Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Quick Fix and White Lies

Some overweight people eat too much, and could use some help stopping eating. Nowadays you can get a pill that fills your stomach, so you feel sated. Why do we feel that there’s something wrong with this idea, or perhaps something wrong with a world in which this kind of idea thrives? Gianpaolo writes “Am I the only one preferring to go after the causes rather than the symptoms?

What are the causes of overeating? One of the problems is that some people don’t have an effective STOP signal. So taking a pill that triggers a STOP signal could introduce an effective control mechanism [footnote]. The pill acts as a proxy for food. The brain receives a message that it interprets as “stomach full of food” – this interpretation is untrue but helps to produce a good outcome – what we sometimes call a white lie.

One reason we might be uneasy about a mechanism that is based on a white lie is that it may not be sustainable. How long is it going to take the brain to learn that the message is untrue, to distrust and ignore it? Are there situations where the brain needs to distinguish between the proxy and the real thing? What happens when the pill stops working?

From a system engineering perspective, this unease corresponds to a principle that information flows or control flows ought to be true. There are countless systems where this principle has been breached – usually to force some subsystem to do something it wasn’t originally designed for. Systems engineers are wary of the complications that can ensue from proxies and automated white lies – but also appreciate how such mechanisms provide a powerful way to solve problems quickly.

But sometimes it’s okay to have a mechanism that works for a while, even if it isn’t going to work for ever. If people are committed to changing their lifestyle – whether this involves over-eating or smoking or any other bad habit – then there may be nothing wrong with a pill that helps them through the transitional period.

Thus it seems we may sometimes combine a “quick fix” with longer term change. But there is a strong risk that some people will just take the quick fix - or even a long succession of quick fixes. and fail to do anything else. And (perhaps as a consequence of this) there are many people who object to “quick fix” solutions on principle. For example, brief therapies (such as hypnotherapy and NLP) are scorned by practitioners of psychotherapy, who hold that deep problems require lengthy intervention.

It is certainly true that some deep and messy problems require deep and lengthy and costly intervention. And it is also true that some people (especially politicians) are too easily seduced by quick fix solutions that create more problems than they solve. So it is wise to be cautious of relying on the quick fix. But the principled objection to the quick fix goes beyond sensible caution, to an outright refusal to consider its merits in any circumstances. So where does this aversion to the quick fix come from?

One possible answer can be found in Albert Borgmann’s analysis of technology; the quick fix belongs to a technologically distorted view of the world, which Borgmann calls the Device Paradigm. According to Borgmann, we expect technology to deliver things to us quickly, safely, conveniently, and ubiquitously; technology presents us with a series of devices that disconnect us from the real world of cause and effect. (The quick fix pill sets up a fantasy that the pill is all you need.) Borgmann’s answer to this is something he calls Focal Things and Practices: engaging (or reengaging) deeply with chosen aspects of the world.

Ultimately, the objection to the quick fix pill is an ethical one - not just the belief that people ought to be able to control their own behaviour without the need for pills, but the belief that there is some positive value in engaging with the world in certain ways. I feel sorry for people that need (or think they need) the stomach-filling pill, because it seems to take something away from what makes us human.

[Footnote] In terms of Donella Meadows’ “Places to Intervene in a System”, this mechanism appears to qualify either as Negative Feedback (Level 8) or Material Flow producing Information Flow (Level 6/5).

1 comment:

Scribe said...

I think the last paragraph probably hits the nail on the head - there are 2 things going on here: technical ideals, and personal ideals.

The "quick fix" is what coders often call a "dirty hack", and fits squarely into the technical side of things. The acknowledgement is that a better fix is available ideally, but limitations of time and resources make that better fix a bad option at the moment, so the quick fix will do for now. I think, in a way, addressing causes rather than symptoms is also a form of "better fix", and one which I wish more people would pay attention to.

That said, though, the world of technology is mixed up in the second thing - personal ideals. Here again there are 2 things going on, 2 reactions to "problems", but "fixes" are less technical. The first fix is to rely less on technology, and more on people - in many ways increasing the responsibility of those people as a result. I think this is the greatest threat to the individual currently - we have been lulled into a land where taking responsibility for ourselves is now seen as something "dirty" or just "inefficient". The second fix is to realise that the "problem" isn't actually a problem at all, but it's just been turned into one for some other end. The beauty industry thrives on concealing this fix.

In the end, I don't think you can be free of any of these - they all have their time and place. Currently I think there's too much reliance on the technical side of things, and far too much obscuring of the personal side of things, but it's probably easy to swing back the other way and become overly-Luddite about the world too.

People rely on technology as much as technology relies on people.