A little while ago I read an article quoting a startup founder in Silicon Valley who commented about “really believing in” the work the company was doing. Now, normally we applaud that – the importance of passion, children are our future and all that.
But as I read a bit more, I started rolling my eyes. Why? Because the startup’s product was some mobile social sharing app for pictures of cats’ lunches or something.
How do you wander so far from reality that you “really believe” in something like that? How do you decide that a lack of widely available cat lunch photos is holding back the advancement of western civilization? Sorry cancer, sorry orphans. We’ve got more pressing issues…
Then I end up making myself angry because I start doing startup math. I start to think about all the talent dedicated to the technical, business and design development of such apps, sites and products. The thousands of hours and millions of dollars poured into these projects that change nothing, improve nothing. The hundreds of thousands of apps that never get downloaded. The scores of startups that fizzle out and disappear every year.
Part of it is that I find smart people, especially technical ones, fascinating. I run into them every time I wander through the Communitech Hub. They think in ways I don’t. They can do things I can’t. So naturally I think that if I were like them, clearly I’d be building a TARDIS in my living room and have a fleet of robot butlers. Y’know, after I ended world hunger and made dolphins speak.
I mean, we make engineers take an oath. That has to stand for something, right? That has to set certain expectations.
Now, before you take aim at the glaring target I pose up here on my soapbox, I freely admit to my own hypocrisy. I am well aware that there’s a whole lot going on in the world (especially the business world) between exalted altruism and rank banality. My phone has had both the cowbell and vuvuzela apps on it at one time or another. (Remember those?) But I have to believe that the people who built those did it just for fun. They didn’t think they were changing the world. Only Christopher Walken “really believes” in cowbell.
So it sometimes irks me to see exceptional minds engaged in activities that are not only unexceptional; they’re downright trite. Sure, we all need to kick back and shoot Nerf darts sometimes, but I’m talking life’s work here.
I knew, however, that there was world-changing stuff out there. Hell, there’s world-changing stuff right here. So, let’s see if I can make myself feel better about the state of tech...
Here’s a little project that turns your browser into an accordion whenever you resize it.
Counter: Avenir Medical is vastly improving the process of hip replacements.
There is a magnet that orders pizza for you when you touch it.
Counter: Magnet Forensics helps solve crimes.
This app displays a virtual zipper. Which you can zip up. And down. It also displays underwear.
Counter: Aeryon Labs makes drones that can go where it’s too dangerous to send people.
Ponder for a moment the amount of time and effort that goes into making all those Buzzfeed lists.
Counter: Thalmic Labs’ MYO has amazing potential to assist disabled people.
And a couple of bonus items just because they’re amazing:
A Dutch teenager is spearheading a project to clean the plastic pollution from the world’s oceans.
Heart in a Box revolutionizes heart transplants by keeping the organs warm and pumping blood while in transit.
All right, I feel much better. They say the best startups stem from the founder(s) solving a real problem they’ve experienced. I guess ultimately the magnitude of those problems depends on which world you’re in when they happen.
M-Theory is a guest column by Melanie Baker, who has a Mennonite background, a career in tech, and enjoys the unlikely ways these things complement each other. She enjoys writing, working with geeks, building communities, baking and creating fanciful beasts out of socks.