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Hey Silicon Valley! Not every problem can be solved by giving people internet access or teaching them to code

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This might go without saying, but I’m probably one of the biggest boosters of technology there is, especially when it comes to the benefits of internet access and the startup ecosystem that has grown up around it: it’s what I write about, I use the internet and mobile technology all day, and I think internet access should probably be a human right. But even I know that there are some problems in the world — and some fairly significant ones — that can’t be solved by simply giving people internet access and teaching them how to code.

Unfortunately, Facebook (s fb) founder Mark Zuckerberg and some tech entrepreneurs either don’t know this or are deliberately choosing to ignore it. And by doing so, they are only reinforcing the image of Silicon Valley and the technology-startup scene as a bubble of unrealistic expectations, if not outright blinkered ignorance about the world around it.

Zuckerberg’s new venture, known as, is a joint project aimed at bringing easy and/or cheap internet access to those who don’t have it — primarily in non-Western countries — and arrived wrapped in a motivational and humanitarian-themed video that was largely based on some sections of a speech by John F. Kennedy (sections that were chosen rather selectively, as Alexis Madrigal notes in a post at The Atlantic). In this vision, internet access pretty much solves everything, and makes people’s lives immeasurably awesome:

Homelessness is not a “glitch”

The other exhibit in my Silicon Valley bubble-mentality case comes from entrepreneur Patrick McConlogue, who wrote a spectacularly thoughtless post for Medium — not the first one from a young entrepreneur, I should note — about how he believes that homeless people would be a lot better off if they learned how to program (McConlogue is a New Yorker, but I think his viewpoint is an Eastern extension of a common Silicon Valley mindset). He says he plans to conduct an experiment in which he offers a specific homeless man $100 or three books on JavaScript to see which he will take:

“I like to think I can see the few times when [a homeless person is] a wayward puzzle piece. It’s that feeling you get when you know the waiter, the cashier, the janitor is in the wrong place—they are smart, brilliant even. This is my attempt to fix one of those lost pieces.”

In an interview with the Huffington Post, the writer — a 23-year-old founder of Echo Republic — says that as a software engineer, “I see a glitch and I want to fix the glitch.” If I didn’t know better, I would think that McConlogue had been invented by author and internet gadfly Evgeny Morozov, who has become known for criticizing the technology-based mindset he calls “solutionism,” which sees the internet and gadgets as the answer to virtually any societal problem. McConlogue is like the poster child for this viewpoint.

In fact, the “technology will fix you” mentality in the piece was so overwhelming that at least some people in my Twitter stream thought it was a joke — a satire of Silicon Valley’s startup mentality and the focus on programming as the cure for every ill. Within a matter of hours, Harvard law student Sarah Jeong had created a Medium post that consisted of entries from a fictional advice column, where the answer to every personal problem is to learn how to code.

A certain tone-deaf eagerness

Jessica Roy at Betabeat told McConlogue that “the homeless are not bit players in your imaginary entrepreneurial novella,” and Ezra Klein at the Washington Post said the most objectionable part of the essay was the writer’s attempt to “absorb this homeless man — a real person, with an actual history that McConlogue can’t really intuit by looking into his eyes — into his precanned, triumphant programmer narrative.” Kevin Roose at New York magazine said “Check back soon for McConlogue’s next post: ‘How Ruby on Rails Fixes Racism.'”

In an update and response to the outcry over his original post, McConlogue says he remains undaunted by the criticism he received, and that Leo — the homeless person he mentioned — has accepted his offer of programming instruction manuals and a free Chromebook instead of $100. He also says that he plans a meetup in New York in the future in order to “discuss some of the feedback” to his post and suggests this would be “a good venue for non-profits to connect around the issue of homelessness.”

Mark Zuckerberg

It seems obvious that McConlogue’s heart is in the right place, and that he genuinely wants to help this young homeless man, just as it seems obvious (or at least arguable) that Mark Zuckerberg actually wants to try and improve the lives of people around the world who are without internet access — although it also seems likely that is designed in part to create more demand for Facebook. And it seems tone-deaf at best to describe a lack of internet access as “one of the biggest problems” the world faces. What about access to clean drinking water?

The flaws in technological solutionism

Dan Gillmor made another good point in a post about at The Guardian, which is that having internet access isn’t really going to help people in countries like China or Iran or dozens of other places because those countries restrict what their citizens can do online — in some cases significantly — and also track them and their behavior. Shouldn’t we be using our influence to push for a more open internet for those countries, not just access?

That’s what makes both McConlogue’s piece and so frustrating in a way: they are both well-meaning, and yet still betray a misunderstanding about the problems they are allegedly targeting. Leo may strike McConlogue as “smart, logical and articulate,” but he could be dealing with a host of things that have driven him to where he is, from drug abuse or mental illness to family problems and other complex psychological issues.

Learning to code may be valuable, but the idea that Leo is going to become some kind of entrepreneurial superstar after being given a few JavaScript manuals is pretty laughable. Could it happen? Sure. Is it even remotely likely? No.

