Join 3,564 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


The Unexotic Underclass
May 29, 2013 9:21 AM   Subscribe

You should care because the unexotic underclass can help address one of the biggest inefficiencies plaguing the startup scene right now: the flood of (ostensibly) smart, ambitious young people desperate to be entrepreneurs; and the embarrassingly idea-starved landscape where too many smart people are chasing too many dumb ideas,
posted by Lord_Pall (54 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite

 
So the thesis of the argument is that silicon valley programmers should stop making cat and restaurant apps and start making apps that solve problems for single moms, veterans, and the jobless over 50.

Great Idea!

Except the poor don't have any money to spend on applications which is why they don't exist (the applications, not the poor of course). So....what? Engineers are going to magically make software for no money?

Also, I am highly suspicious of anyone who claims that the same people making it easier to find a taxi (by disintermediating the taxi service, by making it impossible to hail a cab without your handy app) are even capable of solving real social problems if they wanted to.

Look, I worked for Goldman Sachs immediately after graduating from Wellesley. After graduating from MIT, I worked at a hedge fund.

Why is it that the more education someone has the stupider and eviler they are. A complete lack of critical thinking and working for people who are doing our country harm. I'm not saying it's a rule or anything, but there does seem to be a trend.
posted by ishrinkmajeans at 9:37 AM on May 29, 2013 [13 favorites]


Yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes a thousand million times yes.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 9:37 AM on May 29, 2013


Engineers making software for no money is large parts of open source. And making such things would largely have to be open source.
posted by curuinor at 9:39 AM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


Except that the reason the "startup scene" focuses on the trivial, banal non-problems of the one-percenters rather than the (little b, little p) big problems of the "unexotic underclass" is because the one-percenters have all the money. Single moms and veterans may be big markets but they're not affluent markets, and selling a daycare-locator-credential-checker-and-rater app to 100 working moms for $1 each is a lot more work then selling a best-restaraunts-crossreferenced-with-your-horoscope app to one CEO's daughter for $100, so the invisible hand gives them our unexotic underclass the invisible finger and moves on to invisibly massage the folks with the money.

The veterans thing is pretty tragic though, because that's supposed to be the government, free of the constraints of the market (no no don't laugh) and there's no reason for those applications to be stacked somewhere waiting to be gone through by hand, while the veterans who sent them in languish and die. Except that our government's (and by extension, voters') priorities seem to be more on the "create new veterans" side of things. Sigh.
posted by mstokes650 at 9:44 AM on May 29, 2013 [13 favorites]


Except the poor don't have any money to spend on applications which is why they don't exist (the applications, not the poor of course). So....what? Engineers are going to magically make software for no money?

Tumblr makes almost no money and is apparently worth a billion dollars...
posted by ghharr at 9:45 AM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Why is it that the more education someone has the stupider and eviler they are.

Hey now, I have advanced degrees from the University of Chicago, and I think I'm neither stupid nor evil.


I'm drunk, and regretful.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 9:47 AM on May 29, 2013 [26 favorites]


Hey you want to hear a joke? Actually it's less of a "ha-ha" joke and more of a "vomit in your mouth" kind of joke.

Many of those applications by veterans are for disability because no one wants to hire them. Put someone in a situation where they kill women and children for a couple years and make them come home all mentally fucked with no job skills. Sure many of them have got PTSD something crazy, but I bet a lot of those poor bastards are putting in for back pain because its easier to get "medical" treatment and insurance than job related insurance.

Where's the app for this Mr. MIT? Thought so.
posted by ishrinkmajeans at 9:49 AM on May 29, 2013


Privileged-ass entrepreneurial bastard tells other privileged-ass-entrepreneurial bastards that that's what they all are and that they should get over themselves and look around them at the rest of us and ask themselves whether they can sell us something that actually makes our lives better. I like that.
posted by edheil at 9:49 AM on May 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


Look, I worked for Goldman Sachs immediately after graduating from Wellesley. After graduating from MIT, I worked at a hedge fund.

Why is it that the more education someone has the stupider and eviler they are. A complete lack of critical thinking and working for people who are doing our country harm. I'm not saying it's a rule or anything, but there does seem to be a trend.


A good education is generally indicative of working well with the system. However, I think you'll notice two other much bigger indicators of evil stupidity in that quote than "Wellesley" and "MIT".
posted by DU at 9:50 AM on May 29, 2013 [5 favorites]


Where's the app for this Mr. MIT? Thought so.

Just a point of contention, as a feminist woman in tech, since this article is about the tech industry written by someone at MIT and thus it generates certain assumptions, that it's actually *Ms.* MIT.


After yesterday's hate on the rich privileged Silicon Valley types, not sure why there's excessive vitriol for a rich privileged type encouraging fellow rich privileged Silicon Valley types to focus on the needs of a much more massive, much more needy, but admittedly less per-capita lucrative market. She even admits her privilege, admits that Wellesley, MIT, Sachs, etc make her even more of that less-liked archetype to be trying to advocate for this particular issue. But she has a good point, doesn't she?

