19 // Problem-Solving Questions

“My dear, all life is a series of problems which we must try and solve, first one and the next and the next, until at last we die.” – Dowager Countess, Downton Abbey

What do we do when faced with something new? Do we blindly accept it? Overthink it? Consider the pros and cons and make an educated decision? Go with the recommendation of family and friends?

Our world is moving at an almost frenetic pace of invention, innovation, and discovery. There’s always a new app competing for our time. 4K TVs are already being supplanted by 8K. Foldable phones are on the horizon.

But what do we do with all of this? How do we sort through what’s helpful and what’s not?

A number of years ago I stumbled across six question Neil Postman would ask before engaging with new technology.

  1. What is the problem to which this technology is the solution?
  2. Whose problem is it?
  3. Which people and institutions might be most seriously harmed by a technological solution?
  4. What new problems might be created because we have solved this problem?
  5. What sort of people and institutions might acquire special economic and political power because of technological change?
  6. What changes in language are being enforced by new technologies, and what is being gained and lost by such changes?

(Here’s a lecture he gave in 1998 expanding on the idea; some of his examples may seem outdated, but I’d encourage you to move past the illustrations to the intent of the questions.)

I appreciate Postman’s questions because they are open-ended. And with slight variations on the wording, I’ve found these questions to have far wider applications than just considering what technology I choose to use.

Stopping to ask “whose problem is it?” when faced with any problem has not only been helpful, but has saved me a lot of time, effort, energy, and angst—by realizing that some problems aren’t mine.

And if it is my problem, asking “what new problems might be created from solving this one?” has made me more aware of whether my solutions are actual solutions or if they are only reactions.

Whether you use Postman’s questions or not, I’d encourage you to come up with a system for tackling the problems you encounter. Having such a system in place allows you to be more proactive, rather than reactive, and it provides a paradigm through which to filter new information without starting from scratch or nearly-scratch each time.