Wednesday, July 27, 2011

the internet is a collective waste of potential

What really makes me sick about the industry I work in (IT) is how a great majority of the really smart, creative people in it are working on the biggest wastes of time, money and energy on the planet.

Right now, somewhere in the Bay Area, someone is building a tool. In that tool is invested hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of dollars of resources in human beings' time and the purchase of things to support them. Energy is being expended and people are spending their lives working on this tool. People spent years going to school to amass the knowledge to perform the tasks necessary to complete this tool.

That tool will be used to put funny phrases under pictures of cats on the internet.

Meanwhile, somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, up to 11 million people may starve to death because they don't have food. When food prices soar (for example, when the USA meddles in food prices to achieve lower cost at the gas pump) and rivers are dry from drought, it hits the poorest the hardest. People's lives are lost as a result.

I'm not someone who fights for causes. I'm as hypocritical, cynical and lazy as most [American] people out there. But I get sick at the thought of the sheer staggering size of waste that is the internet and the big business taking advantage of it. There's untold fortunes of wealth being used to build digital empires who collectively do nothing to help any one or any thing. Sure, facebook creates this big website and eventually people can use it to create an event to rally protesters to a cause. But this was an unintended side-effect, and the end result from such "socializing" is (my guess anyway) ineffective. And before you claim that Facebook is the reason a government is overthrown somewhere in the middle east, please think long and hard about that. Revolution is the domain of people wanting to change something and deciding en masse to put their lives on the line for personal and political freedom. Facebook is the equivalent of a text-based telephone. Do you really think revolution couldn't have happened without a telephone?

My disgust at the waste of potential comes from my experiences in the Open Source community. I noticed how I could spend all my free time working on some cool new toy, only for there to be no real purpose to it. It would languish and if I finished it, nobody would really use it. I noticed how other people tended to spend their time on projects which were fun but produced nothing of value. So I stopped working on things I didn't need. Now I look around and all I can see is wasted effort.

Hackerspaces are one huge example of a waste of resources. Here you have a collective of very smart, motivated inventors who come together - to do what? Create 'makerbots'? Send balloons into space? Build arcade cabinets? WHAT'S THE POINT? You take that same group of people together and ask them to solve something truly difficult - like ways to keep people from dying from starvation in Somalia - and you'd have a real, tangible, valuable product.

Most of the people I know who work to change the world do so in person. I think that's partially because there's more of an immediate gratification and it doesn't take much to fly to Africa and get your hands dirty. But longer-term projects to increase the sustainability of a community are valuable too. You don't have to make huge changes in your life to spend your time working on something of value. All you have to do is change your focus. Do the same job, but pick which employer and project it is based on what kind of value it can produce.

Doing this for your own gratification is a selfish and unseemly objective, to me. If you just want to make yourself feel better you can volunteer at a local homeless shelter. This isn't intended to be a decision based on morals or for some goal to fix the way things are. The goal, to me, is to take the time you spend in life doing "work" and turn it into an investment in the future of the lives of living beings. Because you can spend your time doing nothing - really, it's not hard to do absolutely nothing - or you can spend it doing something which has a positive benefit outside of yourself or the company you work for.

I mean, it's a logical choice... help only yourself, or help yourself and others at the same time. In our society we do for others all the time because doing good things is cyclical. We can eat because we pay people to create and bring us food instead of stealing it (just ask warlords; it's not a sustainable business model). We don't get murdered because we don't murder people. And we hold doors for people so they too will hold a door for us. In this way, creating something of value which provides for other people will improve society - and on a bigger scale, the world. If you figure out a way to keep people from going hungry, we don't need to spend billions on foreign aid, which strengthens our economy is stronger. It's a simplistic but effective idea.

The next time you're considering job offers or personal projects to pick up, ask what the end result of the work is. If one answer is "put funny phrases on pictures of cats", and the other is "helping people", consider the second one. It may benefit you more in the end.

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