Last night I ran across a thought-provoking post by Umair Haque titled An Open Challenge to Silicon Valley. I read Umair’s writing from time to time and he’s a huge thinker — I often have to read his stuff a few times to grasp the concept.
In this post, he labels Silicon Valley’s venture capitalists and entrepreneurs as small-minded and morally bankrupt. The global economy is experiencing troubling changes (rising food prices, increasing dependence on oil, etc.) yet Silicon Valley — with almost limitless capital and brainpower — gives us Facebook and Twitter.
Umair describes “Web 2.0” as self-indulgent entrepreneurism. Rather than solving problems that make the world better, we’re creating incremental — and ultimately meaningless — products.
The central question is this: Does business have a moral responsbility to make the world a better place?
Umair thinks so, but the question is debatable. Which is why Umair’s challenge will fall on deaf ears — you can’t challenge a capitalist system to change its ways simply because it’s the right thing to do. Silicon Valley is built to do one thing: Make money. This is a good thing — I believe that capitalism is the only way we can make a dent in the world’s biggest problems. When there is money to be made by doing good, good will be done.
One example of this is alternative fuel. Rising gas prices and concerns over pollution have caused consumers to look for alternatives. So Silicon Valley is making electric cars and has invested billions in alternative fuels. These investors and entrepreneurs aren’t putting time and money into this problem out of a sense of moral responsibility — they’re doing it because it’s a good business opportunity.
So the real question is: How can we create economic incentives for solving the world’s problems?
Some problems — like our dependency on oil — are somewhat self-correcting. When the problem becomes acute enough, there are economic incentives for solving it. Other problems may require the creation of “artificial industries” to provide economic incentives where none exist. This is where government can play a role. For example, what if there was a $250 billion government-sponsored fund aimed at solving world hunger? Or providing clean drinking water for everyone? This wouldn’t be a lot different from the $500 billion we spend on defense each year to create an industry around national security.
I’m not talking about spending billions of dollars to buy food for the hungry or ship bottles of Evian across the globe — those are not sustainable solutions. I’m talking about funding — on a massive scale — the development of new technologies to solve these problems for good. Create a market opportunity and the entrepreneurs will follow.
Sound far-fetched? $250 billion is about half of what we’ve spent on the Iraq war so far.