And yeah, with issues like PTSD and its effect on employment of veterans there's not always An App For That, but the insane hand-processing of literal paperwork within the VA is absolutely a problem to be solved by technology. And I bet -- now this is crazy, but bear with me here -- I *bet* that if it were properly prioritized within our society, we could task people with solving the paperwork/digitization issue AND find and implement ways to address the social issues of veteran employability and PTSD AT THE SAME TIME. But her point is that we don't prioritize that. And I don't think she's wrong.
posted by olinerd at 10:00 AM on May 29, 2013 [18 favorites]


For the last couple years, I've been trying to build a resource locator app for Philadelphia's needy and those who serve them. It never got beyond a proof-of-concept running LocalWiki because we couldn't find developers who knew both database management and hyperlocalmobilesocial app design or whatever it's called and who were also willing to work for free. I even got Yelp interested for a hot couple minutes, but they balked at the notion of having a methadone clinic category on their site.

So, like, if anyone's out there let me know. Philadelphia needs this.
posted by The White Hat at 10:02 AM on May 29, 2013 [7 favorites]


But these problems of the poor already have solutions: Higher Taxes, Social Welfare programs and perhaps free access to higher education.

A lot of people are working on the education aspect at the moment - but the others seem to be political undesirable in many western countries today.
posted by mary8nne at 10:02 AM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


The authors of this article forget that there's a few barriers in place for this to happen - lower percentage of internet access at home or on a mobile device, and for the poorer, lack of credit cards or formal bank accounts (feel free to call me out with some stats, I'd love to be wrong in this case).

(From article).
instantly, you have Hipmunk, HotelTonight, Manicube, OKCupid, Grindr, Harry’s, Uber, StyleSeek, Rent the Runway, eshakti/Proper Cloth and Instagram

hah, for many of these new apps, they're only usable in the top, monied cities - NYC, SF (And Silicon Valley), LA, DC. Then maybe next tier of HOU, MIA, PDX, SEA, CHI, BOS, DEN.. Honestly, I think only instagram and okcupid (I haven't heard of a few of those apps before) are usable in Cleveland. Apps like foursquare and yelp ? Honestly wasn't until early 2011 when those 2 apps hit a critical mass here in Cleveland.
posted by fizzix at 10:03 AM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


People don't get graduate degrees from MIT too not work in speculative finance. Sure there are some, but when even physicists are using the "hard math" of the college as and excuse to work on Wall St. the jig is up. They might as well be more honest and call it The Massuchusetts League of Evil or maybe The Society of the Friends of Crime.
posted by ishrinkmajeans at 10:03 AM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Poor people's problems are way, way harder than rich people's problems. Take the VA example: radically reforming the way they work would literally require an act of Congress. It would require a huge government technology procurement, which empirically seems to fail about 80% of the time. It would require retraining the VA's 50,000 claims processing personnel, who are spread out in offices throughout the country. It would require federal court cases, and I'm sure a few Supreme Court cases, to establish how to apply the new rules in case law. Tens of thousands of staff at organizations like DVA would lobby for their own modifications, and be reluctant to adapt to the new framework. It's certainly not impossible, but this isn't something that could be undertaken by a couple of guys in a garage.
posted by miyabo at 10:06 AM on May 29, 2013 [9 favorites]


Sorry, sorry she's Ms. MIT. I'm gender blind. I thought she was a man.

Still evil though. I judge actions more loudly than words and she worked for Goldman Sachs. Credibility lost. She even blames Washington DC for society's ills in the last lines, as if the capitalistic messiah will come and save us all. If I didn't think she was being honest I could almost believe the piece was an intentional self caricature to prove how shortsighted and wrong she is. A Hegelian dialectic of limousine liberal guilt if you will.
posted by ishrinkmajeans at 10:10 AM on May 29, 2013


I'm gender blind. I thought she was a man.

/falls down laughing
posted by rtha at 10:12 AM on May 29, 2013 [51 favorites]


Why is it that the more education someone has the stupider and eviler they are. A complete lack of critical thinking...

When discussing people who behave badly from within the confines of organized religion, we make the standard disclaimer that most people involved in organized religion are not bad like the people we are discussing. I'll do the same here, to say that most people who have moved through institutions of higher learning possess critical thinking skills.

There are, however, certainly people that make their way through the educational system by doing what they're told, and when they come out the other end they parrot what they've learned back without any kind of real understanding or critical analysis having been applied. With one point of view, aimed wherever their parents and their instructors happened to aim them, and content with that.

And, generally speaking, "stupider" and "eviler" are certainly words often applied to people who do bad things based on a singular point of view with no critical thinking applied. So I'd say that's perhaps why. A thoughtful, considered person can become a better person through higher education, but a dense and thoughtless person can go through the same steps and come out the end simply feeling more righteous about their density and thoughtlessness.
posted by davejay at 10:29 AM on May 29, 2013 [6 favorites]


Poor people's problems are way, way harder than rich people's problems.

The poor need power (not money) and the rich need to hold onto power... is there an app for that?

