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August 18, 2015

a "problem in search of a solution"

So who invented the phrase?

TiR has no idea.  As usual.

However, we are delighted that the earliest use we can find of it is from the late, great information scientist, and once dean of the University of Chicago's Graduate Library School, Dr. Donald R. Swanson.  

The phrase appears in Swanson's "Library Goals and the Role of Automation," taken from the minutes of the 60th Meeting of the Association of Research Libraries, held in Miami Beach, on June 16, 1962:

Too often, automation is regarded as an end in itself, and the question of what can be done is confused with what needs to be done.  A pushbutton library with large high speed memory, electronic searching device, and desk-side console with television display, is frequently pictured for the future. . . . as a point of beginning it unfortunately spotlights equipment to the extent of obscuring purposes and requirements. It is a solution in search of a problem. . . . 

[T]he mechanized system has yet to be conceived whose end product or functional capability could not also be achieved more conventionally. . . . [C]uriously enough our society greatly esteems machines that think but seems to regard people who do so with considerable suspicion. 

Yes, the "pushbutton library" described above sounds an awful lot like the modern internet.

[. . . but yes, except without spam, "sponsored content," interruption marketing, banner ads, overlay / floater / interstitials, expandables, pre-rolls, mid-rolls, post-rolls, pop-ups, pop-unders, CTR calculators, PPCs, SEM, IAB units, the entire SEO industry, etc. etc.] 

The above excerpt is taken from Dr. Swanson's formal remarks at the 1962 meeting.  The minutes otherwise advise us that "his witty and provocative interpolations are unfortunately not preserved."

In 1962, Swanson was a manager at the major ICBM defense contractor Thompson Ramo Wooldridge Inc., later to become TRW.  Dr. Christine A. Montgomery contributes some fascinating memories, complete with allusions to Russian linguistics and Chomsky, from her time in the early '60s when she worked there with Swanson in the department he managed and named "Synthetic Intelligence" (to distinguish it from "artificial intelligence"), in the volume Early Years in Machine Translation.  Swanson also earns an appropriate mention, albeit briefly in a footnote, in Nicholson Baker's Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper

[How many degrees of separation exist between Swanson's work and the development of DARPA?  TiR does not know.  We would be surprised if there were many. However, we do know (thanks to Baker) that there are zero degrees of separation between Swanson and one of those sometimes credited with coming up with the whole idea of "six degrees of separation,"  Dr. Manfred Kochen.  Swanson and Kochen worked together with others on the multi-year study released in 1963, Automation and the Library of Congress.]

In the nineties, the phrase "problem in search of a solution" seemed mainly to show up in scientific, technical or military contexts, then in the following decade more in computing literature.  Now it seems to be breaking out more widely in the realms of poly-sci, law, economics, public policy and business journalism.  One sees it appear a lot in discussions of net neutrality, following statements last year from US Congressperson Fred Upton

However TiR believes that the oddest use of the phrase that we have seen yet is by Edward Wallerstein.   See if you dare his final paragraph here.