Silicon Valley, fixing homelessness / Image
Silicon Valley has sort of an uncomfortable relationship with the homeless. Privileged members of the tech entrepreneur class have in the not-so-distant past used the homeless as their personal guinea pigs, openly derided them, and contributed to their homelessness in the first place. And the tension is only getting worse: Since 2011, homelessness has risen 20 percent in Silicon Valley.
For whatever reason, over the last couple of months, some of Silicon Valley's top dudes have really stepped up their game in openly degrading society's most vulnerable people. First, SnapChat's team boasted about using the homeless as unwitting beta testers for their app. Snapchatting was so easy, see, that even the homeless could manage it.
Then, Peter Shih, alum of the prestigious startup boot camp Y Combinator, published a universally ridiculed manifesto on Medium called "10 Things I Hate About San Francisco," which heaps scorn on the destitute.
"San Francisco has some of the craziest homeless people I have ever seen in my life," he wrote, apparently quoting everybody's drunk uncle. "Stop giving them money, you know they just buy alcohol and drugs with it right? Next time just hand them a handle of vodka and a pack of cigarettes, it’ll save everyone some trouble."
When not directly exploiting the homeless or calling them all ravenous drug addicts, the Valley's efforts to help out have often been clueless at best and straight-up insulting at worst. An effort to improve the homeless population's panhandling signs with better graphic design was probably well-meaning. It was also idiotic and patronizing.
It recalls that time that BBH Labs set up "Homeless Hotspots" at SXSW last year, turning homeless volunteers into unpaid personal wi-fi carriers for the visiting technorati. BBH Labs called it a "charitable experiment." Everyone else called it repulsive.
And here it is, the final straw. Tech entrepreneur Patrick McConlogue has publicly announced an "experiment" in yet another Medium post. (Medium, Sam Biddle notes, is "quickly becoming a sort of online mass grave for hasty thoughts of the moronic.") McConlogue, a partner in something called "Kickass Capital," calls his project "Finding the unjustly homeless, and teaching them to code."
Even the title is obnoxious. It implies there are enough 'justly' homeless people undeserving of help to warrant a qualifier. The gist is this: McConlogue is going to offer a young homeless man he passes on his way to work a choice of $100 or a "super cheap basic laptop" and personal tutelage from one Patrick McConlogue in how to code. This is weird and demeaning: If he really wants to help, why play this bizarre mind game of cash or computer? Why publicly and grandly announce it as an "experiment" on a popular blogging platform?
Because McConlogue thinks like so many of these other world-fixers, and he wants an audience to his do-gooding. He imagines that life works like a sappy movie; that a single turn of logic-fueled kindness is all it takes to improve the lot of the downtrodden. That these smart, capable, good-hearted folks have just bumped into a glitch in their lives, and they just need the right technology to hack through it. McConlogue, along with much of the rest of the Valley, imagines that the string section will soar in the background when that sooty, forgotten man looks up at him gratefully, and says: "Teach me. Teach me how to code."
These disrupters would rather not address the root problems of homelessness—the structural disadvantages faced by the poor, the racial and class prejudices, the lack of access to mental health care, to safe shelters, to reliable employment opportunities. They'd rather scoff in their faces, ignore them altogether, or, if they're feeling "charitable," design a technological "experiment" and make a mockery of their plight in the process.
So, Silicon Valley, a quick pro tip: These self-serving innovations, and particularly the insults, are not helping. So stop. Stop testing your software on people who can't afford to buy dinner. Stop strapping wi-fi to their chests so bloggers can go online between seminars. Stop lashing out at them in frustration. Basically, just stop treating homelessness like a buggy app.