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.

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Comments on “Institutions Will Seek To Preserve The Problem For Which They Are The Solution”

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42 Comments
chris (profile) says:

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.

Chuck says:

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.

Andy (profile) says:

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.

Ronald Amon says:

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.

JJ says:

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.)

Steve R. (profile) says:

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?!?!

Anonymous Coward says:

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…

Vasco DaGameboy says:

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?

Roland Dobbins says:

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).

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