in Tech

On Silicon Frivolity (or Solving Hunger by Attacking Boredom)

Not Helping the Image (HBO Show Silicon Valley)

Whether Silicon Valley is a catalyst for real change in the world or merely a self-indulgent group of entitled twentysomethings making frivolous apps is persistent question. Beyond the giants like Facebook, Google, and Apple, few of the technology startups born here can truly say they’ve changed humanity for the better. Instead, they’ve addicted us to dozens of social media apps we didn’t need before, or solve a problem that only privileged rich people have.

Such arguments are warranted given that many SV founders think of themselves as modern-day messiahs, but I still think the tech industry is being held to an unfair standard. Bankers and lawyers don’t create value the same way a tech founder does – they move money and settle disputes, but a startup creates an entirely new solution, all the while generating employment for thousands (if successful). The mega success of frivolities like Snapchat shows that there is indeed a market desire for such things.

But all value is not created equally. Is solving global boredom equivalent to solving global hunger? They’re both widespread problems that millions of people are willing to pay to solve, but the type of person affected (and what they’re able to pay) is so different as to make them incomparable. Plus they’re on opposite ends of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. No app could ever solve hunger.

Or could they? What problems do substitutes like Soylent or delivery options like Munchery solve, if not hunger? The question of global hunger is not one of production but of distribution, as Mark Bittman points out. We already make enough food to feed everyone on the planet – it’s just not distributed correctly, plus those who need it most can’t afford to pay. Such services currently only help rich people eat more by reducing preparation hassles, but the same technology could be used to solve one half of the hunger problem by getting food where it’s needed.

The advanced logistic technologies pioneered and honed by companies like Uber couldn’t be helpful on a global scale? Today, it’s a private taxi service to the privileged, but they’re already planning to take that same efficient transportation marketplace to everything, be it food, freight, or friends. The same technology that solves a frivolous first world problem can be used to solve a truly global one. Twitter started out as a frivolity even among the technorati, and since then it helped facilitate the Arab Spring. You can’t say something is useless because you never know how someone out there will use it.

Plus I don’t think non-profit organizations can effectively tackle the big problems like hunger or authoritarian governments head on. They are constantly competing for funds and talent with nothing more to offer other than ‘purpose’. The debate between for-profit and non-profit rages on, but all that is proved moot by the staggering scale of tech power.

The 19 billion dollar acquisition of Whatapp by Facebook was a standard operating expense for the company, despite being much more than the cost of vaccinating every child in the world against measles. With the ability to throw around that much cash without thinking twice, a for-profit company with the right motive could affect far more change than any non-profit or even most governments ever could.

Then the frivolous first-world problems become a vehicle for good, in fueling a benevolent business that gives back. A company could solve a frivolity and make fat profits off it, and then use said profits to solve some bigger issue. And it might even be in their best interests.

Time’s recent cover story tells the tale of frivolous social media company Facebook bringing internet access to all corners of the world. They’re doing it in order to get more Facebook users, of course, but a Facebook account is a small price to pay for Internet access, especially in the rural corners of Africa. Web access provides infinite possibilities to the poor, through education and global communication. Better opportunities, I’d say, than what any non-profit could offer.

That’s why I’m hesitant to judge all the new glitzy useless apps out there. It’s easy to scoff at Flappy Bird or Clinkle, but the former made hundreds of thousands for its Vietnamese creator, and the latter facilitates payments directly from phones, which opens up new routes for those without the credit or self-discipline required to sign up with a credit card provider.

Such companies solve boredom, yes, but in solving boredom they get paid millions more than any charity appealing for donations from the very same users. As long as they use those profits to do something rather than sit on them, there’s no reason to scoff at their initial product. And many of them face the tougher issues armed with technology honed and perfected from years of facing lesser problems.

Take Tesla, the champion often put forth to defend Silicon Valley’s reputation of uselessness. Scalable electric power would solve the problems of people around the planet without exception, and yet Elon didn’t even try to solve it for middle class Americans at first. No, as he relates in his Secret Master Plan, he started off with the Tesla Roadster, a sports car priced for the one percent, in order to build up the war chest for the Model S, a slightly more affordable sedan. It’s been his plan all along to iterate and use the profits, technology, and learnings garnered from previous models in order to perfect the next model, each more mass-market than the last. It’s a textbook example of solving a rich problem in a way that paves the way to solve poor ones.

So let Silicon Valley do its thing – as long as people are paying for its products, you’ll never know how truly disruptive (in the strictest sense of the word) the next app will be.