The problem with this sort of thing is that she proposes taking the "changing the world" silicon valley self-fluffing seriously, notices that they aren't changing the world with *buzzword-apps but after growing up the way she has, doesn't actually have the slightest notion of what disruptive change actually is, despite worshipping at it every day at the ycombinator temple. Because... she can't actually imagine changing the social and political rules which governed her life at Wellesley, Goldman-Sachs, MIT, etc. She might not even be aware that the rules she excelled at following, for which excellence she was richly rewarded, have consequences for the society she lives in. In fact, her whole continued success depends upon continuing to excel at following those rules uncritically.
C.Z. Nnaemeka studied Philosophy at Wellesley; logically, she has spent most of her time in finance, beginning at Goldman Sachs. Born in Manhattan to Nigerian parents, she attended French schools, graduating from the Lycée Français de New York. Since then she has alternated between writing, banking, and consulting to startups in Europe, Latin America, and Australia. Previously, she lived in Paris where she founded a political discussion group and was a foreign affairs commentator for the conservative newspaper, Le Figaro.
posted by ennui.bz at 10:33 AM on May 29, 2013 [11 favorites]


Her writing is painfully bad. Really shockingly awful. A droopy cake of an argument smothered in frosting.

Even so:
In the past 5 years, the number of vets who’ve died before their claim has even been processed has tripled. This is America in 2013: 40 years ago we put a man on the moon; today a young lady in New York can use anti-problem technology if she wishes to line up a date this Friday choosing only from men who are taller than 6 feet, graduated from an Ivy, live within 10 blocks of Gramercy, and play tennis left-handed…
Your complaint about "anti-problem technology" is that the US is no longer putting people on the moon? and then later go on about how entrepreneurs should be more in tune with what poor folk need to solve "Big Problems"? Forgive me, but putting people on the moon is the pinnacle of absurd "anti-problem technology". It's the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest in a diving suit while reciting James Joyce backwards compared to the "Big Problems" that people actually face.

Furthermore, the "unexotic underclass" don't need smart inventions or new solutions, because what they need is all around them--they just happen not to own it. Any twopenny trash of an article like this should be immediately thrown away if it doesn't start with:

POOR PEOPLE NEED A FAIRER SOCIETY
posted by Jehan at 10:42 AM on May 29, 2013 [11 favorites]


But these problems of the poor already have solutions: Higher Taxes, Social Welfare programs and perhaps free access to higher education.

That's what struck me about this as well. I'm not sure why she writes off government so easily.
posted by the jam at 10:42 AM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


Working for a big bank that bamboozles government as part of its regular business would give anyone a dim view of its ability to solve problems.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 10:54 AM on May 29, 2013


Poor people's problems are way, way harder than rich people's problems.

Exactly. You can write an app to solve a rich person's need for home candy bar delivery or whatever. Systemic problems in our nation's cultural, financial, and governmental infrastructure, however? There is not, nor can there be, an app for that.

…And yet, veterans who’ve returned from Afghanistan and Iraq have to wait roughly 270 days (up to 600 in New York and California) to receive the help — medical, moral, financial – which they urgently need, to which they are honorably entitled, after having fought our battles overseas.

That's not a technology problem; that's what happens when you shrink your government enough to drown it in a bathtub. Silicon Valley didn't cause that. Silicon Valley can't fix that.

(Not to mention the built-in reverse incentive: if you streamline that paperwork process, if you make it easier to file disability claims, you have to pay out more disability claims. Which would probably mean raising somebody's taxes. Oops! Well we're sure not going to do that, that's crazy talk! We're supposed to be drowning this thing in a bathtub!)

Of the political class, I ask nothing. With a vigor one would have thought inaccessible to people at such an age, our leaders in Washington have found ever innovative ways to avoid solving the problems that have been brought before them

So the gist of her argument seems to be "well, the government sucks, therefore Silicon Valley entrepreneurs should be the ones to step in to pick up the slack by building businesses around markets which are by definition unprofitable because, uh, of reasons."

Okay then. Thanks for that, I guess.

I agree with the author that government is screwed up. I agree with her that Silicon Valley spends way too much time and money chasing dumb ideas. Where I part ways with her is in concluding that the two phenomena have anything whatsoever to do with one another.
posted by ook at 10:58 AM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


The veterans thing is pretty tragic though, because that's supposed to be the government, free of the constraints of the market (no no don't laugh) and there's no reason for those applications to be stacked somewhere waiting to be gone through by hand, while the veterans who sent them in languish and die. Except that our government's (and by extension, voters') priorities seem to be more on the "create new veterans" side of things. Sigh.

No, there is every reason that veterans' applications are processed by hand and take forever - the same reasons that even the most blatantly, obviously disabled person will get rejected from disability the first time or two they apply. The point of how these programs are run is precisely to keep people from using them - I've had a senior social worker tell me as much to my face. Make it sufficiently difficult for people to collect the benefits that they are entitled to, and a certain percentage of them will despair or die before they can collect, thereby meaning that the state can make big promises and create fancy-sounding programs without having to actually pay out. (See also the "mortgage relief" that helped a tiny percentage of qualified people.)

