When you’re in the epicenter of technological innovations and at the cutting edge of science, it’s easy to get carried away. “Change-the-world” stories abound, and “creating impact” is the staple of many a student’s personal ambitions. In dining halls, one frequently has meals interrupted by a starry-eyed student-cum-entrepreneur promoting a new app or business idea that promises to be game-changing and disruptive. Usually, the “nothing-like-anything-you’ve-seen-before” app turns out to solve a problem that wasn’t even there to begin with. Do I really need yet another “game-changing” mobile payment app that lets me pay my friend who sits right across from me at the dinner table?
Here on the Stanford campus, making something cool beats making something that matters. Too often one encounters smart, well-trained engineers who could help cure cancer or fix healthcare.gov but who are working on a sexting app. And then there are those who take Peter Thiel’s drop-out-of-college advice seriously. Each year, more than a few students drop out of college to work full-time on their next-big-startup-idea. In a recent conversation with my former lecturer, she complained about a student of hers who was not paying attention in class because he was working on his new startup during her lectures. By the end of the quarter, the sophomore told her he was dropping out to start a company.
It feels almost as if starting a startup should be on the bucket list of every Stanford student. “You’re a Stanford student,” I was once asked, “what’s your startup?” Maybe that explains why, instead of hearing “I’m going to solve Problem X,” we are increasingly hearing “I want to start a company.” On some rare occasions, one encounters real diamonds in the rough—like Code the Change, which tries to bring computer science and social change together to benefit non-profits—but an initiative like this one is the exception rather than the norm.
Sometimes, the “world” we think we know is in fact so small it extends no further than the Silicon Valley bubble. It’s a world where apps and new technology are being built to make lives better—but for a subset of society that is already very privileged. The “problems” that emerge out of need-finding (rather than need-solving) exercises tend to be very first-world, and in part this is because the ideas that are rewarded here in Silicon Valley are those that solve “problems” faced by a very narrow demographic—ours. But some such problems are really not even problems to begin with.
And when real problems are taken on, the approaches taken have a tendency to exhibit traits of what Evgeny Morozov calls a “solutionist” predisposition: the idea that there is a technological quick-fix for every problem in the world. For the record, “Africa? There’s an app for it” is a real headline on Wired. There is a tendency to fixate on what the new arsenal of digital technologies allow us to do without first inquiring what is worth doing.
Silicon Valley—and this is true, to some extent, of Stanford too—has no lack of damn-the-establishment hackers and utopian cyber-gurus who like to view technology as beyond politics and society. It is a worldview rooted in their belief in technological determinism—the reductionist perspective that presumes that everything, including social relations, will sort itself out as long as we have technological progress.
Solutions to real social problems—those that actually do make a difference—are usually less sexy. Technology can be part of the solution, but it seldom is, if ever, the silver bullet. That “paradigm-shifting” shiny new app might be spiffy and might have had venture capitalists pouring in millions in funding, but it does not save the world.
The pressing problems of our day—from poverty to inequality, public health to education systems—require adroit inventions and adaptations in politics and social relations. They often demand long and protracted institutional responses, not one-off hackathons. And then there are the real-life equivalent of NP-hard problems: problems to which there might not even exist a solution, and for which we can only expect a good response. Let’s also agree that there is no app that can “save Africa” if “saving Africa” is even a sensible phrase to use at all.
If you’re on your way to building the next app that the first world will love for a few months and then forget, think hard about whether you’re delivering on the promise of making the world a better place. Don’t start a startup just because you can. Think outside of the technological quick-fix box. If you see a problem that could require a technological approach, try building non-technological solutions to fix it. And, finally, if “changing the world” is part of the personal narrative that motivates what you do, then perhaps the first step should be to try to understand how the world works.
Thanks to PQ for reading drafts of this column.
Contact Chi Ling Chan at firstname.lastname@example.org.