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Perpetuating Problem Unknowingly: The Principle Of Shirky

Clay Shirky in his book ‘Here Comes Everybody: the power of organising without organisations’ writes “...Social Networks provide new ways to coordinate work and make collaboration more effective. They make the transaction costs much lower. Therefore they become a threat to organisational setup...” He explicitly emphasizes upon taking the problem to the individuals, rather than moving the individuals to the problem. In 2010 Kevin Kelly termed this the Shirky Principle: Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.

It makes sense as well. What is an institution? A collection of like minded people from diverse backgrounds. And no one wants to make themselves irrelevant. So organisations will always act in interest of their survival.

Now think of those institutions that exist to solve our problems around drug control, climate change, immigration, or any other social issue best addressed by charity. Registering that they are no longer a positive agent of change sounds like a dilemma. If the Red Cross doesn’t want global conflict to disappear and the CBI doesn’t want international crime to disappear, and IB doesn’t want spying to stop; will the world ever get to be a better place? Some police officers have their compensation tied to the arrests made. If crime drops then they will eventually have less compensation. Therefore, the existence of corruption and crime becomes central to their own existence. The constant supply of prisoners keeps the prison business growing.


Unions were an amazing solution to the capital management problem which favoured exploitation of uncapitalized workers. Trade unions started in response to capitalist ideology and now they have their own management system. It looks like their existence has developed into a business opportunity itself. As capital increases in complexity over time, unions have also become complicated. As long as unions exist, companies feel they need management to offset them, and so the two became co-dependent. They inadvertently perpetuate the continuation of the problem (management) they are the solution to. Programs to "help the homeless" require ongoing homelessness for justifying their existence. Nothing wrong in helping but it is not solving the real problem of homelessness and reducing the incidence that results in a global pandemic of homelessness. In effect, problems and solutions tend to become a single system. Strange huh! At times this manifests itself as ignorance towards new or diversified ways of conducting things.


If this leaves you questioning so many things and causes little dissatisfaction from the institutions, probably you are thinking too much. Take a chill pill! Pharmaceutical companies make more money from you taking a pill everyday than a drug that cures you even faster. But who wants that? A research by Goldman Sach on a very sensitive subject “Is curing patients a sustainable business model?” analysed that delivering ‘one shot cures’ is very attractive and carries immense value for patients and society. Curing existing patients decreases the number of carriers. But it could be a huge challenge for medicine developers looking for sustained cash flow in the long run. Gilead Sciences’ treatments for hepatitis C, which achieved cure rates of more than 90 percent. The company’s U.S. sales for these hepatitis C treatments peaked at $12.5 billion in 2015, but have been falling ever since.


How can this problem be avoided? It is only possible when industries become determined to work on the problem to which they are the solution. Strange dichotomy! Organisations end up loving the problem they’re going after, because they cannot exist without the problem they’re going after. Why do your tech gadgets have “planned obsolescence”? If it lasted so long, would you ever demand newer products? Never, right? Certainly companies launch products such that they become obsolete by the time a new product is launched. It is the reality that businesses and institutions are incentivized to not completely solve the problems because that's how they make money. It is a paradox of incentives. The desire for keeping the problem, hence surviving and staying relevant is very deeply embedded in our psyche, that such a behaviour has become completely unconscious. It is not even sub-conscious, and not even ‘taken for granted’ because one has to be aware of it to take it for granted. But nobody is necessarily acting with malice for doing so, but it is rather a rational self-preservation approach. The target for the principle is the big nonprofit industry, major corporations and government organs.


Seeing so many institutions perpetuate the problem unknowingly, one natural question is if there are any exceptions? Let’s see- health insurance that rewards a healthy lifestyle, and the lightbulb industry which is eliminating the need to replace most of its products for a lifetime in its move towards LED lights are the two exceptions.


Our insecurities are the perfect host for the government. Whom to blame for that? Ourselves.. The ‘right’ wants to protect its status quo which gives it access to power to exercise control, at the expense of innovation, growth and change and even social responsibility. The left is set to grow its future voter base by identifying marginalised victim groups and acting as their saviours.


“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” ― Upton Sinclair


As soon as an institution comes in response to a problem, the problem never goes away. Institutions tend to love the problem itself we know rather than fix the problem. Another side of this can be that a corporation can produce busy work for itself when none is required. There is always a propensity that “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution”.


The Principle is not a universal law but a propensity. At the same time it is the truth that pushing fancy stuff onto your organisation will not bring outcomes.

By Neha Yadav

Neha is in sophomore year of pursuing Economics (hon.). She is passionate about Public Policy. She is a total mess at writing a bio.

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