And another rule of government - if you're poor or weak, god help you because the state will not. Another reason this takes so long - poor and weak people can be disregarded. So you starve for nine months while you try to get the benefits you need and deserve. What are you going to do about it? Nothing that matters. Nothing that inconveniences the government.

This is the government that can invest heavily in drones and surveillance and border nonsense - if they wanted that stuff automated and efficient, it would be.

And this is also precisely why quick fix charity tech won't work. Look, back in the day, you used to go to the thrift store and even a poor person could buy a silk blouse or a wool suit. I have watched my giant neighborhood thrift store go from a palace of goods to a thinly stocked, overpriced dump where you can buy last year's used rayon from Target for $9.99. Where did all that stuff go? It went to eBay, where richer people can buy it. Why? Because technology that "makes things easier" usually "makes things easier" by destroying "inefficiencies" - only those inefficiences used to be the very things that poor folks depended on, either for work or for material objects. You can't arbitrage things anymore unless you're rich.

(A facet of this: middle class folks are poorer; one of the ways this is concealed is the fancy trade in nice used things. We're not so poor that we can't afford a nice second-hand wool suit for $50, but fifteen years ago we would have bought new.)

You want to end inequality? You have to end inequality. You can't handwave and talk about the market and imagine a magical "equal" future where special technology snowflakes like yourself will still be in charge and make a shit-ton of money.

Oh, we know how to end inequality. Knowledge isn't the problem. I'd be a fucking socialist if I thought there was a single prayer of actual socialism being established. But it never will be, because virtually everyone who has any kind of state or corporate power is for "equality" only insofar as it preserves their wealth and privilege.
posted by Frowner at 10:58 AM on May 29, 2013 [28 favorites]


But these problems of the poor already have solutions: Higher Taxes, Social Welfare programs and perhaps free access to higher education.

That's what struck me about this as well. I'm not sure why she writes off government so easily.


Probably because government hasn't been doing a very good job serving these people lately, with the possible exception of the Affordable Care Act. Building tools or services for the classes of people she's referring to to more effectively push their government in these directions might be just the kind of thing we need.

My reaction reading this was a hearty "right on!" Yep, these are hard problems. Her point was that there's a lot of folks in technology right now looking around for hard problems. Yep, the groups of people she's talking about aren't particularly wealthy (by definition). But as she points out there's lots of people working on ideas for the most deprived globally. She's just asking them to widen that net to a group of people that gets overlooked.

Now, technology and technologists alone don't solve hard problems. But that's hardly an excuse for moral, highly skilled technologists to be sitting on their asses or building more goddamn fluff.
posted by feckless at 11:01 AM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


Last year, Bunny Ultramod tried to explain to me why smartphone apps are a game-changer for poor people. Now that I actually have a smartphone, I'm still not entirely convinced. But an argument can be made that even fluff apps can benefit people who don't make much money.
posted by Nomyte at 11:10 AM on May 29, 2013


Some successful (and highly-valued) startups make apps that help put people (and their underutilized resources) to work: Of course, I suspect that in the eyes of many Mefites, these apps are treating the poor as some kind of "serf class", rather than providing new economic opportunities.
posted by bbuda at 11:16 AM on May 29, 2013 [6 favorites]


I don't think anyone will disagree with this line of thought. It would be much better if all that brainpower was going into clean energy and poverty, than First World Problems like restaurant apps and the like.

There's a lot of conversations going on in tech about this – that there is certainly an entrepreneurship bubble, with lots of Very Smart People investing a lot of time in Marginally Useful Things, whilst social problems continue to accelerate. There's also a lot of thinking as to why this is...

1) There probably shouldn't be as many entrepreneurs as there are. Most people are not inherently entrepreneurial. Yes, we live in the age of the macro-niche, and the open-source economy, and the nature of work has changed, and all of that, but the reality is that start-ups are picking up the slack from an underinvestment in corporate R&D. The companies that are doing corporate R&D – Apple, BMW, Google, GE – are winning the whole game, whilst those that are maximising short-term "shareholder return" are not.

2) This is evident by the extreme amount of cash sitting on corporate balance sheets. One of the reasons that there are so many startups is that there are a lot of underemployed and unemployed individuals. One of the reasons that there are so many under and unemployed individuals is that there is a lot of money on corporate balance sheets. One of the reasons that there is so much money on corporate balance sheets is because...

3) The pace of business has fast outpaced the pace of government and its ability to regulate, shape, and tax business. Whether it's Wal-Mart's part-time workforce, Google's offshore profits, Apple's app economy, or bank bailouts, there is plenty of money. It's just all sitting with the people that already have plenty of money. So there reason that there are so many startups is because of the cash on corporate balance sheets, which is a result of lack of economic incentive or government imperative to invest.

4) That dislocation of capital has strange results, like rocket scientists working at hedge funds and on advertising problems, rather than rocket science. There was recently an article about silicon valley and how it's nearly required for one to have equity to have a comfortable life there. Thus, joining a startup and focusing on building personal value, rather than contributing to something larger. It's similar to the financial crisis, when Wall Street pulled the Smart People away from every other sector. Want to live in NYC? Don't engineer things, capitalise.

