You could start a lot of questions with that phrase, and over the years I have certainly done so. Lately though, the question bugging me has been: “If we’re so smart, then why do our cities have so many problems?” We have so much knowledge and expertise in this country, and yet if you drive through many of our urban centers you would think you were in a war zone. Crime, sub-standard education, lack of access to nutritious food, deteriorating infrastructure, high unemployment…all of these conditions could legitimately lead one to question our intelligence. Simple? Yes. Sophomoric? Yes. But you have to start somewhere, and I decided to start here.
I asked 20 people to answer the question, “If we’re so smart, then why do our cities have so many problems?” I conducted this impromptu, one-question survey in a novel way — I enlisted the services of Mechanical Turk (www.mturk.com), an Amazon business that bills itself as a marketplace for (online) work. Mechanical Turk allows people to post online tasks, and allows people who want to make a little extra money to perform those tasks. For an article that describes this service in much more depth, click here. To go straight to the Mechanical Turk web site, follow www.mturk.com.
I did all of this last night during the last session of my Entrepreneurship 411 Practicum class at University of Michigan. I had been curious about Mechanical Turk for a while, and I thought the students would get a kick out of constructing their own projects on the site. I turned them loose to develop whatever research project chose, and while they were going at it, I loaded and executed my little survey. I asked for 20 respondents, and I offered each of them five cents to answer the question. This cost me $1.00, plus a thirty-cent commission for Amazon.
The results? Well, this actually turned out to be a useful exercise, because I was able to discern some clear patterns of thought among the respondents, and their responses helped clarify my own answer to the question. The answers tended to break down into several categories: 1) we aren’t as smart as we think we are, 2) we are smart, but others are dumb/lazy/incompetent, 3) being smart is not the same thing as being wise, 4) human intelligence is often devoted to evil or selfish purposes.
My own opinion tends to fall along the lines of (3) and (4). I believe that our incredible intellect and tools are often (usually?) not directed toward solving the most important problems that many people face. Also, while it is true that we as a society possess an incredible reservoir of problem-solving resources, the people who are experiencing the problems often (usually?) don’t have access to those resources. I also believe that we will always have problems of some kind, because as a species, we tend to push the envelope of existence right out to the edge. We’re never satisfied with the status quo — we must push on, and as we do so, we encounter new problems as well as new solutions.
How do you answer the question?
Here are the raw data answers to the question I posed to the Mechanical Turk workers:
- “Because we constantly need to test HOW smart we are in trying to solve these problems.”
- “because change requires disruption – of thought, of infrastructure, whatever – and change is uncomfortable and scary, and we’re adverse to it.”
- “peoples own egos and agendas”
- “Wow, great question. First, the concentration of people quantifies any potential problems.Second, there is more to manage. Third, the larger breadwinners in a metro area tend to live outside of the major city in the suburbs, so the tax base makes less money than in the suburbs.”
- “Even though we are smart but others not like that.”
- “Corrupt officials misappropriate funds into programs that don’t need it while things like education is not properly funded”
- “To many corrupt people.”
- “Because they are run by our government, and they are anything but smart.”
- “Culture of entitlement which results in loss of work ethic.”
- “We have so many problems because people are so busy trying to make a living and just barely support themselves that they do not have the time or energy to devote to problem solving and/or volunteering even though they recognize that there are problems to be addressed.”
- “Because we are egotists”
- “Lack of education”
- “Because the criminals are just as smart.”
- “we aren’t as smart as we think”
- “I think we have so many problems because of how many people live there.”
- “Being smart and being perfect are not the same thing. We are not perfect.”
- “Because being smart doesn’t mean having wisdom.”
- “Because when a lot of people collect together a “herd mentality” takes over and like livestock we adopt a submissive go along with the group attitude – always thinking someone else will deal with the tough issues.”
- “The fact that we are smart does not mean we are perfect”