"More than machinery, we need humanity."
A particularly hopeful aura surrounds creative solutions to enduring problems. Perhaps, as the sentiment always goes, the real issue is not the problem itself but the way in which people have tried to respond to it in the past. In contemporary, technological societies it is common for such solutions to envision new devices and platforms as the positively disruptive catalysts that will finally allow these matters to be handled conclusively. If utopian thinking is often crushed upon the shoals of difficult realities, than a strong dose of technological optimism casts the shoals not as part of the problem that must be considered but as something that can be avoided if one has the proper app.
There is little doubt that new technologies function as powerful means to a variety of ends, the question is whether these technological means can be used to accomplish significant and important societal ends. It is clear that Internet platforms and devices have altered the way people think of what is “social” – but can this be extended to an alteration of the way people consider “social responsibility” and “social justice?” Poverty and homelessness are serious, and complex issues that endure despite the committed efforts of many people (including those in these situations) – but what if the solution is not a social program but a computer program?
Based in San Francisco, the company HandUp describes itself as a “startup with a social mission” – they aim to leverage technology (devices, their site) to enable people to donate directly to people in need. HandUp connects with various organizations in the San Francisco area to identify individuals in need and then allows people to pick the individuals to whom they want their funds to go. Those who have a passing familiarity to sharing economy platforms like Kickstarter will see certain similarities, but on HandUp’s site the money a person is seeking is not to release a product but to meet a basic need. And instead of receiving a “reward” for donating, the donor receives status updates on the person they previously assisted. For each person seeking assistance HandUp shows a little status bar noting the amount donated and how much more the person needs in order for them to pay for their rent, buy clothing for a job interview, give a security deposit, pay for essential medical services, and so forth. HandUp seeks to take the technological means that are so celebrated for their sharing capabilities and put them to use towards more just ends. Surely, a laudable goal.
While HandUp is a relatively small operation the company – as is generally the case with tech startups – hopes to expand. A desire that has recently been given a substantial boost by the company having secured $850,000 in seed funding from an assortment of venture capitalists and investors. While there is nothing particularly new about initiatives that work on issues around poverty and homelessness receiving large donations – there are some things that set HandUp apart from other organizations. Firstly, the organization attempts to put a real face on the issue – a person can donate to a specific individual; secondly, the organization aims to make it clear what the money is going to as well as promising accountability; thirdly, the organization (at least on their website) seems to emphasize the transformative ability of technology as much as they highlight the problem of poverty. It is a mixture that is clearly higly appealing to funders and technological optimists – gone is the discussion of larger social issues, replaced with the imploring faces of those in need and a promise that – thanks to technology – these people can now be helped, and that thanks to technology those who donate can rest assured that their money is genuinely being used as they hoped. Granted, a further element that sets HandUp apart from non-profits fighting poverty is that the company is actually a for-profit enterprise (though a “For-profit, for good” in their own terminology), though they are committed to keeping their funding streams and donation streams separate.
Addressing serious social issues is difficult work – and there are few issues that have been so consistently difficult as poverty (to which homelessness is related). Efforts that make a real difference in the life of an individual should not be ignored, and it is fairly clear that HandUp has truly had a positive impact in the lives of some people. Yet, accepting the well-meaning ambitions on of HandUp’s founders and staff, does not necessarily mean that these benevolent aims are truly manifested in the company. Though HandUp may describe itself as a “startup with a social mission” – it seems that at its core is the same social mission that informs nearly all tech startups: the increasing aggrandizement of tech firms and the obfuscation of serious issues in a cloud of technological optimism. These are not issues for which HandUp is solely responsible, but by embracing the ethos of tech startup culture, it seems that HandUp falls victim to the same techno-utopian thinking that can be found in startups that do not claim to be in it “for good.”
And yet, despite the optimistic appeal of HandUp it seems as though the main thing being given a helping hand by the company is the image problem of tech startups.
While poverty and homelessness impact people on an individual level, the issue cannot be viewed solely in the context of individuals. Though it is important to recognize that the numbers of people living in poverty represent real individuals, the size of those numbers is a galling reminder that poverty is a societal issue. Furthermore, it is not a problem that seems to be improving. Rising rents, rising prices, low wages, few job prospects, educational costs, an eviscerated social safety net, widening inequality, staggering healthcare costs – all of these are walls of a maze that keep people trapped in poverty. Giving a quick hand out (or hand up) to an individual is useful and important – but one should not lose sight of the fact that the problem is the maze itself. The twists and turns of this labyrinth take on a particularly dark character in the context of cities like San Francisco (where HandUp is based) wherein issues related to poverty have only been exacerbated by the presence of a tech startup culture that has seen costs rising and evictions increasing.
Indeed, startups like HandUp function as an odd piece of punctuation to conclude the sentence that tech firms have pronounced on the populace. The refrain “that job won’t exist in five years” is a common canard of the tech industry and yet one rarely hears any consideration of what will happen to those who relied on that position for their wages. While technology is not solely to blame for poverty (obviously) one should nevertheless recognize the way in which technological change is harnessed as the most efficient scalpel for the making of neo-liberal incisions. Under the guise of the tousled hair and youthful smile of a young executive the tech industry does not so much bring change as more of the same – which includes more of the same inequality. The devices and apps may be new – but this is the same old system of capitalist control, and it is generally being steered by the same old group of (predominantly) wealthy, white men.
