Silicon Valley really can solve our problems

NOAH SMITH
Last updated 10:28 05/08/2014

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OPINION: Sometime around 2006, I was sitting in my apartment in Japan listening to old music, and I heard a Bob Dylan song. It's about missing his old friends, and wishing he could talk to them again. It ends:

"I wish, I wish, I wish in vain

That we could sit simply in that room again

Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat

I'd give it all gladly if our lives could be like that"

As I listened, I started to miss my own high-school gang. I was feeling more depressed, when suddenly I realised what an idiot I was. I opened Firefox, fired up Google Talk, and found three of my old friends online. I immediately messaged all of them, and quickly received three rather irreverent responses.

It was at that moment that I almost broke into tears, because I realised that something huge had changed for the better in the human experience. All throughout my youth, I had seen my parents and my friends' parents drift away from their friends. The sheer difficulty of keeping in regular contact over extreme distances, even with telephones, meant that if you moved to a new town, you could make new friends but it would be hard to keep the old. Then came email, and chat, and Facebook and Instagram and the rest. And suddenly, through a trick of human ingenuity, you never have to lose touch with your old friends again. We woke up, and the world was better.

This is why I am annoyed when writers accuse Silicon Valley (by which they mean the entire tech industry) of not solving big problems. Presumably, these tech critics want venture capitalists and entrepreneurs to take us into space, solve the global energy crunch or invent new labor-saving devices. And presumably they aren't satisfied that SpaceX, Tesla, SolarCity, and the Google Self-Driving Car project, among others, are working on all these things as we speak. Presumably they are unhappy with technology's failure to give them a hoverboard, despite the fact that many cities have outlawed skateboards of the wheeled variety.

What critics of Silicon Valley's vision fail to realise, though, is that the really big problems aren't the hard ones or the spectacular ones. The really big problems are things that affect the quality of human life.

Abraham Maslow, the psychologist, theorised that people's needs come in a "hierarchy". Once you take care of the basics — food, shelter, security — you start being mainly concerned with social needs, like love, companionship and respect. The theory predicts that in poor countries, people will mainly be concerned with getting things like bigger houses, cars and better food. But in rich countries, where most people have these things, the focus will shift to human relationships and career success. And in fact, happiness research bears this out.

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The problems of this higher rung of Maslow's ladder are exactly the ones that tech companies like Facebook and Match.com have begun to crack. Consider the impact of dating sites on the lives of divorced people. For a young person, dating sites — OKCupid or Tinder — are a marginal improvement over the old singles scene of parties, bars and friends-of-friends. But for divorced middle-aged people, who are often socially isolated and occupied with work, meeting people is a much more daunting task. For these people, dating sites are a godsend. If you don't believe me, just ask your friends from Korea or China about their divorced parents. In those countries, online dating is still heavily stigmatised and generally feared — and the outcome is a lifetime of extreme loneliness for legions of older people.

The fact is, most of what people in the developed world want in life has to do with other human beings, not with the physical world around us. Peter Thiel, one of the founders of PayPal, famously griped that: "We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters." But I guarantee you that if I had a flying car, after the first few days I would stop gawking at the scenery and start tweeting.

I believe that the advent of social technology is a huge step toward solving the really big, really tough problems of humanity. The ability to connect with old friends and meet romantic partners late in life isn't as spectacular as the ability to fly to Mars, but if you think about it, Mars is just a ball of rock and ice. Here on Earth, there are much vaster worlds to explore: the worlds in other people's minds. Elie Wiesel wrote:

"We must not see any person as an abstraction. Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph."

Those silly Silicon Valley entrepreneur guys, with their hoodies and their nerdy haircuts, are building us the ships to explore those universes, and in the process changing what it means to live a full and complete human life. To me, that's a big idea.

— Noah Smith is an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University and a freelance writer for a number of finance and business publications. He maintains a personal blog, called Noahpinion.

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