A Plea To Choose Better Problems To Solve
Ever since listening to Paravel’s run down of Brooklyn Beta in November, and reading, various, write-ups in the weeks following the event, I’ve been meaning to write this post. However, it was point #1 of Mike Monteiro’s recent ‘10 New Years Resolutions for Designers’ list on Net Magazine’s site that actually catapulted me onto the keyboard to do so.
Brooklyn Beta - a collaboration between the fine folks at Analog and Fictive Kin - bills itself as: a small, friendly web conference aimed at the “work hard and be nice to people” crowd. In 2011 their aim was to, apparently: “highlight problems that matter. Problems like education, charity, and finance.” What is particularly refreshing about this is that unlike most web conferences which aim purely to inform and instruct on the latest trends, topics and theories, Brooklyn Beta acts purely to encourage and inspire the web industry within a social context and setting. And - from what I’ve read - 2011 seemed to send the message that, as a web community, our roles and the work we choose to do have never been more vital on this planet than at this current time. As Dave Rupert so succinctly said - relaying his experience of one particular speaker Patrick McKenzie - on his ATX Web Show:
“stop making stuff for 20-year old white dudes… we spend an exorbitant, almost criminal, amount of time solving really dumb problems. We spend a lot of time just thinking about this stuff and putting a lot of effort, and actual dollars, and actual man hours into meaninglessness… let’s do something that solves an actual problem. I don’t need to sit around and need to ‘Like’ more stuff. The inability to ‘Like’ my mousepad is really ruining my day. That’s not what we should be putting our effort into solving.”
Then, earlier this week Mike wrote in his article:
“the world has never been so blessedly full of problems. Our infrastructure is rotting, the economy is crap, Wall Street is awash with criminals and millions of people can’t get basic medical care, food and water. We don’t need another app to rate your sandwich… We have more processing power, affordable tools, and combined intelligence right this very minute than at any point in the history of design. We are using it to build shit. It’s time to aim higher. Let’s find problems to solve that actually improve people’s lives. Whether it’s figuring out a better way to access medical records, figuring out how 14 year olds can stop carrying forty pounds of textbooks back and forth to school every day, or a reservation system for the communal rooftop farm in your building, there has got to be something more beneficial to society than the next Facebook clone.”
I don’t know for sure if Mike attended Brooklyn Beta, but it’s fair to say the message reached him. The same is also reflected, in a certain sense, by Cennydd Bowles in his recent article ‘The Things of The Future’ which appears in Issue #2 of The Manual. Not only do people believe in this, but they feel impassioned. Impassioned to write, to document and to encourage social responsibility amongst the web community.
I think as a web industry we can do this. In fact, I think it is vital. The daily rate at which useless, downright stupid, applications and websites are appearing is scary. I’m all for a bit of fun, but the sheer time it takes to build an app or a website well, worries me that we’re even considering spending hours of our time on such things. Most of it is only serving our peers, and/or in an attempt to impress them, and/or made purely to get noticed by Jeffrey Zeldman, et al. However, I also know (well, I hope) that your average designer is typically in it for the love of creating things and providing well thought-out responses to problems. Furthermore, the majority (I believe) are nice, culturally aware, humble people. I just think many don’t realize that their craft could actually be so well used, appreciated and even vitally-needed by those in other industries. Never have the services of those who understand and build for the Internet - one of the single most important parts of our modern, functioning society - been in more demand. In a sense, we have been clever and chosen well in our decision to be involved with, and to work on, the web. This combination of our abilities and the importance of the Internet today mean we have gained great responsibility, therefore. A responsibility not to squander our talents.
Our reasons for having a social responsibility are different for every person. The reason I have a personal stake in this are myriad, but beyond the scope of this post. However - for example - my wife is a community college teacher who teaches disadvantaged, non-native speaking students every single day. Just through the experiences she relays I can’t help but feel fortunate and thankful of my situation, but that my time on earth should be spent making the most of this fortunate position. However, we’ve all seen hardship, we all know how tough others have it. We all know people with disabilities, people with cancer, people who need the help of others. I’m not trying to preach. As an example of relating this to something more local and concrete: having lived right on 24th Street in the Mission district of San Francisco in the past; seeing the amount of people, daily, with no chance of gaining access to healthcare is astonishing. Especially coming from England as I do, where access to healthcare is universal and free. There are local grassroots organizations in every town of every state that attempt to provide what the US government should have done all along. This is just one example of the places we should be focussing our attentions on. Many non-profit organisations are existing on dated, inaccessible websites and with administration and records systems that fail to serve them or their patients. Some may be lucky enough to have IT support staff but it’s likely they aren’t up to speed or the best in their fields.
However, for the independent web designer or developer it’s not always as simple as just changing tact. Becoming tuned into, and fully understanding a whole new industry and its problems, and then spending time working to come up with responses is a big investment. But, isn’t making it our business to become aware of them just the traits and actions of a good citizen contributing what they are best at?
You contribute what you are good at.
I feel quite strongly - much in the way the legal profession already does - that web agencies should regularly be doing pro bono work as the Internet becomes more vital to our population. I’m kinda sick of seeing all the Nike, Microsoft and Google logos on mid-to-larger sized agencies project pages. I’m not complaining of them working with such corporations - I’d love to have the opportunity too - but with it brings a social responsibility. Why not go use some of that cash to help someone out, or better still, charge the client 10% more and use that chunk to bury into pro bono work? That way both the client and the agency come up smelling of roses, but most importantly someone who needed help and assistance got it.
We, the members of this web community, were (for the most part) lucky enough to grow up in a privileged situation: with food in our stomachs, with parents who loved and cared for us, and with access to quality educations. So, in 2012 let’s be mindful of how we spend our working lives and how we influence the direction of those we work with. At the very least let’s spend our spare time working towards making a difference, a better world; not putting fake moustache’s on Twitter avatars.