5) Thus, there reason there are so many startups may be due to the fact that wealth is increasingly concentrated in a certain class of society. As there are no jobs to be had, and if there are, wages are stagnant, wealthy people are angel investing. That is, providing capital to a variety of entrepreneurs to invest. The entrepreneur takes all the personal risk, with a fair share of the financial upside. The capitalist takes financial risk, but is diversified to some degree.

6) Those startups are focused on consumer products because those are the fastest-moving. You can create a YPLAN in two years. It's going to take a lot longer to solve social and environmental problems. The net effect is increasing the velocity and efficiency of consumption for a certain part of the population. This has the effect of further reducing the workforce, as workers are increasingly displaced. But it's the segment of the market where capital can be put at risk for the shortest amount of time, because it has the fastest product cycles.

6b) An adjunct to this was the utter failure of the VC market in clean-tech. When the software model was applied to clean-tech, it really failed. Because the up-front capital costs of software are very low, where as the up-front capital costs of energy solutions is much greater.

6c) I heard a dude apply the Lean Startup Model to dating and relationships. It has very low relevance within tech itself, not to mention business writ large. THAT is startup culture run amok.

7) Thus it seems like the fundamental problem – and I've said this before about this very topic – has little to do with business. It's all about governance. The principles of capitalist finance are so prevalent within Western governments, wealth is literally concentrating and we're moving toward a more perfect – and entrenched – division of capital and labour. Smart people are doing startups and restaurant apps because it's the only way they can join the pantheon of wealth. The middle class is dying so quickly, that there aren't corporate R&D careers anymore. There's no middle ground, if one wants to live a comfortable life, and solve social problems.

8) You either get on the FMCG rocket-ship and enable faster cycles of consumption, which increase corporate profits further, which then decimate wealth equality faster, or you spend your life a renter who has no retirement and can't send the kids to college.

9) It's not that smart people making discount apps are part of the problem, rather they are the symptom of the problem. As is the cash sitting on corporate balance sheets. As are billionaires running the political systems.

10) Europe is about to erupt in flames due to the marginalisation of youth. There are startup programs from Athens to Oslo, yet startup programmes are brutal contests in which only a few will acclimate. They are not jobs nor livelihoods. For every startup that goes somewhere, 9 do not. For the one that goes, a bunch of investors will increase their wealth, whilst 9 entrepreneurs will slide down a bit further.

11) Thus, as said, all of the people doing doggie vacation app startups are not part of the problem, they are absolutely symptomatic of the problem itself.

12) Europe is typically 10 years ahead of the US in cultural and social changes because the societal echo chambers are smaller. But beware. Finance has gone from property to student loans and now to startups. Until there are truly significant wealth redistribution mechanisms put in place, the concentration of capital will increasingly imperil the very existence of civil society in a lot of places.
posted by nickrussell at 11:27 AM on May 29, 2013 [30 favorites]


I like all those apps, but I think Freecycle is one of the best examples. Simple, free, not particularly sexy, has an enormous positive effect.

And no, it isn't going to make some VC a pile of money. Which is just fine.
posted by feckless at 11:29 AM on May 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


The developers will have to understand and relate to the real issues they attempt to solve. It is more natural & easier to understand the problems in the taxi system and come up with an app aimed at that than it is to understand social issues that affect the underclass. This is not about a feeling of entitlement.

Maybe the social workers who have spent time & energy in understand the problems can partner with the entrepreneurs to address this jointly.
posted by asra at 11:34 AM on May 29, 2013


Yes, homeless people don't need an app. They need homes.

This is not just a truism either- evidence from a number of front line programs has shown that putting even the chronically homeless immediately into independent housing not only gets them off the street, but allows other issues (mental illness, substance abuse, etc.) to be addressed more effectively, providing better long-term outcomes (not to mention long-term reductions in consumption of social services resources).

Let's get someone from MIT to look into how to implement that more effectively.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 11:50 AM on May 29, 2013 [7 favorites]


I don't buy that startups are just targeting rich people. It's perhaps part of it, but not all of it. They are targeting people like them, young, single childless generally white guys.

I see a million dating sites, but very few sites for married people, which are still a huge chunk of the adult population. Though I seem to recall at least one quick divorce app. Childcare is a major concern, but I can't recall one startup doing babysitting/daycare recommendations/referrals.

I see a lot of sites for young urban people, but very few sites/apps targeting aging populations and people in the suburbs. I think the closest I am aware of is health care and legal service startups.

Aside from targeted dating apps, I can't think of very many startups that are trying to serve minority populations. Though I would point out that I saw a dating site for farmers, so that's at least some rural targeting.

Now maybe there are more systemic issues... maybe products targeting these areas all exist, and just lack publicity/funding (and the two often go hand in hand), or maybe the press just ignores them. But there are a million app/site/service ideas out there.
posted by gryftir at 11:51 AM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


Make it sufficiently difficult for people to collect the benefits that they are entitled to, and a certain percentage of them will despair or die before they can collect

I read of a particularly horrible example here in the UK earlier today...

