The Economic Loophole
When I first decided to pursue the field of Software Development I did so because of the awe around how much of a positive impact I could make. I could solve so many problems. Anything I could dream up and write logically would just pop into existence. My career would be about solving peoples problems and changing the world for the better. What an exciting prospect right?
It is, well at least it was until somewhere along the line, developers decided to stop doing that. Instead, we found a loophole. Who needs to solve problems when we could just pretend and make a crazy amount of money while we do it. Let me explain. Have you ever noticed that every year a new version of your software is out? Constant updates that become so advanced that you need to go and buy a new phone or computer just to support it? That is a company pretending to solve your problems for profit. We have stopped genuinely responding to peoples real needs. Now we find a basic human problem we all have and pretend to solve it. Then constantly update it with the promise that this time will be the time that it is actually solved. It is a loophole in our economy. One that we all fall for and it is making a few people a lot of money. Enough money that according to new preliminary research from economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, the wealth disparity in our population is rapidly making its way back to what it was when lords ruled the land.
Let me run through an example, the iPhone. It is marketed as if this device will bring you a new lifestyle. That this piece of technology is a phenomenon. But what is actually different about it? What is the problem it is trying to solve? It is faster, a better screen… but these are not problems we are actually having. Instead, the iPhone has just become a fashion. So Apple is making a world-changing amount of money with this product by not actually solving anything.
What drives developers to do this? Are we all just greedy? From my experience, it stems from financial and social insecurity. And I say that not as a slite to others but introspectively. At some point during our education, there was a change from ‘How should I help the world?’ to ‘How can I make enough money that I feel financially secure?’ or ‘What job can I have that others will admire/respect me?’. It stems from the desperation to succeed, the big names and companies we hear daily are people who learned how to sell, not solve. There are exceptions to this of course, but the developer culture as it stands is geared towards selling, not solving.
Consider this situation. Let’s say as a developer, I have finally decided that I want to give back. I want to solve someone's problems and leave my economic loophole behind. Awesome, but what problems will I solve? Our go-to design strategy is Activity-Centered Design. this means that I will find a problem in my own activities and build a solution to it. The problem with this, is that being a developer, I am already in the 1% of the world (An income of $32,400 US dollars makes the cut off for the 1% according to Global Rich List). My problems will be specific to the rest of the 1%. We end up just catering to the elite and not actually giving back.
How can we actually help? With all of these pitfalls, where good efforts help those who don’t need help and the safest jobs are just an economic loophole? A simple and easy solution is proposed by Victor Papanek in his book “Design for the Real World”.
- First, as developers, we should set aside 10% of our time and ideas to help the 99%. Whether this is 1 out of every 10 work days, or a year out of every 10 years.
- Second, develop for the minority. Counter-intuitively, helping minorities is the only way to truly help the majority. When we lump together all of the different minority groups, this is what makes most of the whole. Throughout our lives we all belong to different minority groups, we belong to special needs groups, we grow old and get ailments, we move to new cultures. By focusing on all of these minorities the majority is helped.
- Third, empathize with your target clients. Discuss with them problems they may be having, what cultural values they have that are not being met, or difficulties they regularly face. What they explain may just be the symptom of a larger problem. (eg: If the elderly say their problem is with walking, maybe the root of the problem is that not walking prevents them from seeing their friends and they are lonely)
- Fourth, if we truly want to help, the most effective way is to plant seeds. This can be done by teaching others how to teach. (eg: build a platform that is accessible to everyone. The platform could teach development as well as teach these new developers how to teach development.)
As a developer, the seemingly promising and secure path is just an economic loophole. Many of the global issues experienced today can hold developers co-responsible because we just muddled along, built whatever would sell and did not ask ourselves the question “Is what I am building going to help society and the individuals within it?”