A Web Debate on Saving the World...
A fantastic discussion has been taking place online this week over developing internet tools, not for the sake of profit, but to help save the world. The idea may seem a bit pie-in-the-sky, but the dialogue has proved extremely thoughtful and has raised important issues on everything ranging from macroeconomics to environmental sustainability to Web 2.0 business models.
It started with Umair Haque from the Harvard Business School posting "An Open Challenge to Silicon Valley" a few weeks ago. In it, he calls for today's investors and start-ups to start building applications to "change the world" instead of just developing applications that make money. Haque explicitly posed this challenge:
If you're a revolutionary, then be one: put your money where your mouth is, and fix a big problem that changes the world for the better - if you really have the courage, the purpose, and the vision, that is.
Haque went even further this week, posting "A Manifesto for the Next Industrial Revolution". His basic argument is that the Invisible Hand of capitalism is "crippled", creating value that is ultimately self-defeating, and that we need to drastically re-think our notions of economic growth.
If you actually read Haque's two articles, it's not entirely clear whether he's aiming to be a revolutionary, or just looking to inject a few token reminders of sustainability and charitable goodwill into our existing systems. Regardless, he has apparently triggered an outpouring of intellectual arguments on the subject.
Several members of the online business community, including venture capitalists, are suddenly feeling introspective. Fred Wilson writes on his blog, "A VC", that Haque's idea has led him to become admittedly "bored" with the whole idea of Web 2.0:
I am a bit jealous of friends who are working on finding and funding alternative energy or biomedical technologies that have the potential to address the serious problems facing the world. At times it seems that helping the web become more social, intelligent, mobile, and playful is not as impactful.
And here's where the thoughtfulness of this discussion becomes so apparent. Broadstuff chimed in with these two posts (1,2) where, referencing serious academic theorists from a broad range of disciplines, he analyzes the economic notions of "growth through creative destruction" and "Feudalism 2.0". Broadstuff goes on to formulate proposals for using web media to reduce transaction costs, enable people to self-organize, impact energy and resource usage, and create entirely new financial structures.
Calling on today's investors and start-ups to start building applications to "change the world" instead of just developing applications that make money is, of course, a worthy and noble endeavor. The irony is that it's not like there's a choice between Web 2.0 applications that focus on profits versus those with more anthropological ends. Almost no Web 2.0 startups make money anyway.
What this question really gets to is what should be the larger purpose of software. What human values should software embody, and how should developers then integrate those values into code?
In the end, this is summed up by Marc Hustvedt, another venture capitalist, who ponders, "how can we use Twitter to fight global hunger?". However, the real question may be "can we use Twitter to fight global hunger? Will the tools of change really be the Twitters and Facebooks of today, or will we need to embrace a whole new paradigm designed just for the purpose of change?"