Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Don't Be Upset that Flashy, Attention-Grabbing Ideas Grab Attention

Charles Kenny, Justin Sandefur:

Not content with dominating IPOs on Wall Street, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are taking their can-do, failure-conquering, technology-enabled tactics to the challenge of global poverty. And why not? If we can look up free Khan Academy math lectures using the cheap, kid-friendly computers handed out by the folks at One Laptop per Child, who needs to worry about the complexities of education reform? With a lamp lit up by an electricity-generating soccer ball in every hut, who needs coal-fired power stations and transmission lines? And if even people in refugee camps can make money transcribing outsourced first-world dental records, who needs manufacturing or the roads and port systems required to export physical goods? No wonder the trendiest subject these days for TED talks is cracking the code on digital-era do-gooding, with 100 recent talks and counting just on the subjects of Africa and development.

When criticizing techno-philanthropism, it is important to keep in perspective how much actual money is being spent and what it is displacing. OLPC took off because it captured people's imaginations, including those of political leaders in the developing world. USAID did not propose replacing food aid with little green computers. Nicholas Negroponte pitched a product people got excited about buying, and in the end, the product just didn't deliver.

The even smaller flashier ideas like the generator soccer ball are even more harmless. Maybe they're distractions, but, compared to what? Isn't everything a frivolous distraction compared to whatever idea will actually lift the world's poor out of poverty?

One thing that you discover when you're in, say, a rock band that starts getting a fair amount of press is that you don't necessarily make a dime off attention. Press is just... press. They write about all kind of stuff that never actually happens or brings in a dime.

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