The kind of bootstrapped, do-it-yourself mentality that McConlogue’s post is filled with is an admirable trait, and much good has come from it. And Zuckerberg’s focus on internet access for all has a powerful rationale to it as well, and could improve the lives of many. But it’s possible to admire those things and yet still be disappointed in how they fall short of even trying to understand the fundamental nature of the problems they are allegedly trying to solve.

Update: For more thoughtful criticism of this trend, check out this open letter to Mark Zuckerberg from UC Berkeley sociologist Jen Schradie about his technological determinism.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / noporn and Flickr user Jason McElweenie

15 Responses to “Hey Silicon Valley! Not every problem can be solved by giving people internet access or teaching them to code”

  1. There are different ways to help people and one way does not have to replace another. Nor does every way work for all. This can give some the opportunity they never had and would love to learn.

    There are groups who teach trades and the arts, so why not assist with computer technology. There are others working to provide the basics of life, farming, and promote growth.

    We all have a choice of who we support and donate our money to and if this plan does not appeal to some, I do not see where that is relevant. Support the one that does.

  2. James Eagle

    These people deal in tech. The Internet is an integral part of their personal and professional lives and it is a not insignificant resource than can be exploited for good. Why would they step outside of that world to provide aid? Why would you look to Mark Zuckerberg (for example) to spearhead an infrastructure or aid program in a field in which he has little to no experience in? Sure, he can simply provide cash to a group that does understand some of the other challenges the disadvantaged face but that would be to squander a mind that built a behemoth of an institution in seemingly no time at all.

    There are a number of individuals and groups that work outside the tech sphere that endeavour to provide basic necessities to those that need them. They are doing incredible things and should be supported. That there are some in Silicon Valley, and elsewhere, that seek to provide a complementary solution to some of the world’s problems is something to be applauded, not sneered at.

  3. Mike Essex

    Since when did being able to code mean someone could magically get a job? Leo would need to have good ideas of what to use that code for and a desire to continually stay up to date. A few manuals would make him no more qualified that any computer science graduate or IT major (of which there are an insane amount). He wouldn’t suddenly have the skills needed to transition in to employment.

    Not that it’s not a noble idea but seriously it’s so flawed as to be maddening. It’s not like Shelter or other charities are suddenly shipping JavaScript manuals to the homeless.

  4. MSfromtheOC

    Matthew, you are absolutely right, and incredibly naive. Getting access to the net and learning to code won’t solve everything. But it goes a long way to bringing the developing nations up to speed.

    Bill Gates’ foundation has been very successful in improving healthcare in improvished nations. But he’s doing nothing to bring roads to these areas. Roads are crucial to transport goods and people. Gates is focused on one thing and is making a difference. And, that’s the right idea.

    If Zuckerberg wants to focus on access to the net and he makes a difference in that regard, he will have done good. He will have improved the world… And that’s all we can be asked to do. No one is expected to do it all themselves, but no one is excused from doing his part.

    • Nate Davis

      Yes, but the crucial difference is that vaccines address acute physical needs, helping to prevent millions of premature deaths in developing countries. As I saw from a year doing nonprofit work with the poor in Manila, anyone who has the luxury of time to spend learning to code is most likely not in immediate danger of disease or starvation. And that’s why the efforts of Zuckerberg et al are commendable, but would not have the impact of all that brainpower and resources dedicated to providing clean drinking water, for example.

  5. Question, where is Leo supposed to CHARGE his new shiny laptop?
    Did Patrick McConlogue consider the effect that laptop would have on Leos life? Where is Leo supposed to keep it while he sleeps for example?

    There is a huge leap between being homeless and being financial set, and an even bigger one to being rich. You can’t just hand out laptops and manuals and expect people to fix their lives over night (patting yourself on the back for being someones saviour). Changing your status is a long and painstaking process that very few can do on their own. It requires a lot of support and luck.

    Both propositions above fall short in ever way in my book. They are shortsighted, colourblind, tone-def, and from what I can tell, only serve to be an ego-boost rather then a real solution to a real problem.

  6. Henry Robinson

    You guys are slowly, but surely going the way of TechCrunch. Lots of noise and hyperbole, but absolutely no substance. I just watched the author build a perfect straw man, and triumphantly burn him to the ground. While quite entertaining, it doesn’t really help the conversation in any way.

    There is no tone deafness. No bubble. No grand conspiracy to make everything into a software problem.

    Learning to write code is a skill. Regardless of this homeless man’s other problems, he would be learning a skill that at some point could earn him money, FULL STOP.

    • And why it has to be coding and not plumbing? Do you think programmers are Gods and solve everything? Try to say that when life hits you blindside at 4PM on a Tuesday…..never mind .you won’t understand it unless you grow old.

  7. Knowledge is power, and can solve more problems than you think. We need to stop helping the world, and teach them how to help themselves. Internet access, and the access to all the information contained within, training, advice, fundraising campaigns, and connectivity is a good start. You make it sound like Zuckerberg’s plan is a bad thing.

    You can give a man a fish…….ahhhh, nevermind. you wouldn’t get it Ingram.

    • Elaine Huang

      How about doing both at the same time? What good would it be if the said person receiving this help can’t even live past the age of 35? Or starve and be homeless?