The Problem With First World Problems

Aaron Weiss, Tech Journalist / Humorist | 7/12/2013 | 60 comments

Aaron Weiss
You can hardly go a week without reading about huge dollars being thrown at a hot tech firm. To pick just one piece of low-hanging fruit, how about the $60 million recently bequeathed upon Snapchat -- makers of an app you use to take pictures that disappear after a few seconds. Huge dollar amounts -- and brainpower -- are concentrated in Silicon Valley, where such pressing problems being solved include how to get a cab ride more quickly and how to avoid missing package deliveries. Sure, it’s easy to make jokes -- in fact, there is a site devoted to just that, lampooning the seemingly superficial “problems” that seem to be the focus of Silicon Valley resources.

A recent essay by C.Z. Nnaemeka in the MIT Entrepreneurship Review has sparked a revisited debate about the roles and responsibilities of technology companies armed with lots of resources and brilliant minds. In short, Nnaemeka’s essay, titled “The Unexotic Underclass,” argues that there is a significant class of people with “unexotic” problems, which do not attract attention from either the trend-hungry startups trying to create the next Draw Something nor the global do-gooders who focus on hugely complex structural problems like clean power and nutrition in developing nations.

To some, Nnaemeka’s arguments and his supporters are at best well-intentioned but naïve, because it is only natural that tech startups would target markets where the money is -- and often that means the disposable income owned by the very same people who make up most of the tech startups. But there seems to be a growing sense that maybe Silicon Valley has lurched too far toward the navel-gazing privileged class. Can’t they do more? Should they?

For anyone in the enterprise, the questions are not only timely but seminal to any business. What are you in business to do? To generate profit. To create wealth. What else?

Despite the increasingly tongue-in-cheek use of the phrase “first world problems” to describe luxury issues, an important point to the “unexotic underclass” thesis is that actually many of the problems that need addressing are right here in the first world. For example, access to job training and healthcare, two pillars for a successful life that are within relatively easy reach for the privileged, is scarce and difficult to navigate for those with limited resources or in less connected locations.

What strikes me as especially interesting is that Silicon Valley and “unexotic” problems may not be as far apart as it seems. If you look at the situation from the point of view of how much cash investors throw at the next custom pizza app versus rural childcare, yes, they seem worlds apart. But underneath, there is a common engineering problem. A lot of tech startups are essentially addressing resource utilization inefficiency. Or to put it in a slightly more politically inflammatory way -- resource distribution inequality.

Media darling companies like Airbnb and Uber are speaking to the same problem that makes server virtualization so successful -- putting idle resources to use. The same principle also describes many “unexotic” problems. Resources like skills training and childcare do exist, and people who need access to them certainly exist, but the old methods of discovery and implementation are very inefficient. Silicon Valley has proven ingenious at building efficient discovery and implementation services -- it’s just that so many companies are targeting non-essential services.

In reality, there actually are tech enterprises addressing the “unexotic” but without the headline-grabbing panache of Snapchat. And some of these organizations are probably represented one way or another right here among E2 readers. It would be great to hear about some of the “unexotic” problems that your businesses might be involved in tackling.

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sherly_mendoza   The Problem With First World Problems   7/31/2013 9:44:46 AM
Re: shift the focus on first world problems
Your comment rings true to the highest level. While I understand that these space missions have their own purpose, I also often wonder if there are individuals, companies, or groups thinking of projects of the same magnitude that can benefit the helpless and unlucky members of society. Perhaps apps can also be developed for these causes? I recall some social media networks having apps that allow users to either solicit or donate to worthy causes. This may not sound interesting to some, but you'll be surprised at how many people will actually warm up to the idea and offer their help.  
kstaron   The Problem With First World Problems   7/26/2013 6:28:36 PM
science and tech
I think research into science and tech will eventually help solve many of these unexotic problems. It is becoming possible for doctors to monitor patirents remotely so those in rural areas can still have care of specialists, and I imagine any visit to an unemployment with give people options for finding job training for jobs in the area. And as far as missions to the moon eating up so much money: the banks got a bigger bailout than NASA has ever received in it's entire operational life. And NASA not only learned tons about the physics of our universe, velcro and mylar was invented for use in the space program.
The_Phil   The Problem With First World Problems   7/17/2013 10:24:58 PM
Re: snapchat
Interesting. Also can't say I'm not surprised. Is this a standalone app?
DBK   The Problem With First World Problems   7/17/2013 6:11:44 PM
Re: shift the focus on first world problems
David - common just call up your buddy Ed Lee and it is as good as done.  After all it can't all be about pink mustached cars, can it?  isn't their more to tech than ride sharing?  E2 brutus?
soozyg   The Problem With First World Problems   7/17/2013 10:30:48 AM
Re: snapchat
@Dave, I just found out from an article from Business Insider that FB is now running it's own version of Snapchat called Secret. FB's angle is this will ensure that embarrassing pictures don't get seen by potential employers who go looking at a candidate's FB page.
David Wagner   The Problem With First World Problems   7/16/2013 11:48:52 PM
Re: shift the focus on first world problems
@DBK- A holiday? I demand the next E2 anniversary be a holiday. Where do we sign up to get that to happen?
DBK   The Problem With First World Problems   7/16/2013 10:55:37 PM
Re: shift the focus on first world problems
David - At some level I agree with your statement about VC's but there are exceptions.  I do know a couple guys personally that do well and do good.  As far as the Silly SF tech stuff the City of SF has jumped on the bandwagon and are now creating vouchers for the ride share and taxi orders.  Plus Mayor Ed Lee is making the first year anniversary of one of those companies a SF Holiday.  Crazy stuff.
Susan Nunziata   The Problem With First World Problems   7/16/2013 10:14:16 PM
Re: shift the focus on first world problems
@mejiac: Yes, and apps for those devices that then make sense for the people who need them the most. Here's hoping the greater good will prevail.
Susan Nunziata   The Problem With First World Problems   7/16/2013 10:13:03 PM
Re: shift the focus on first world problems
@David: I see your point, though I do believe human nature cuases most folks to go where the easy money is first -- Ie, the pizza app.
Susan Nunziata   The Problem With First World Problems   7/16/2013 10:10:39 PM
Re: shift the focus on first world problems
@DBK: That's a valid question, I do sense that many of the Silicon Valley developers are insulated from the "real world." Kiva and Code For America are two that I find notable for having a wider world view. I'm sure there are others out there.
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