How to save the world in the 21st century

Technological advances have made it orders of magnitude easier to build meaningful software and hardware. So why do we keep cloning Facebook?

In the month of February, 25,053 apps were released on Apple’s App Store — 1,012 apps per day. The Android phone app marketplace, known as the Play Store, saw nearly 20,000 apps released on their service in just the first half of the same month. And there are surely countless web-based apps released each day, but since there is no governing body regulating such apps, statistics are hard find. Either way, it has undoubtedly become easier to create interactive software that runs on either mobile devices or the Internet. Give any reasonably talented programmer (really anyone experienced with computers and abstract reasoning) an hour with the explanatory documentation to Ruby on Rails, a basic programming package, and they’ll be able to produce a blog. Give your eight-year-old brother five minutes with Wordpress, and they’ll do the same. New, “software as a service” sites like Squarespace and Wix make it impossibly easy to design websites, too — just drag and drop your way to online relevance. Open source technologies like jQuery and Twitter Bootstrap make cross-platform and cross-browser websites (efforts that used to take weeks of tinkering) unbelievably simple. You don’t even need server space any more — hook your new social network to server farms like Amazon Web Services, Google App Engine or Heroku and watch the users (and money) pour in.

Hardware has become easier to fabricate, as well; the barriers to entry have been all but eliminated. You don’t need a warehouse anymore — you just need a 3D modeling program like Blender or SketchUp (both free and installed on Kenyon computers) and an account with a 3D-printing company like Shapeways, who will build your design and ship it to you for a nominal fee. Easy to use micro-controllers like Arduino and Raspberry Pi have drastically improved the abilities of electronics hobbyists to design and implement their own circuits with little to no previous knowledge.

And while the playing field gets wider, the players are getting younger. Matt Richtel, in his March 8 New York Times article, “The Youngest Technorati,” details not only the path that some teenagers take towards Silicon Valley stardom, but also the apparent fetization of youth by Valley stalwarts. Jess Teutonico, who ran the TEDx event TEDxTeen in Soho this winter, asserts that “these kids are motivated to take over the world. They need it fast. They need it now.” Emboldened by the success story of Mark Zuckerberg (forget that other Harvard dropout, Bill Gates, and that other guy who left Reed College, Steve Jobs), these kids sacrifice schoolwork and friendship to build mobile apps and be courted by hot startups like Square (mobile payment) at South by Southwest.

At an age when most of us were fumbling around interactions with the opposite sex and beginning to learn about the socially-lubricating powers of alcohol, these kids are making incredibly popular mobile apps. That’s fine. Somebody’s got to make the app. We all want the dream of high stakes, fast money entrepreneurship — the vague yet enticing notion of Justin Timberlake pretending to be us in a movie ten years from now. My problem with these enterprising teenagers who already speak using phrases like “product development perspective” is not that they’re young, or already rich, or already much better than me at something I love doing. The problem is that I’m afraid they think they’ll change the world without knowing anything about it first.

I was a philosophy major in college. I actually declared my major before taking any real philosophy classes, a decision prompted on one hand by needing to choose a major before I went abroad, and on the other hand by an article written in 2011 by Damon Horowitz, the Philosopher-in-Residence at Google. The article, “From Technologist to Philosopher,” which appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, could be naively distilled into a simple directive: problems investigated in high-risk technology reside in the humanities. Horowitz puts it better than “Quit your job and get a philosophy (or some other humanities) degree,” when he writes:

“The technology issues facing us today — issues of identity, communication, privacy, regulation — require a humanistic perspective if we are to deal with them adequately. If you actually care about one of those topics — if you want to do something more serious about it than swap idle opinions over dinner — you can. And, I would venture, you must.”

Silicon Valley has become a service economy. That much is asserted in Yiren Lu’s fantastic Times Magazine article, “Silicon Valley’s Youth Problem.” Nobody wants to build routers. They want to build the next Snapchat or Dropbox, get the billion-dollar golden parachute and walk out into the sunset, making it rain on all those stupid history majors they knew in school in the process. The featured startup companies on job aggregator, AngelList, exhibit this same trend — out of 12 companies listed, only three claim to be anything other than social networks or enterprise software solutions.

WhatsApp, acquired by Facebook last month for a staggering $19 billion, seems like a shining example of service-based software that actually changes the world. Since it’s available on low-tech devices across the third-world, WhatsApp has become one of the most popular and effective modes of communication when smartphones are either impossible to come by or prohibitively expensive. “More than half of South African adult cellphone users living in cities and towns are using WhatsApp on their phones,” claims research by World Wide Worx and Fuseware.

You could likewise argue that Twitter has changed the world. By providing a decentralized service for lightning-fast communication across borders and within communities, Twitter helped to mobilize the Arab Spring and continues to fuel revolutionary efforts in the Ukraine and Venezuela.

But can a peer-to-peer messaging system save the world? Will Twitter end world hunger, and will Facebook unite us in everlasting peace? Probably not, but that’s not the point of those services. To me, the scariest thing suggested in Lu and Ricthtel’s articles is that the enterprising and talented youth of Silicon Valley and the rest of America haven’t realized this yet, and think that they’re new social network might actually save the world. They don’t want to go to college, they want to pop out an app that will make them a rockstar and a millionaire at the same time. Of course, the new Gods of Tech are the perfect role-models — David Karp dropped out of high-school to make Tumblr, and now he’s a billionaire. But what people forget about entrepreneurs like Karp or Zuckerberg or Gates is not only their unfathomable intelligence and impeccable timing, but also that their services haven’t saved the world we live in. They’ve only altered it. Facebook makes communication easier, and Tumblr provides a proving ground for young artists. Microsoft revolutionized personal computing, enterprise software and modern business as we know it.

But in one hundred years, we won’t just remember Bill Gates for Microsoft. We’ll remember him for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest charity in America by over $20 billion. If we want to build a better future, we shouldn’t try to write it in Objective-C (a programming language). We should direct our enterprising and gifted youth to study computer science, but to keep Damon Horowitz’s advice in mind: the problems of any technology can be understood through the humanities. That being said, we shouldn’t place blame squarely on the kids — it’s also the fault of venture capitalists who won’t fund humanitarian projects, and a startup culture that emphasizes superficial alterations to society instead revolutions to our own understanding of our place within the world.

Widespread, meaningful change will not come through an app made by a college dropout focused solely on payday. It will come from an intensive study of world issues from disparate vantage points, employing both life experience and historical understanding, and systems design fully committed (whether in the form of hardware or software) to not just altering or making more convenient a mode of communication we already engage in, but instead to radically and fundamentally changing the lives of the less fortunate. Internet technologies might change the worlds of people with access to the Internet, but as Bill Gates said in a November interview with the Financial Times, “the world is not flat and PCs are not, in the hierarchy of human needs, in the first five rungs.” The American youth dreams of creating Candy Crush, not curing malaria. There’s something wrong with that.

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