(1) Kill a bunch of other people and take their stuff.
Notice that aid isn't on the list. So it seems that if you actually care about a country you should spend your time helping them get better at (1) or (2). May I humbly suggest (2)? Notice that (2) is going to involve building (or investing, if you're a foreigner) in a lot of dumb stuff. China builds lots of plastic widgets for Americans. China's also bringing tens of millions of people out of poverty.
The problem with the big fix strategy (malaria vaccines, non-profits, etc -- basically non-dumb stuff) is that it always leaves the people in poverty dependent on others. I'm sure you, Kushal, have the highest of motives. Unfortunately not everyone does, which makes leaving the poor dependent on others a very bad strategy for them.
Anyway, welcome to HN!
P.S. Can anyone think of a country that has gotten out of poverty based on aid? All the modern examples I can think of (Korea, Taiwan, China, Singapore, Latvia, Lithuania, etc.) haven't.
I quite and completely agree with your comment; because that's exactly what I think (I've spent a great deal thinking about that).
Does post-WW2 Germany count? A lot of people credit the Marshall Plan for their tremendous recovery.
YES, I totally agree! :) —
At Vittana (the org I founded), we joke there are only three ways to _really_ change the world.
* religions: whether you believe in God or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, you gotta agree that religion has affected world history
* governments: law & order, basic needs, wars -- name it, it's probably there
* markets: biotech, microchip, Internet, space -- need I say more?
In fact, I'd argue that if you look at the past 50 years, even in the United States but certainly elsewhere (e.g. the Asian Tigers), and all of the incredible things we've seen -- the biotech, microchip, Internet, space revolutions -- you could trace it all back to education.
And in particular (at least in the United States), I'd wager you could probably trace it all back to the GI Bill: that, for the first time, an entire generation could finish college if they wanted. You see similar investments in education elsewhere.
When that happens (assuming non-dysfunctional governments like in Egypt, etc.), you see a generation of people both creating and filling in opportunity for themselves through industry. That's what excites us.
At Vittana, we focus on providing education micro-loans to fight youth poverty. It's very much about a hand up, not a hand out: not a donation and not aid, but a business partnership among equals.
Take Ana Lizbeth, for instance, one of my favorite students: she wanted to be a programmer but needed $713 to graduate -- because of a Vittana Loan, that became possible.
We're not starting the cult or island nation of Vittana anytime soon -- I'm certainly not ;) -- so that leaves us with free markets. Our hope is that by going first, we can show others that education micro-loans are _possible_ to do and spark others to do it too.
Big fixes don't really work, but sometimes crazy, risky small ideas turn into big movements. That's our hope at least. :)
And thank you for the welcome! I've actually been with HN almost since the beginning (2,046 days — just happened to see earlier) but haven't been active/been busy building Vittana. I just logged in today when I saw a whole bunch of referrers coming in from HN.
Capitalism doesn't work like this. Resources are allocated via crazy, unfair market actions. 300 years ago, most of Europe resembled what we would call the Third World now. Epidemics, warfare, starvation, etc. The big driving force that changed Europe wasn't the generosity of kings, but the base-level trading and investing among the poor and emerging middle classes.
There were a lot of resources being misspent back in those days. Anyone remember a particular Dutch fascination with tulips? Money was spent on doomed voyages of exploration, fake medicines, flower-based stock bubbles, and any number of other "follies" that in hindsight could have been avoided.
But among all the mispenditure of resources over hundreds of years, hundreds of millions of people were lifted out of poverty. We went from an average lifespan of 40 years to over 80. We live in an actual age of marvels.
In our modern world, we have people building entire companies and fortunes around what are the silliest things. We have even more people copying the first successes and failing. In amongst that, there are the smaller numbers of people building companies that will laterally help those who's lives need improving.
If we lived in a society where our resources could be marshaled enmasse towards one goal or another, it wouldn't be the world we have now.
Telling entrepreneurs that one class of businesses is more socially correct than others isn't how the world works. People will find opportunities in many ways, and those will benefit the people in need. The poor will find edges in the market to improve their own lives. What might seem worthless to you might be valuable to someone else.
So if you have an idea for Bitly 4.0, do it. If you want to build cheap rockets to space, do it. If you want to build a social networking app that uses cheap cell phones to let goat herders in sub-Saharan Africa poke each other over hundreds of miles, do it. You never know how or when your product will be used, or who it will help.
