You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Dear Silicon Valley, not everything can be solved with apps

Engadget Engadget 8/07/2016 Nicole Lee

In the wake of the shooting of Philando Castile by a police officer in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, Shervin Pishevar, a prominent investor in Silicon Valley, came up with an idea: a mobile app. The app, as he describes it to USA Today, would be used by both police officers and citizens to communicate via a FaceTime-like call so that neither side would have to leave their vehicles. It would let them exchange information such as driver's license and registration, record audio and video at traffic stops and even have a panic button to contact "specially trained officers" in the event of an emergency. What the app doesn't do, however, is provide a meaningful solution to the problem of racism and police brutality.

This, of course, is not Pishevar's fault. To his credit, he recognizes that getting rid of racism would require structural changes in our culture and that an app would not be enough to overcome that. But the fact that he came up with the idea for the app at all shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the problem.

Preventing police officers from interacting face-to-face with citizens only scratches the surface, and in fact probably introduces a whole host of new problems (how do you verify that they're showing their real license instead of a fake one?). It also creates a further barrier between the police and the community it's supposedly serving -- definitely not the message you want to send when you're trying to build bridges. It's not to say that technology can't be helpful -- of course it can -- but to suggest an app as a solution is a misguided and naive view that tech can solve society's ills.

A few years ago, for example, a programmer by the name of Patrick McConlogue taught Leo Grand, a homeless man, how to code. The idea was that if Grand knew programming skills, he could lift himself out of homelessness into a job. So, after several lessons, Grand built his first ever app, called "Trees for Cars." At $0.99 per download, it eventually earned him over $10,000.

But just last year, Mashable followed up with Grand, and it appears that he is still homeless. He apparently spent much of the earnings on everyday essentials and renting out a storage unit. He wasn't able to pay for server space to keep "Trees for Cars" going. That's not to say that teaching the homeless how to code isn't a valuable skill -- programs like Code Tenderloin in San Francisco have proven to be helpful, for example -- but it's clearly not enough. There are many other issues at play, like affordable housing, mental health and basic access to social services. The truth is you can't just code your way to a better life.

It's all part of a Messiah complex that Silicon Valley is sometimes prone to. Facebook and Twitter often pat themselves on the back for being the sites where people speak of injustice, but that doesn't mean they're beyond reproach. It's great that the official Twitter account called for racial justice, for example, but that rings hollow when you consider the company's failure to deal effectively with the violent hate speech on its own platform.

What we really need is not an app or a tweet. We need more than just talk. We need action. There needs to be increased education, awareness, sensitivity and empathy across the board. We need the tech industry to use its enormous clout to speak to legislators, to work with people and groups who have already laid the groundwork for action. Examples include Campaign Zero, a police reform campaign that lays out guidelines of best practices aimed at reducing police violence. It's commendable that people like Pishevar want to help, but suggesting solutions for problems you clearly don't understand doesn't help anyone.

More from Engadget

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon