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The Real Reasons Silicon Valley Won't Fix The 'Important' Problems

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 8/10/2015 Quora

Why do so few Silicon Valley software engineers work on important problems? originally appeared on Quora: The best answer to any question.

Answer by Keith Evans on Quora:
There are a few assumptions present in the question that are worth unpacking.

  1. Startup engineers aren't solving real world problems, generally. This may or may not be true.
  2. Silicon Valley startup engineers consider themselves highly.
  3. Silicon Valley startup engineers should be solving these so-called real world problems.
  4. A real-world problem is different than solutions that build profitable businesses.
First assumption:

Don't software engineers work on real problems all the time?

If a software engineer is hired by anyone, as a contractor, employee or self-employed, they are, I am assuming, working on a problem that is real to someone. These problems are as diverse in nature as humans are diverse:

  • making a process more efficient
  • allowing for more complex analysis
  • allowing for data collection and storage
  • increasing the potential speed of communication

Does a cell phone count as a solution to a real world problem in a place like Africa? Can Facebook be considered a solution to the problem of dictatorship and political inequality when we look at the Arab Spring in places like: Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Sudan, Lebanon, Mauritania, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Djibouti (list compiled from Wikipedia -

Does the internet as a space for connection and commerce count as a solution to real world problems like physical distance and constrained communication channels?

Do marketing systems like Adwords count as solutions to the real world problems businesses face in reaching potential customers?

Don't technologies like word processing and spreadsheets allow for more efficient study of all manner of real problems like cancer research and energy creation/distribution and food production?

Second assumption:

Do Silicon Valley startup engineers really consider themselves "to be so freaking awesome?"

Is the self-image of Silicon Valley startup engineers as a class really so inflated? I have worked alongside a few Silicon Valley startup engineers that are quite talented and create software that was/is game changing. In my experience they were, in general, personable, open to criticism, and aware that their position in the company was as important as other positions.

Perhaps self-confidence, a recognition of monetary value in the workplace, and a desire to do work worthy of significant time and thought all thrown together in the body of a Silicon Valley startup engineer is at times read as overconfident and an inflated sense of self.

Is it wrong for someone to be proud of their work and confident in the value of future contributions?

Third assumption:

Should we expect of Silicon Valley startup engineers and other talented people like scientists and such to work on world hunger and world peace instead of human connection and commerce?

Why don't we have such expectations of all people all the time? Why the special emphasis on Silicon Valley startup engineers?

Fourth assumption:

Is a business solution created by Silicon Valley startup engineers that creates jobs solving a real problem like unemployment and poverty?

Is an application that brings people together socially addressing a real problem like loneliness that is endemic to the urban experience?

Last thought:

Are so-called real-world problems solvable through technology? Are problems caused by human, greed, laziness, anger, envy, and pride solvable through software programs?

Can't we use software programs like email and word processing to create human suffering just as much as cultivating the best of humanity (one such example: IBM and the Holocaust)?

What can each of us do to solve so called real-world problems?

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