A word from our sponsors...
Recent Stories
A word from our sponsors...

Close

Email This