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

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 Internet.org, 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 Internet.org 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 Internet.org 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 Internet.org 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