Silicon valley’s saviorism problem

Opinion by Jasmine Sun
Feb. 16, 2018, 3:00 a.m.

Let’s begin with a hypothetical. Imagine that you are a college student in Kampala, Uganda. You have just read the tragic news that 17 Americans were killed in a school shooting in Florida. You aren’t very familiar with U.S. culture or politics (except for what you’ve seen in movies and social media), but the solution to America’s recurring gun violence seems painfully obvious: More background checks. Ban automatic weapons. With innovative ideas like these, I could save people’s lives over there.

Of course, you and I might scoff — the solution to gun violence isn’t nearly that simple, or our problems would’ve been solved long ago. There’s the history of the Second Amendment to reckon with; there are National Rifle Association lobbyists constraining Congressional action. A twenty-year-old who has never been to the U.S. advocating gun control legislation as an quick and easy, magic wand solution would be instantly dismissed as overly idealistic. Yet this is the naive view that many aspiring social entrepreneurs have of problems faced by those in the Global South, or even by poor and marginalized communities in America.

Courtney Martin, the author and activist who came up with the hypothetical I adapted above, calls the tendency to oversimplify other people’s problems “reductive seduction.” In part, this is a psychological inevitability, similar to the Dunning-Kruger effect: people consistently overestimate their competence, especially in the areas they know the least about. Moreover, however, I argue that the bubble of Silicon Valley (and by extension, Stanford) exacerbates the narrowness of reductive seduction.

Consider it: Why do many students mock sociology and anthropology majors, but enthusiastically tack “+ Social Good” onto the name of STEM-oriented clubs? What does that say about the desire to be recognized for having good intentions versus the willingness to learn about the complex sociopolitical structures that shape other people’s lives?

A lot of it has to do with shifting symbols of success and status here in the Valley. We like to think of ourselves as different from our New England peers, as less Wolf of Wall Street and more Tony Stark. Daniela Papi-Thornton aptly dubs this phenomenon “heropreneurship,” a situation where elite students have realized that “social entrepreneurship” can get them the brownie points of doing social work with the comfort of heightened status and financial security. Furthermore, as technology has rapidly made our day-to-day lives exponentially easier, it’s only natural to want to develop products that expand this convenience to everyone else, too. The result? The push to digitize everything, from cashless transactions to registration for public services — often with little consideration for whether technology should be the go-to solution for populations experiencing low literacy rates and limited Internet access.

But it’s all innocuous, right? Go to a hackathon, come up with a half-baked startup idea and leave with a free T-shirt and a healthy dose of motivation for future endeavors. Except sometimes, these ill-conceived social business concepts actually catch on, amassing large amounts of financial and social capital before collapsing under the weight of their own imprudence.

Take the example of Playpumps International, a business that came up with the novel idea of having children playing on roundabouts serve the dual purpose of pumping groundwater for storage. The Playpumps concept was so alluring, in fact, that they received millions of dollars in international aid — including $10 million from the U.S. government and more from Jay-Z and other celebrity sponsors — to build apparatuses in Mozambique and other African nations. But once the Playpumps model was more rigorously scrutinized, studies found that the project was high on cost and low on utility; in fact, it was functionally nonviable. Millions had already been poured down the drain, and all because marketability was prioritized over workability.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s initiative to bring free basic Internet to India had similarly lofty goals. He touted the vast opportunities that Internet access would unlock for India’s rural poor, claiming that “Free Basics” could “create more than 100 million jobs and bring a lot of people out of poverty.” Despite his insistences, many locals mounted opposition, seeing it as little more than a thinly-veiled ploy to expand Facebook’s user base. In fact, 80% of Free Basics users already had internet connectivity, suggesting that Zuckerberg wasn’t actually reaching India’s poorest and least connected. The project failed.

Finally, just because a concept is financially solvent and somewhat functional doesn’t mean it can’t harm. Recently, more and more businesses and restaurants are going cashless, especially with experiments like the newly unveiled Amazon Go store in the public eye. However, anti-poverty advocates worry that the cashless trend further limits the healthy food options available to the poor and unbanked, populations who are also disproportionately people of color.

There are so many examples like these that international development experts have devised a handy name and flowchart for identifying these so-called innovations: “SWEDOW”, or Stuff We Don’t Want. And that little moniker gets to the heart of Silicon Valley’s saviorism problem — that many social entrepreneurs, particularly those from privileged backgrounds, simply don’t know (or care) what the communities they’re attempting to serve actually want.

Technological interventions remain a useful and necessary part of the toolkit for social change, and the last thing I want is to lose the immense technical talent and motivation that Silicon Valley possesses. In fact, many innovators have successfully adapted their products to specific cultural and economic contexts. For instance, Anu Sridharan was recognized by Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia for founding NextDrop, a system that uses SMS notifications to inform water-insecure Indian users when they will receive water. Despite the recognition, Sridharan was not satisfied. Her grassroots research told her that many subscribers had trouble texting responses to the NextDrop service, so she introduced a “missed call” alternative response system to fill in those gaps — developing a solution that is both cheaper and more accessible. Sridharan’s adaptation exemplifies the principles of humility, reflexivity and flexibility that are so crucial to effective social innovations.

Pragmatic, long-term social change cannot be the work of a single “heropreneur” and their shiny new startup. Sustainable solutions require field research to identify community needs, and they must be designed in partnership with local stakeholders rather than imposed from above. Ultimately, to earn the do-gooder reputation Silicon Valley so desperately wants, it’s time to abandon our ivory tower saviorism and begin building from the bottom-up.


Contact Jasmine Sun at jasminesun ‘at’

Jasmine Sun '21 is a sociology major from the greater Seattle area. She's fascinated by the future of cities, education and digital media. When not trying and failing to catch up on her Goodreads Reading Challenge, she nurtures her caffeine addiction and hosts a podcast on civic innovation.

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