The WHAT'S NEW! page contains the latest medical updates. If you're wondering how I'm going as far as health is concerned, this is the place to start. Latest: Wed 27 Nov 2013. 7.20AM

Friday, June 29, 2012

On Jay Rosen and wicked problems

These days, I do a lot more listening than talking.

   For years, in my petty kingdom of several lecture and tutorial rooms, I was the talker. Some even thought I was a guru, which isn't as much fun as it sounds. I wasn't.

   It's exactly five years since I gave all that away, when I took the sensible decision to retire from my university post and do other things. Luckily, I had more than two years as a free agent, before having this vast change of life with an illness I'm glad I never saw coming. I didn't really know those two years of filming and playing with graphic design were going to be the years of transition, but they were.

   When I say I'm listening, I mean reading. I now read all sorts of things I would never have allowed myself the time for in my former existence. It's not really a matter of choice, but there it is. I couldn't imagine, when I filmed that last musical, it would be the last time I'd ever touch the controls on the big video cam.

   So I read. Articles in the news, opinion pieces, blogs, novels and texts from Gutenberg; anything that takes my fancy. I'm a student again, but with the advantage of a few decades under my belt. I've had the training through academia to cope with long articles of up to 10,000 words at a sitting, if they hold my interest, though like most people I tend now to be looking for the shorter, zingier piece.

   I came across this article by Jay Rosen. It's nearly 3000 words, so it's a fair chunk. "What a wicked problem for a writer" it's called, tantalisingly. This guy sure knows how to write a teaser headline.

   It's a fascinating piece. Well, it is to me. I wondered if I could summarise enough of it to make sense, and maybe get you to read it.

   "If you don't know the solution, then you don't understand the problem."

   That seems too glib, but he's right. He talks of problems that are easy to understand ("tame" ones), even though the solution may be complex. They are not his subject here. What he's interested in are what he calls "wicked" problems, which are so complex to start with that there's really no solution. The world is full of them, and the way we go about dealing with them is up to putty.

   We call in the experts, but experts only see the problem through their window. Maybe they can solve part of the problem, but in doing so either ignore or don't grasp the critical nature of the rest of it. Thus we send in bureaucrats from Canberra to solve problems of Aboriginal health in the Northern Territory. They are very good at what they do, but the problem is too complex for any "solution" they come up with.

   We look for solutions to boats filled with people appearing on the northern Australian horizon. "Send out the Navy and sink a few," is one bright idea. "You'll stop 'em pretty damn quick then."

   Problem solved. Rubbish! As Kimberley Ramplin pointed out in various Twitter postings, and I have also written about, these few people are part of a gigantic global problem that has no easy solutions, let alone criminally insane ones. But I won't get bogged down with examples of what Rosen calls "wicked" problems like these.

Zen and the Art
   When Robert Pirsig wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, his main character had suffered a total mental collapse, because of his failure to come to terms with Rosen's "wicked" problems. Written in 1974, Zen and the Art can still hold its ground as an enlightening philosophical essay, despite things I find irritating about the book now I return to it after thirty years. It's an example of another window on Rosen's subject, but Pirsig really only gets as far as defining the problem.

   Rosen attempts to grapple with it. The experts are useless in dealing with "wicked" problems, he says, because they only make things worse. So what's the alternative?

   We live in an age where thousands or more of people can put their view, all in the one place, or a limited number of places. It's possible to study these views, and seek out an approach based on consensus. (Stick with me now; here's where you need to go to the article to see where this is heading. I'm determined to finish this in fewer than 999 words.)

   He doesn't mean those forums so beloved of politicians where you get a hundred experts together, or even a hundred honest citizens. They're just token pow-wows designed to give the impression that somebody is doing something about something and nothing really gets done.

   No. He's talking about real consensus, or as wide a consensus as possible, because the input of millions of people linked closely to other millions of people means something dynamic. It's like some tribal customs where, on a "wicked" matter, the members of the tribe (OK, probably the elders, probably all male) sit down and thrash it out, even if it takes hours or days of debate and discussion until everyone accepts that a decision to be taken is the best one possible, imperfect though it may be.

   Only then can the tribe work together towards a solution. It's the "together" bit that matters, because only with an agreed base on collective knowledge and experience a "wicked" problem can be tackled. Leave the experts to sort out what Rosen calls the "tame" problems, like landing humans on Mars or using sharp instruments on your brain.

   I know. What I've said raises more questions than answers. Those with access to today's global "forums" are limited in vital ways, but vastly increased on what they were even a century ago. And consensus is alien to our form of "democracy".

   Of course, I don't have the solution. I guess, as Rosen says, I don't understand the problem. QED. So help me!

   998 words. I told you so.