Start a company selling assassinations, and the wider world will quickly tell you your business isn't socially correct - you will be shut down.
Pyramid schemes are another illegal class of business.
There are also businesses that, while legal, do not appear socially useful. There's nothing wrong with disapproving of such businesses.
>You never know how or when your product will be used, or who it will help.
Your argument is: because businesses can yield unanticipated utility, there is no point reasoning about which business is best to spend time on.
Sure, perhaps the cat-pictures business will, through some unexpected turn of events, yield greater social utility than an education startup: Our models of the world are imperfect, and sometimes we mis-predict which actions will be most beneficial.
But that doesn't mean we should give up reasoning about what the most beneficial thing to do is.
We should still attempt to reason about relative benefits, and act to maximise our expected future utility.
Which is not to say we should always "focus on shipping all of extra food to those who are starving".
Indeed, maybe some technology that looks trivial will yield huge benefits. So we should definitely spend some time exploring new technologies, to try and catch unexpected windfalls.
In order words, we have an explore/exploit tradeoff to make.
But: Trading off exploration/exploitation is not the same as just throwing up our hands and saying "do whatever you want, don't attempt to reason about relative utilities".
In reality, the entrepreneur is going to have to make some tradeoff between likelihood of success (given motivation) and utility of success.
But entrepreneurs intuitively make these sort of tradeoffs all the time. This is just another judgement to make.
I'm absolutely in agreement with you about unpredictable markets, the massive power of market forces to effect change and that no one entity has (or should have) control over those forces. No one -- certainly not me -- is advocating any form of socialism and central control over economic resources.
What I'd argue instead, however, is organizations (companies, NGOs, whatever) that create meaningful value for humanity actually create MORE value for themselves. It's really, really hard to foresee what is meaningful value. Facebook was similar to MySpace, but (at least for me) creates infinitely more value. Microsoft was born because IBM miscalculated the value of DOS. The list goes back decades and centuries.
However, I'd wager that today we have more clones than original work. Now, maybe bit.ly 4.0 will be what Facebook was to MySpace, but my guess would be no. Instead, if an entrepreneur chose to work on, say, cheap rockets for space -- something original, regardless of immediate perceived value -- I'd wager that'd create far greater value, probably both for themselves and humanity.
My goal was to less tell an entrepreneur to do something more socially correct -- I'm an entrepreneur myself and I probably wouldn't listen to anyone _telling_ me to do anything -- but rather to try building riskier, original stuff.
This is a particularly good example. People have argued that money spent on a space program is essentially thrown away, when it could have been spent on fixing poverty. But the space program led to a huge number of advancement from telling us about the North Korean famine, to making little lasers that kill mosquitoes, to better refrigeration, to mobile phones currently providing communication in infrastructure-poor areas of Africa.
But there are a striking number of people building "pictures of cats doing x" websites. It's technically easy, which appeals to some people.
But there's nothing wrong with reminding developers that they have the talent to address bigger problems than a shortage of cat meme websites.
So the "logical" thing to do is to stop executing and just acquire existing patents and file for new ones. Then wait for others who want to execute or who try to execute. Then, if it looks like they have, or will have, the money to pay, threaten to sue them.
A true innovator.
An article about "make meaning, not money".
Which lionizes Nathan Myhrvold, the world's largest patent troll.
Regardless, I think you're attacking a man mentioned in the article for something little related to the message of this article.
So there are three differences here: safe vs. risky, easy vs. innovative, and luxury vs. necessity. I feel like the author is trying to bolster our valuations of each difference by associating them with our valuations of the others.
So we start out with this true but completely obvious idea that it's not the best use of our time to build safe and easy luxuries, yet the alternatives we're pushed to are risky and difficult necessities. And I suppose if you want to point to that as an ideal, then that's one thing.
But then we get to the quote about "faster aliens", and I start to wonder what universe we're talking about. Much of the research that went into making those aliens faster? Directly applicable to a ton of other fields! Is the author suggesting that we should take the engineers off of the teams that are working to build more powerful GPUs and CPUs, and instead get them working on a malaria vaccine? Should we send them back to school first, or just plop them in a bio lab and tell them to get crackin'? Or instead, we could let them just keep doing what they're good at, since faster computers will also help us find a vaccine for malaria.
