Problems, No Problems, Desires

Published on June 1, 2016 (↻ February 5, 2024), filed under (RSS feed for all categories).

In my own non-academic studies I’ve found common definitions of “problem,” like Google’s “a matter or situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with and overcome” or “an inquiry starting from given conditions to investigate or demonstrate a fact, result, or law,” unsatisfying. I’ve tried to redefine “problem” for something more flexible, leading to a redefinition I believe to hold up well.

A problem could be defined as lack of a known path between a status quo and a status optabilis (the desired state, which I’ll also refer to as “status O”). When we’re happy with the status quo, there’s no problem; neither when we know how to get to the status optabilis. Only in the face of ignorance of how we get to something we want can there be a problem.

Although, as so often, abstract and with that low on examples, let me briefly show how this concept translates into what we normally understand to be problems:

  1. The problem of making every website compliant with web standards (the developer speaking) exists only for those of us who desire so and, first and foremost, when we don’t know how to get there.

  2. The problem of P versus NP consists only in the fact that we desire a solution that we don’t know how to reach.

  3. The problems of HIV, cancer, disease in general consist of the fact that we desire health and don’t know how to get to it.

(Maybe you can tell why I often work with abstractions.)

More interesting, perhaps, are implications and follow-up questions.

In my work I hit on something peculiar: The definition blurs, if not removes, the difference between problems and—desires. A desire can also be defined as consisting only of a difference between status quo and a status optabilis. Desires seem to become relevant, also, when we don’t know how to fulfill them.

Originally I had planned to assert that we’re as smart as before, if not less so (a common problem of philosophy?). However, in the days after drafting this I learned to go beyond filing the redefinition and the likening of problems and desires under “language game” (Wittgenstein). I’ll share some ideas about how to now work with this, as soon as I could conclude more research and probe the model that I have in mind.

I assume someone has already attempted to redefine problems in a similar way. If you know who, where, please let me know. Other than that, comments are as always appreciated.

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About Me

Jens Oliver Meiert, on September 30, 2021.

I’m Jens (long: Jens Oliver Meiert), and I’m a frontend engineering leader and tech author/publisher. I’ve worked as a technical lead for companies like Google and as an engineering manager for companies like Miro, I’m close to W3C and WHATWG, and I write and review books for O’Reilly and Frontend Dogma.

I love trying things, not only in web development (and engineering management), but also in other areas like philosophy. Here on meiert.com I share some of my views and experiences.

If you want to do me a favor, interpret charitably (I speak three languages, and they can collide), yet be critical and give feedback for me to learn and improve. Thank you!