  1. You may find this interesting:

    It's a software platform currently used by Germany's Pirate Party to determine their policies; and it's being introduced by one of their regional governments for a 12 month trial:

  2. Sorry, the software is actually called Liquid Feedback.

    1. Just acknowledging this, Tom, with thanks. I will check it out and get back!

    2. OK - I have had time to look at it properly. It's a fascinating mix of groundroots and representative democracy, and a great experiment. Still, alarm bells are going off in my head for various reasons, as the Party gets more and more institutionalised. But who knows, it may be self-regulated just enough to stop its being exploited by smart operators over time.

      I remember the Greens here in Australia used to do this grassroots thing with its members - they may still do for all I know, but I do know it had very little value as a tool of grassroots decision-making. In the real world here of representative democracy, politics is about deals and compromise and less and less about ideals.

      I wish the liquid democracy idea well, but it will be interesting to see whether in the end it will turn out to be just another party.

  3. When the first computers were coming in, we got a university professor of whatever (an expert!) to set up our system. It was going to reduce staff and costs, as well as providing the company with more accurate information. Problem was, so much information was churned out that we had to take on extra staff to handle it, interpret it and assess it. They never caught up with the output in time, and we continued to fly by the seat of our pants.

    In the same way, if I want action from a politician, I never email him (or her to be PC). That person might get 1000 emails a day; nobody has time to read them. I write ... slow, but letters get answered.

    What I am saying is that the information is out there, the means of collecting it are available, but who could assess millions of opinions. And, to put it bluntly, what are a million inputs worth if they are coming from people who have not adequately informed themselves about the issues?

    To really question the proposal of mass-input to solve wicked problems ... a recent Internet poll showed that more than 80% of respondees wanted to control the number of illegal immigrants entering Australia. I would bet that a similar poll taken in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan would adopt in different viewpoint in larger numbers.

    I am utterly committed to democratic principles but, like you Denis, I don't have the answers. In England, once, you did not get a vote unless you were a 'potwalloper'. Today, the tail is twisting the dog. Is this a good thing? Only time will tell.

    1. I understand what you're saying, Bob, all too well, but I suspect you're thinking in the same way we have done for yonks about solutions – as if someone were going to collate and assess all these data and make decisions based on a document that's some sort of executive summary.

      That's not what it's about, if I have Rosen right. He talking about a sort of process of filtration of ideas – infiltration may be a better word. Ideas that change opinion.

      Look at how and what changed public opinion on the Vietnam War, e.g. It was immersion process that made changed Government decisions inevitable. The dog twisted the tail, as it should have.

      It's slow, and not all minds change, but one virtue of representative democracy is that when a policy smells of losing an election, then policy changes, or Governments do. But yes, it's a "wicked" problem. Rosen himself may disagree with my interpretation of his article. He didn't mention tribes in the way I did.

      So the problem unravels.

  4. Fair comment, Denis. There seems to be a critical mass - tipping point with public opinion and I suspect it is surprisingly low - possibly less that 20% (which is what Gina Rhinehardt needs to control Fairfax). I still try explain how it was that the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of apartheid and the Mabo judgement all took place within three years ... after so many years. A seemingly disconnected group of events in different parts of the world, sharing a similar theme, suddenly becoming resolved.

  5. as i read your responses i am wondering which is the dog and which is the tail … at first glance it would seem self-evident, but if your figure of less than 20% rings true, it might be time for a rethink. never a bad thing! xt

    1. When one big investor has a sizable chunk against the bits held by others, then they soon start acting like Rover. Or Lassie!

  6. Re: Wicked Problems, you might like to know about this recent publication:

    “Wicked Problems – Social Messes: Decision support Modelling with Morphological Analysis”. Springer, 2011.

    You can see a description at:


    Tom R.

    1. Tom: first of all, many thanks for this: I can't believe it's 2 weeks since you wrote it. I was waiting to respond until I had read what I could on decision support modelling and morphological analysis, because I hadn't the foggiest idea what they could be!

      But now I have, and I'm amazed at what can be applied to what when it's done in a sequence like this. Once I understood that 'Morphological analysis is simply an ordered way of looking at things' and the technique here, it fell into place. I also read what was offered as a freebee on the process and it was far more intelligible to me.

      That having been said, I read and understand the text far better than the illustrative material. My eyes glaze over with graphs and stats and many types of diagrams. I admit I struggled with them. It's a failing of mine. But Zwicky's text, that makes sense to me.

      Thanks again.


Some iPads simply refuse to post responses. I have no idea why, but be aware of this.
Word verification has been enabled because of an avalanche of spam. SAVE or compose a long comment elsewhere before posting; don’t lose it! View in Preview mode first before trying to post.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.