My sigoth had her DLA culled by ATOS and just hasn't been able to face the ordeal of all the forms and arguing (and being treated, essentially, as a criminal attempting to defraud the system until able to prove otherwise) necessary to get it reinstated. It's odd to think that there are people out there that can quite deliberately rig the system to disadvantage disabled people.
posted by titus-g at 12:04 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Maybe you could fix that.

Or maybe she could.
posted by IndigoJones at 12:22 PM on May 29, 2013


I feel like a lot of these comments are kind of missing the article's point. The writer notes that there is a lot of startup capital going to projects to help the poor---it's not just rich bastards making things for rich bastards, which is what people here seem mad about. Her argument is that a lot of that money and energy is going to the "exotic poor"---those in inner cities or those in the global south---rather than the "unexotic poor"---those in rural America or Eastern Europe.

And that's a really good point. The "unexotic poor" are ignored by a lot of well-meaning charity and social justice organizations, and the reasons for that are worth interrogating. And improving on!
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 12:25 PM on May 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


So much vitriol. Maybe she should have asked people to stop commenting on blogs and do something productive, eh?
posted by iamck at 12:26 PM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


ThatFuzzyBastard, I don't think any of us think that it wouldn't be awesome if people payed more attention to the "unexotic poor". Kudos to her for that, seriously. What comes next is criticism of a good thing:

The problem I have with the article is that I'm only seeing her pay lip service to the idea that the "unexotic poor" need to be politically empowered. The message here as a whole seems to be "you should pay attention to these people and service their needs as a charity, forget about economic reform (and at some point [a small minority of them] might turn into entrepreneurs and have money too! [at which point someone else is going to have to tell them exactly the same thing!{but that's alright because I make money talking to people who have shares in the status quo!}])"
posted by tychotesla at 12:44 PM on May 29, 2013


I was fine with this article till it got to the glib dismissal of government: "Playing brinkmanship games with filibusters and fiscal cliffs; taking money to avoid taking votes. [...] They have demonstrated that government is not only not the answer, it is the anti-answer…" Yes, yes, and no.

Yes, a radical minority has really hijacked US government by acting as a parliamentary party in a presidential system. Yes, there's corruption. But no, government is not the anti-answer. In spite of an extensive effort to prevent this from happening, millions - millions! - of people are now eligible for and will have access to health insurance. It is far from perfect, but there's something that will make far (FAR) more difference to the lives of the "unexotic underclass" than a smartphone app. Every day, tens of millions of people depend on Social Security and disability and other support ("welfare") from the government, and it is FAR more important to their lives than Yelp or even CraigsList, as useful as they are.

I agree that entrepreneurs should try to solve big problems (maybe even Big Problems) instead of writing the next InstaGrindr. But to get to the needed scale, they need to harness government too. Dismissing it as the "anti-answer" is probably not the best idea.
posted by RedOrGreen at 1:15 PM on May 29, 2013 [6 favorites]


Lots of people are using tech to improve their own lives, we just don't see it because it's on message boards and Wordpress sites with pink themes and it's all people talking to each other about diaper services and arranging babysitting.

Craigslist is an engine that lubricates an underground economy with no interest in web design or being written about in TechCrunch. We think the poor and working class aren't using technology because we're completely blind to it when it's in front of our faces.
posted by Space Coyote at 1:30 PM on May 29, 2013 [6 favorites]


Not every article about helping the disenfranchised needs to be a Marxist critique of capitalism and a call for stronger social programs. The problems are myriad, perspectives are infiinite, and a step forward in any particular direction is a step worth taking (as long as it is, in fact, a forward step).
posted by jsturgill at 2:14 PM on May 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


Well, the government is actually getting smart about app development. There is a BIG push for all public data to have a published API to spur third-party developers.

The author was wrong in as much that there is a lot of innovation around vets. The thing is that apps like the DoD and VA's "PTSD Coach" app won't go viral because of the nature of the problem it's solving.

It's one thing to fund development: For better and for worse, end of year money has gotta go on one contract or another. Use it or lose it forevermore. But it's pretty hard to fund ongoing publicity and outreach.

But you don't always need to do that kind of publicity because an intervention like "PTSD Coach" isn't designed to be used in a vacuum. It is a supplement to therapy -- with mindfulness exercises to use when you can't reach your counselor.

The DoD also funded a game called "That Guy" to promote smart drinking/sobriety. Go fig.

The backlog of VA medical applications thing is (apparently) being worked on with a tech solution. Ain't nothing more bipartisan than helping vets overcome bureaucracy. But government tech solutions come slowly except when they don't -- and when that happens there is an explosion of badness. The bugs, the glitches, the horrible, no good, very bad interfaces... Yeck.

On one webinar I heard the very good advice that during procurement and RFP writing there is a tendency to write proposals towards the technical problem being solved and expect that User Experience will be a small effort after that. That always leads to contractors who come in, think they'll write a few lines of code and scram. Supposedly, if you write the RFP to solve the UX problem, then the algorithms and the data solutions will fall out of that process anyway. I can't imagine a social need that can be answered with some fancypants computer science anyway. Most problems are mundane and the make-or-break factor is the usability.