New devices and platforms have provided the technologically connected with a euphoric explosion of new capabilities – but this expansion of potentials has not been synonymous with solving compelling social issues. Much of what technology has supplied – beyond the actual devices – is a new hopeful ideology in which people can invest their faith at a time when the public sector and social safety net have been ripped to shreds. At a moment when it seems that the government can barely agree to keep paving the roads, tech firms are working on self-driving cars; at a moment when the government can barely fund schools, tech firms are declaring that MOOCs will replace them anyway; at a moment when a city is shutting off the water to its impoverished citizens, a tech firm aims to “disrupt” charitable giving by allowing people to donate directly to specific individuals. Much of what occurs in all of these examples is that broad and complicated social issues are transformed by technological logic into matters for which there is an individual (corporately enabled) solution.
It is not correct to treat these purely as “technological solutions” – for they are really just “capitalist solutions.” The technology being used is not independent from but the reification of capitalist pressures.
What occurs in these situations is that questions related to social and ethical principles of “the good” are filtered through systems that emphasize the making and selling of “the goods.” Furthermore, the emphasis on “the goods” steadily warps “the good” such that it must assume a similar form. Ethical values are very difficult to quantify for the type of values they represent are not of the monetary variety. Nevertheless, the fever for quantification steadily hammers away at problems – not until they are solved, but until their shape has been suitably altered that they can be fit into pre-constructed boxes that can easily be bought and sold. When ethical values are simply turned into more “goods” moral obligations are turned into consumer decisions: did you use your $25 to donate to that band’s Kickstarter campaign or did you use your $25 to donate to that person’s HandUp campaign?
One should not simply scoff at the idea that technology can be used by for-profit entities to achieve worthwhile ends. Yet, the fact that one company (such as HandUp) may seek to use technology to ameliorate an issue should not distract from the way that the culture from which such companies emerge is grossly exacerbating the issue. When one considers the massive wealth and power of major tech firms, upcoming tech firms, and the legions of venture capitalists surrounding (and funding) them – it is important to look past their discussions of disruption to recognize that above and beyond anything else they are committed to keeping their wealth from being disrupted. These are firms and individuals who may speak eloquently about their desire to contribute to society – but they have no qualms about dodging taxes, or rendering job fields obsolete. The appeals these firms make towards social causes are cleverly constructed so that the issues are not ignored completely, but are instead deprived of their radical demand and righteous indignation. Thus the problem of poverty is not linked to capitalism, capitalists, and a widening inequality gap but is instead turned into a matter of individuals with temporary needs that can be addressed through crowd funding. And yet – as the philosopher of technology Albert Borgmann put it:
“as long as human misery borders on the universe of technological affluence without disturbing it, misery is callously neglected.” (113)
There is a great deal of “technological affluence” on display these days – and major metropolitan areas are particularly stark examples of locations where the depths of poverty can be seen alongside the heights of technological enrichment. HandUp is a prototypical example of the type of platform that recognizes where “human misery borders on the universe of technological affluence” and acts to ensure that nothing is done to seriously disturb this affluence. While a platform like HandUp may make a positive impact in the lives of some individuals, by treating poverty simply as an issue of individuals it ensures that nothing will really be done to challenge the systemic logic that sees poverty continue.
Across the country (and the world) there are many groups fighting to genuinely alleviate poverty: from the fight for a higher minimum wage, to campaigns around debt relief, struggles around affordable housing, pushing for a single-payer health care system, and many others – while such struggles may not directly put money in somebody’s pocket they recognize that helping a person pay rent for one month is worthwhile but not a real solution to a societal issue. Granted, to truly and seriously take on poverty requires truly and seriously taking on the societal forces that drive poverty. Forces like the techno-utopian logic and technologically affluent individuals that fund startups like HandUp as a way of appearing to address an issue while ensuring that one will not be asked to pay higher taxes.
Poverty is a serious societal issue, and there can be no doubt that creative solutions are needed. Yet, one should be mindful that sometimes what may be cast as a solution to poverty can just as easily be a convenient cover up for culpability in causing impoverishment. The problem being given a helping hand by HandUp is not so much poverty as it is the image problem of tech culture – but by appealing to people’s desire to do “the good” the company has just found another way to channel “the goods” upward. That HandUp received a sizable chunk of seed-funding is less a vote of confidence for the company’s ability to address poverty than it is a recognition that the company can help solve an image issue.
That HandUp may help provide temporary assistance to some individuals in need should not be discounted. But regardless of the aims of the founders and staff of this “for profit, for good” it seems destined to function as little more than an air freshener that masks the scent of a toxic technical ideology that manufactures the very injustices that HandUp hopes to solve. Ultimately, HandUp is not the solution, but very much part of the problem.
To address poverty we need to join hands – and in order to do that, we probably need to put down all of our beeping devices.
Borgmann, Albert. Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life. (University of Chicago Press, 1984)
[for more economic analysis follow the work of Professor Richard Wolff]