Resetting Our Gauge On Value

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I should have known from the title, “Let’s, Like, Demolish Laundry”, that the recent piece in New York Magazine was bound to hit a nerve. The article celebrated two entrepreneurs transforming the laundry industry through their company Washio, a mobile based door-to-door laundry service. Starting out the two co-founders were determined to build value in the digital economy, scouring industries to find an area of commerce that had not yet been conquered. They found their solution, their challenge, in the laundry industry.

Now I totally get that walking down the block to get your clothes is often the last thing you want to do, and I, of all people, am wont to lose those little paper receipts. But is that really the magnitude of problem that warrants the attention of today’s brightest and most ambitious talent? Making our already highly convenient dry cleaning lifestyle just a tad bit more convenient, and by that I mean entirely non-physical and un-interactive? The problem is, that’s exactly the type of challenge today’s talent is attracted to, and it’s because we’re so outrageously celebrating the solutions.

There’s certainly been acknowledgement of and backlash against Silicon Valley’s frivolity and self-involvement. But at what point do we as consumers take responsibility for supporting their obsession with solving our very minor, middle-to-upper class problems? We’ve become addicted to lifestyle add-ons that marginally improve our ability to…

  • Get passive feeds of information — however uninteresting — about the people — however tangential — in our lives.
  • Avoid any type of human interaction (phone call, in person visit, etc.).
  • Get automated updates on something, anything.
  • Share something about ourselves, with little to no effort, that will convince people we are either supremely happy, culturally educated, or tasteful and talented.

If someone can improve on any one of these categories, they are rewarded, in excess. And as a result young talent is racing to make the next new app.fig1

The lure of high profile jobs isn’t new. Who can blame young, smart, go-getters for going after the spotlight? Especially when it’s blindingly bright. The rewards in tech have gotten out of control, now likened to the heyday of investment banking. These outrageous rewards, coupled with the increasing frivolity of the content, should give us pause. When Snapchat — an app that allows users to send dirty pics without regret — is turning down billion dollar offers while teachers are fighting to make ends meet, it’s a sign that our societal gauge on value is, maybe, a little out of whack.

 

Not only are these new apps not very useful, many have argued that they are actually detrimental. According to Daniel Goleman in his new book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, the hours we spend engrossed in electronics “may lead to deficits in core emotional, social, and cognitive skills.” Sherry Turkle expresses similar concern in her book Alone Together, in which she argues that our dependence on technology has severe psychological side effects, threatening our creativity and ability to develop intimate relationships.

Regardless of their benefit, or lack there of, it can’t be denied that this new wave of consumer innovation is addictive. So it doesn’t actually matter if these new products are good for us or not, they are feeding that addiction. Silicon Valley is just the dealer. But like any good addict, it’s time to step back and admit we have a problem. It’s time to reevaluate what’s good for us, and reset what we call valuable.

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It’s not news that there’s an endless set of problems in the world that desperately need solving. Healthcare, inner-city education, global poverty, gender inequality, the list goes on. But these issues are less attractive to the talent that desperately needs them, and that’s what fundamentally must change.

Unfortunately serving the public sector doesn’t offer the monetary rewards that services for the upper middle class can guarantee — the need for government intervention and monetary incentives is another issues for another time. But a huge piece of the lure behind entrepreneurship is the recognition and public praise it rewards, and this is the piece we, as consumers, have power over.

There are life-altering innovations happening all over the world right now. Organizations are transforming the way people access sanitationmaternal health, agriculture, and education in the farthest to reach places. These innovators should be treated like rock stars. They should be the ones with articles in New York Magazine. Let’s hear about the guys and girls “demolishing” premature birth in India, or lighting in sub-saharan Africa, and acknowledge that the ones demolishing laundry are, maybe, not quite as interesting.

Granted, this news is less relevant to our day to day then, say, the new piece of jewelry that tells you when you’re getting a call (because, clearly, having to get your phone from your pocket is unbearably inconvenient). It’s also sometimes hard to imagine how transformative small inventions, like mobile payments for example, can be without understanding the context. So it becomes easy to brushoff these stories, knowing that people are working on them, and that one day they’ll catch up. But like all news, just because it’s not in our backyard doesn’t make it irrelevant or uninteresting. These innovations are objectively impressive, undoubtedly life-altering, and they deserve celebration. Our challenge is to step outside of ourselves and praise improvements, even if we don’t directly benefit from them.

It’s critically important that we acknowledge and celebrate the short term gains of these long term challenges. It’s equally important for us to continue to be intrigued by the big issues, remind ourselves that the world is bigger than the realm of data between us and our phones. The monetary rewards for these issues may never match what Silicon Valley has to offer, but power and recognition are worth more than we think.

Let’s acknowledge, if we can, that we have things pretty OK. One more app will not make or brake our lives. If anything, at this point, it may just add to our spiral of self indulgence. But there are still many, many people who do not have things OK, and they need innovation more than we do. If we stop eating up frivolous inventions and start paying attention to the ones that matter, then maybe, we can help guide more brilliant and committed minds towards building a better world.

 

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Emily is an international development professional and freelance writer who has worked and consulted with a variety of nonprofits and social enterprises tackling economic, health, and gender related issues. She is a strong believer in the power of using markets to create change. Prior to her work in the social sector, Emily worked for growth-stage technology startups and spent years as a management consultant. She holds a degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering from Cornell University, and an MBA from the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley.

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