There are plenty of stats that say how low income people are now more likely to buy a smartphone than a computer. Makes sense: Phone contracts are like lay-away and a smartphone can do most of what a desktop will do.
posted by Skwirl at 2:59 PM on May 29, 2013 [8 favorites]


Jehan: "Her writing is painfully bad. Really shockingly awful. A droopy cake of an argument smothered in frosting.

Even so:
This is America in 2013: 40 years ago we put a man on the moon;
Your complaint about "anti-problem technology" is that the US is no longer putting people on the moon?


Great points. Not to mention the fact that 40 years ago, the US was DONE putting men on the moon.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 5:36 PM on May 29, 2013


Her comparison of putting men on the moon to helping poor people is basically stripped right out of Whitey on the Moon by Gil Scott-Heron.
posted by TypographicalError at 5:42 PM on May 29, 2013


Lyft — anyone can be a taxi driver. Most Americans (even the poor) own a vehicle.
* must be 2000 or newer, and a few other requirements of maintenance, etc
* Must pass the in person screening, etc. If you're actually poor, i doubt your car looks nice enough for their image. Nearly every car i've seen driving for one of these services was surprisly, even oddly new/nice.

Airbnb — rent out a room (or a couch) in your home.
* you need to live in either a desirable location(which poor people can't really afford anymore) or an interesting enough place(cmon, really?)
* You need to have the extra space for another person, or be gone from the place so they can use it. What poor person has an extra room? a lot of the working young poor people i know are renting out their living rooms full time for someone else to set up a bed in behind a curtain.
* Similarly, whose poor and has enough money to travel leaving their place empty for others to rent out?

Taskrabbit — helps unskilled laborers find work on demand.
* This, and similar stuff like postmates is already saturated with working poor kids, but able bodied young guys who can ride their bike 30mph all day like lance armstrong delivering stuff for a few bucks to get drunk and pay for their walk in closet they keep their futon in. Almost everyone doing this is doing it as a second job in addition to their part time retail/foodservice job, but the catch-22 there is you have to be constantly available to pick up jobs to make any money, but you don't make enough money for it to actually be a real primary job.
* The background/credit check requirement to get the job in the first place.

This kind of stuff is cleverly designed to keep actual poor people, or at the very least with taskrabbit/postmates/etc people who aren't young and somewhat poor out of the system. Despite it's "come one, come all" image, Anyone who isn't like... driving a decently new car their parents bought them or something need not apply.

And airBNB is basically for yuppies who have a bigger place than they need, travel regularly, or have investment properties.

Note that all of these services are common topics of discussion among my peers, being in my early 20s. There are many caveats that people discussing them as some kind egalitarian work for the masses type of thing don't consider.
posted by emptythought at 6:24 PM on May 29, 2013 [11 favorites]


Let's not prance around the real truth, article: creating "apps" is an endeavor with less socially transformative potential than growing vegetables or building houses or healing the sick. It doesn't mean app developers are inherently horrible people, but let's not fucking kid ourselves and pretend that if we can somehow allocate startup resources in juuuuuust the right way, it will magically unlock a just world.
posted by threeants at 6:31 PM on May 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


The real message of this article is hidden at the end. On the matter of poverty; a slight derail. Poverty is ugly but it has simple solutions that are too hard to implement.

A guaranteed basic income for all with limits on individual wealth would eliminate the most extreme examples of wealth disparity and would go a long way to eliminating poverty, and fully subsidized housing would fixing the 'lack of a home' part of being homeless. I've got more, but they're just as egalitarianism/pie-in-the-sky/seemingly-insane.

The barriers to implementing these right now are political and not something an app developer has any ability to affect, which is what the article closes with: the dysfunction in D.C. is a big problem.

> Government is not only not the answer, it is the anti-answer.

A Direct-Democracy app (plus adoption) is the only app I can see having any real lasting relevance coming from an app developer. The big guns in the startup scene, the investors and high-flying VC, however, don't have any excuse for not funding more philanthropic aims.
posted by fragmede at 8:32 PM on May 29, 2013


In other words, this person gets paid six figures to send out tweets.

We are not getting paid six figures. Generally this is being given to an unpaid intern or is part of regular marketing duties except in brands and accounts large enough to need a full time social media manager, and even then they generally don't make six figures- even with SEO expertise and also running a website's pay per click ad campaign.
posted by Phalene at 8:45 PM on May 29, 2013



People don't get graduate degrees from MIT too not work in speculative finance. Sure there are some, but when even physicists are using the "hard math" of the college as and excuse to work on Wall St. the jig is up. They might as well be more honest and call it The Massuchusetts League of Evil or maybe The Society of the Friends of Crime.


As someone with a graduate degree from MIT (albeit the degree equivalent for a participation ribbon at a high school science fair), and who's seen this stuff first hand, I humbly suggest that your bitter snarking here shows more about you than about MIT alums, people working in the finance sector, or anyone else.

People get advanced degrees from MIT because they want to be tenured professors or full time scientists at dedicated institutions like the Salk Institute or CERN. Then they find out that not even a PhD/ScD from MIT will guarantee that. So they work elsewhere. And yes, that includes quantitative hedge funds. Been There. Done That. Believe it or not, you can work in those places and neither engage in, nor aid, nor abet, anything illegal, unethical, or detrimental to social justice. (You do have to do some due diligence before and during your stint to be sure of it though).

