Humanitarian technology? (Technology, progress, and peace, Part 2)

This is Part 2 in my series on technology, progress, and peace. Read Part 1 on “Is technology progress?” here.

With deep-seated interests in two disparate topics, analytical subjects and humanitarian work, I have sought numerous times to find a way to do both at the same time. That is, to do analytical, technical work that is humanitarian in nature, that is effecting social change in some way. I have serious doubts, however, that this is possible for me or for anyone.

I have always liked math and logic, and I enjoyed learning how to program in high school, so computer science seemed like a logical field to major in. However, I already had doubts about this choice when I was still applying to colleges. When I thought about studying computer science and subsequently becoming employed as a programmer, I imagined a future of sitting at a desk with a computer all day, doing work I found intellectually stimulating but not very motivating. People pointed out that there are many positive and important applications of computer science, such as health-related software, robots to do surgery, etc. I acknowledged that but I still did not see how working on a computer all day could satisfy me in terms of helping humanity. Despite these doubts, I proceeded to major in computer science and become a software engineer (this was perhaps aided by the fact that, although I am fascinated by many non-technical subjects, I find writing essays for college classes exceedingly painful. Programming for homework was a breeze in comparison). My vision of post-college life as a programmer was, unfortunately, not too far off. I do in fact sit at a computer all day, and the work I do does not fulfill my need to make a difference in the world.

Through-out college and in the years since, I have tried to explore ways to make my technical work more meaningful. When looking for jobs I tried to find the smaller, unusual companies that were doing something a bit different. I was somewhat successful; the company I ended up at is small and makes educational software, which is certainly much more interesting to me “business” software. I have also gone to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing three times, and each time I have attended numerous sessions on humanitarian-related topics. This included subjects such as technology-related non-profits, projects for/in the developing world, university classes where students work directly with a non-profit to meet the organization’s software needs (unfortunately, my university did not offer such a class), and various other things. I have enjoyed the conferences and the first two times I went (but especially the second time), I came back feeling very inspired. I recall well my sense of excitement and hope during and after the second conference I attended, in fall 2006. I felt that it was possible, that there was a way to help change the world through software.

However, between 2006 and the next conference I attended, in fall 2008, I lost this hope about technology and humanitarian work. I again attended many sessions on non-profits and the developing world in 2008, but I felt much more skeptical, and I came away still unconvinced that technology is the way (let alone the best way) to effect social change. What happened to change my attitude so drastically?

One thing I realized is that, for me personally to feel like I am making a difference, I need to be working directly with people. No matter how much it seems that the software I am working on has positive effects in the world, it is too far removed for me to feel by programming it that I am having an impact. This is, I think, simply part of my nature. I also realized that most of the software that gets programmed for non-profits is not really having a very direct impact. It is often software to help track people or money, or software for scheduling, or some other similar thing. Working on this sort of thing does not interest me very much. If I am going to work for a non-profit, I want to work with the people the non-profit helps, not in the back-end workings of the organization.

However, my change in attitude is not due just to a personal realization. As I realized that much of the “humanitarian” software is actually just to help with the inner workings of non-profits, I also realized that this is because the problems of the world do not necessarily need software to be fixed. Many of the problems are not primarily due to a lack of technology, and thus they cannot be fixed by technology. For example, hunger is a huge problem, but it is one mainly of food distribution. It is entirely possible to grow enough food on this planet to feed everyone, but the resources are unbalanced and the countries with more than enough do not share equitably with those who do not have enough. In other cases, the problems are ones that can be fixed by technology, but rarely by software technology. For example, many parts of the world do not have clean drinking water. This certainly needs technology (but not software) to be fixed, but the technology already exists and it is due to politics that it is not implemented.

There are some problems where I think software technology can be beneficial, mainly education and communication. Giving people the ability to become educated can help them rise out of poverty, and giving people the ability to communicate can help them rise up against oppressive regimes. For example, there are various programs that distribute laptops in developing countries and work to set up wireless internet access. These seem to be positive programs but again, I am not convinced of their necessity. Giving people books could help them become educated just as well as, if not better than, a computer could. Communication is perhaps the one area where technology really is progress with respect to developing countries.

Overall, though, I think that the most significant barrier to fixing the problems of inequality, poverty, enough food and clean water, and peace, is a human barrier, not a technological barrier. Human connection and compassion for each other is the most important thing that will effect social change. We need to understand our essential shared humanity and learn how to resolve conflicts non-violently. With more compassion, we would naturally become more equal. We would look out for each other and together develop creative solutions to inequalities. Technology may occasionally aid our progression towards a better world, such as long-distance modes of communication that enable more connection between people, and technology may ultimately be part of the solutions to some of these problems, such as creative ways to make water safe for drinking. However, technology alone will make little difference. Technology can sometimes be considered progress and is at best an aid in effecting social change, but it is never a panacea.

For myself, I have therefore decided to stop trying to connect my humanitarian interests with my analytical interests. I do not think I will find meaningful work that way. These two posts on technology, progress, and peace grew out of my attempts to find meaning in my technical work, and when I continually search for such meaning I start questioning the whole idea of technology and become seriously disillusioned about my work. Thus, since my job pays well and I intellectually enjoy aspects of it, I will continue to work as a software engineer at an educational software company, but I will look elsewhere to pursue my interests in peace and social change.

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