If you want to attack something out of the safe/easy/luxury group, attack "easy". Safe luxuries have proven to be absolutely amazing for driving innovation, and then we get to use that innovation for the really important stuff.
Humanity is served by both the incremental steps and the big dreamers. Let's not create a false dichotomy and end up discarding the lives of millions just because it's hip to be the next Nobel prize winner
The problem with the tech industry, as the article highlights, is that the focus is on building stuff for the sake of building it. A nyan cat generator? A social network for your dog's dog? Sure, throw 100+ hours into it, and maybe you'll get acquired by the 'social network for nyan cat generators'. The issue is that the tech industry more and more just serves itself, not because of the culture of funding but what I would think of is just familiarity. 100+ hours can go further elsewhere, but it's not necessarily the personal goal of that little coder.
Incremental steps only come when the larger incentives are in place. If you could flip a social enterprise (and not Facebook social, I mean for-a-better-world social), then people would be willing to spend 100 hours building apps for good.
The big dreamers are the ones who do it regardless of the fame, money, or glory.
With regard to the article I agree that it is noble (and probably more profitable) to build new products and ideas rather than clones of existing ideas, just as it is noble (and doubtlessly more profitable if you are successful) to develop a new vaccine for malaria rather than just distributing mosquito nets.
But mosquito nets are what people need now to save lives. A promise of future vaccine doesn't save lives. Likewise people want facebook for dogs now, and other crap clones, and where the money and demand is the market follows.
The fact that he would avoid mentioning this shows that anything else said in this piece can be assumed to be utter bullshit and spin.
I'm pretty familiar with the issues, both on the closed (often corporate) and open (often research, open source) sides -- it just wasn't a place I wanted to go.
I also don't really have an agenda, either with Nathan or anyone else -- you can find me online, I'm pretty much an open book.
The only thing I really do care about here? Building stuff, for- or non-profit, that adds value to humanity.
That's a shamefully bad cop-out to say you couldn't do any of these things:
I don't know about Facebook for dogs, but there is an AirBnB for dogs called http://dogvacay.com which lets you board dogs in other people's homes. This allows dog owners more freedom, and allows people without dogs to hang with dogs for a few days a week. Since pet ownership reduces stress and increases people's happiness, "dumb ideas" like this move people like me slightly higher in Maslow's hierarchy.
Long story short, the OP should pick better "useless" examples.
They will go after whoever is making money. And what do they contribute? Nothing.
There's lots of non-humanitarian efforts that create lots of meaning:
* Facebook, helps me stay connected to my friends
* Etsy & Kickstarter, empowers artists around the world
* Reddit & HackerNews, lets me find stuff about topics I like
There's also lots of humanitarian stuff that's just pretty pointless.
But folks can build some pretty amazing things and I wanted to poke the emperor on that.
Tte point is, a lot of meaning comes out of what started as a seemingly trivial pursuit. If Mark Zuckerberg were to have followed your advice, there wouldn't be a Facebook.
A multiplayer video game where you shoot aliens (to quote the posted article) can be a way for some people to find a sense of community they wouldn't find in real life for whatever reason, or a way for some kids to protect themselves from the world around them (parents divorcing, illnesses, etc.).
You cite Facebook as a product that's not humanitarian but has "meaning". Facebook was essentially started as a way for privileged ivy-league kids to talk about their college life and hookup. It may have become something bigger, but by your metrics it probably didn't start as something with "meaning".
"Make meaning— not trivial stuff" is a superficial, empty sentence which only achieves the goal of sounding good and making its writer feel good about himself.
Often times, ideas don't seem important until after they have been implemented.
To make himself feel better about what he does, he tries to minimize the importance of what those technology companies are doing-- they're just building "stupid stuff," after all. He also sponsors research into vaccines and technologies to help the third world. Like Bill G himself, he views this as his way of doing penance for the bad things he's done to get where he is.
The truth is, though, it doesn't work like that. Most of the problems in the third world are the result of bad government. Unless we want to bring back colonialism, trying to "fix" the third world with aid is just putting a band-aid on a broken leg. In the long term, there are only two final destinies for humanity-- extinction, and the singularity. People like Mr. Myrhvold make the first outcome more likely.