Now along comes this writer, who suggests that there are opportunities for good honest work addressing the needs of whom she calls the unexotic underclass.

Keep snarking at her. It makes the world a better place.
posted by ocschwar at 9:40 PM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


This is not exactly an ideal example, but I thought it might be something which does have a deliberate framing as inclusive of unexotic underclassers -- An App to Help You Prove the Beach You're Standing On Is Public. Looks like there's a fully funded as of today Kickstarter to build an app that will do just that, at least for California, where there is not only a state mandate granting public access to everything below a median tidal waterline, but a patchwork of easements granting "dry sand" access to the public depending on when and where the development took place. So, suck it, 1%ers -- at least.

I actually have been thinking about stuff along this line for a while. I have a city that's no hipster haven and has a barely-functioning downtown with a thin veneer of worthy arts supplementing the quality of life, as well as a plethora of lovely 19th century architecture, and it would be great to try to create some synergy between those positives and the largely apathetic change-fearing blue-collar population. I don't think this is sexy in any way, and I fear that there's a major opportunity here that will be -- in due time -- jumped on/overwhelmed by, say, Walmart.
posted by dhartung at 2:38 AM on May 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Folks here have not mentioned growing efforts/movements like Random Hacks of Kindness that are bringing together people in the tech industry to think about and work on problems together using their skills.

The White Hat - consider going to this weekend's event to find people in Philly who do want to work on what you've described, or may have already, and can share their experience.
posted by kmartino at 5:36 AM on May 30, 2013


So I see a few issues to overcome here:

1. Identify problems that software can actually solve;
2. Assemble teams of people to work on software that solves those problems;
3. Get the government/institution to adopt the software that solves those problems.

I've worked as a software designer in the public sector, at big tech, at high-falutin' startups, and done volunteer work for political causes. I feel like #1 is the easy part. #2 is pretty hard, but do-able with the right leader and some financial support. #3 is VERY hard. You need to basically be a political genius or at least very stubborn to pull that one off. In every cause worthing working for there are entire committees of people who will stonewall anything new unless they feel like they had a sufficiently large hand in it. Not to mention you will also run up against compliance and accessibility requirements that at best slow you down, and at worst completely ruin your day. (Often times software is ruled out at the start because you can't guarantee everyone would have access to a device to use it.)

All in all, it gave me a taste for changing the world subversively rather than overtly. Netflix is a commercial, consumer product, but it's also wrecking the shit out of the mass media empires that have controlled all of our news and entertainment for the last 50 years. Not every "find a dog walker" app is doing that, but quite a few startups I can think of have disruptive potential.
posted by annekate at 9:01 AM on May 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Great Idea!

Except the poor don't have any money to spend on applications which is why they don't exist (the applications, not the poor of course). So....what? Engineers are going to magically make software for no money?
"

That's a pretty inane objection — The poor, collectively, are a huge market. Price an app at a buck, make it something that solves a problem for a lot of people, and by selling in volume you can make a fair amount of money.

A lot of the problem is more the myopia of designers who design apps for people like them, white dudes in their 20s with disposable income. It's the "write what you know" problem more than there not being a sizable market for apps that solve problems for poor people.
posted by klangklangston at 10:43 AM on May 30, 2013


ishrinkmajeans: "So the thesis of the argument is that silicon valley programmers should stop making cat and restaurant apps and start making apps that solve problems for single moms, veterans, and the jobless over 50.

Great Idea!

Except the poor don't have any money to spend on applications which is why they don't exist (the applications, not the poor of course). So....what? Engineers are going to magically make software for no money?
"

Many, many non-wealthy people, even poor people, have smart phones. And the best thing about marketing to poor people is that they're just so many of them.

All you need to do is look at the twitter feed to realize that the affluent and well-educated don't make up a majority of its use. There are a lot of young, lower class kids making extensive use of twitter. Any app which had a relatively cheap buy in and was focused on social interactions will do very well. For example, an app that made it easier for the single mothers you mention to find other single moms so they can plan playdates and share resources.

I would argue the applications don't exist largely because very few application developers are poor, so few of them understand the challenges or needs of the poor. The truth is the poor are a better market than the affluent, because their needs are greater -- they have more day-to-day problems that need to be fixed, and unlike wealthier people may not have informal social networks to fall back on to find solutions to this problem.
posted by Deathalicious at 7:10 AM on June 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


Also, two more points: apps are one-time costs of a couple of dollars. Many of these poor people will look at the opportunity cost of not having the app and will make a calculated decision to forgo some other expense. For example, many many poor people "invest" in the lottery. If even just a small fraction of the people who bought lottery tickets skipped doing so for one week in order to fund the purchase of a mobile app instead, you'd make a killing. Finally, some of the most lucrative phone apps are free and make money using some other method.
posted by Deathalicious at 7:13 AM on June 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


« Older Controversial US Representative Michelle Bachmann ...  |  Recently, Quebec's annual come... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments