I remember being scandalised by a talk which said that if you wanted to use your gifts, talents, skills, opportunities simply to advance your own dreams and gain your own comfort and thrills then you couldn’t be a christian.
That talk has stayed with me: Am I using my resources to solve ‘my world’ problems or ‘whole world’ problems? Are you?
I recently got sent this video link of a talk given in Las Vegas by Josh Ellis- it makes the same point. The text is below.
“A few months ago, a startup developer friend said to me “I don’t understand why poor kids, ghetto kids, don’t do startups to get out of poverty.” He’s a good guy, and I know what he was trying to say. But the blunt truth is that he’s absolutely right: he doesn’t understand.
When I look at the tech industry in 2013, when I see what passes for innovation — apps that let you hire a private car to get from SFO to Moscone Center, without all that tedious horror of actually hailing a cab, or outsourcing your dry cleaning delivery instead of just picking it up on the way home from work like a grownup — I’m pretty sure that there’s a lot about the world that we really don’t understand at all.
We call ourselves innovators, but most of us are really just iterators — we look at the hot sexy app or service of the nanomoment and we try to put just enough of a spin on it that we can pass it off as our own. We call ourselves problem-solvers, but the evidence suggests the problems we want to solve are what are usually referred to as “First World” problems.
Why do we do this? Because we want to get rich, of course. And that’s fine. But it’s like Orson Welles said: it’s no trick to make money, if what you want to do is make money. Go be an investment banker. If you really want to get rich in tech with a minimum of effort, go start a porn site. Seriously. Low overhead, high revenue. Make porn. If money is your sole interest.
But technologists used to work on big problems. Not First World problems, but whole world problems — sending humans to the moon, ending poverty, ending disease. They didn’t do it because it was gonna get them a big badass IPO, or get them on the front page of VentureBeat, or get them fawned over at SxSW. Forgive me, but those are stupid reasons to do anything.
They did it because technology is about improving the human condition, helping us on our journey from ape to angel, to paraphrase Benjamin Disraeli.
And there is much room for improvement.
A long time ago, when I was a columnist at the Las Vegas CityLife, my editor called me up one day and asked if me if I ever wanted to find out what was in the storm drains under the city. And because I have notoriously poor self-preservation skills, I grabbed a Mag-Lite and headed on down.
What I discovered was that hundreds of people live in those storm drains, beneath these neon-lit streets. Some of them are junkies or gambling addicts or winos. A lot of them are crazy, though it’s hard to tell if madness drove them into the drains or if it found them down there in the dark. Whatever the case, there are a lot of them.
And they survive down there. They pilfer materials from construction sites or the dumpsters behind Home Depot and they build themselves shelters, even tiny houses. They build shelves out of cinderblocks and two-by-fours to hold whatever possessions they’ve managed to keep for themselves. They build beds on stilts, so that when the rains come and flood the drains they don’t get washed away. They survive, and dismal and frightening and miserable as it might be, they make a space for themselves, in a filthy, dirty, spooky place that would look to most of us like the penthouse level of Hell.
That is my definition of innovation.
Here’s another one, if you like: while I was at SXSW recently, I randomly ran into a woman I’d been wanting to meet named Susan Oguya. Susan is the founder of a Nairobi startup called mFarm. Their product is an SMS-based app that allows Kenyan farmers to receive the current market value of their crops, because even though 90% of Kenyans have mobile phones, almost none have smartphones. It’s all candybars.
mFarm isn’t hot and sexy. It’s not the kind of thing that generally gets a Valley VC to reach for their wallet. But it’s changing the agricultural economy of Kenya. It’s genuinely innovative, genuinely disruptive.
How long would it take any of us to build something like that, given the resources at our disposal? I mean, not to make light of Susan’s work, but I’m pretty sure with my coding skills, I could knock that bad boy out in a week, powered by Twilio and Diet Mountain Dew.
So why didn’t I? Why didn’t you? Why didn’t we?
For the same reason my developer friend asked me why ghetto kids don’t do startups. Look: if you’re sitting here listening to me, chances are you were born with a set of resources and opportunities that 95% of the humans on the planet can only imagine. In your pocket you carry access to information and power that would make a Roman emperor weep with envy. But that position, those same resources and opportunities, can often make a very effective set of blinders. We’re insulated from the world outside our incubators and hackerspaces. We don’t see the very real problems that the rest of humanity faces.
I’m going to ask you to do something tonight, when you leave this trailer. Don’t get in your car, or walk back up to the one block of East Fremont that’s been made safe for tech people. Go east on Fremont instead. Go past Maryland Parkway. Go down to the Sunflower Apartments — which the locals call the “Gun Power” Apartments. Buy a forty at the corner store, sit on the curb, drink your beer, and just pay attention. Look at the neighborhood, the people. See how they interact with each other and their environment. Talk to them.
And then figure out how you can use your amazing minds, your resources, your power, to make their lives better. I’m not saying you have to open a soup kitchen or be Mother Teresa. But you can take a day a week — hell, a day a month — and use it to try and solve the real problems of people who need your talents.
Build an app that lets people see when the bus is really coming, so they don’t have to sit alone at a dark bus stop when they get off the swing shift. Help people create neighborhood community sites that can be accessed via cheap Android phones. Help organize classes to teach technology to people who can’t even afford to go to community college. Help get Raspberry Pis or netbooks into schools that can barely afford textbooks.
You don’t even have to do it for free. If you sell poor people things they need at a price they can afford, they will love you. Whenever you get all het up about Facebook’s valuation, remember that the third-largest corporation on Earth — with a revenue stream greater than the GDP of Austria — specifically targets working class people, and that the family who owns it could buy Mark Zuckerberg ten times over. As Susan Oguya said to me, the base of the pyramid is the largest part.
We are some of the smartest, most empowered humans who have ever lived. We have so much. Can we use our minds, our skills, our resources to make the world a better place for people who never had the opportunities we have? It would cost us so little, and we can accomplish so much.
We can be better. We can be amazing. We can be heroes.