Solving All the Wrong Problems

Do we really need an app that lets us brew our coffee from anywhere?

Comments: 147

  1. This is what comes of all the money going to people who are already wealthy.

    The "demand" is for frivolities for them. Therefore, that is what is supplied.

    If people who needed real things had the money to pay for them, those things would be supplied.

    Why are we selling second and third private planes, and car elevators, and matching cars for very house? Because they have the money to buy it.

    So why don't we sell the things really needed? No money there.

    Now, why is that? Why is there no money for what is needed. That is the real question.

  2. The reason there is no money for what is needed is Capitalism, the very thing our society is predicated on.

    But we are not ready yet for real solutions to real problems to be imagined, let alone implemented.

    We will only be ready when it is too late.

    Yet I still believe our species will survive, somehow.

    There will be far fewer of us, but the planet will be better off.

  3. There is no money for what is needed because our policies promote the rich getting richer at the expense of the middle class and poor getting squeezed.

    And to the author of this piece, I say, Amen, Sister.

  4. Mike -- There are many varieties of capitalism. It isn't all oligarchy, even if ours has been perverted into that.

    Pope Leo XIII discussed in detail the acceptable limits for capitalism, in an Encyclical in 1891. That shows it was so well known so long ago that the conservative hierarchy of a conservative church could adopt it. He did not oppose capitalism, he discussed how it can be done.

    There is no excuse. None of this is new.

  5. I would like an app that turns off everyone's phones and creates a screech in their earbuds, so they pull them out.

    Once that happens, maybe they will discover that there are other people around them, and will try to communicate with them orally. Instead of by texting.

    And if I never get another e-mailed picture from my cousin showing me what she is having for dinner in some restaurant, it won't be soon enough.

  6. I have a home made app of sorts. It's a recording of Hillary laughing in response to a question about which is her favorite phone on a 10 min. timer. I set it just before entering the credit union to deposit my payroll check. The tellers crack up!

  7. Now THAT is a real hack! ... Anyone?

  8. I live in San Francisco, in a big apartment building with many tech folks who frequently gather on the building’s front porch. On one recent evening, a fellow tenant went on and on about her app - for finding a chef to cook up a dinner party. Being a party pooper I suggested that perhaps people might simply enjoy learning to cook. Her reply: “Who has time?”

    On another evening a young man working for a local tech giant idly remarked that an app that sends someone to change your flat tire might be cool. A woman remarked that she has had that service, from the American Automobile Association for over twenty years.

    I’m struck by the attitude of so many people here, particularly younger affluent types, who seem to view the routine tasks of living - like driving, picking up your clothes from the floor, making your bed, washing dishes, buying food, doing laundry, and maybe even cooking an occasional meal, as intolerable and burdensome time-wasters that threaten the realization of their exceptional destinies. You have to sigh. The American Experiment continues to evolve.

    What I don’t see enough of is news of apps that offer substantive social benefit by addressing our most knotty problems. I know there are a lot of well-meaning, talented innovators out there. I wish them well.

  9. Great comment. One of my friends used to call New York "assisted living for the young." We are in danger of creating a tech and services enabled equivalent of the English aristocracy, unable to take care of the most basic necessities on their own.

  10. I would actually argue that the daily "bookkeeping" of life is a significant tax on the non-wealthy. Cooking, cleaning, laundry, errands are a pretty substantial proportion of our lives, and the wealthy do none of these, allowing them to focus their time on further increase the wealth gap. Factor in childcare and most people are out of time.

  11. - "Her reply: “Who has time?” " -
    In my book, having the TIME to live my life as I choose is the ultimate sign of success and wealth. I value nothing higher than my time. The old adage "time is money" is nonsense. Time is far more than money. Time is almost life itself. Time is, after all, the only objective measure of life. Take away a piece of my time and it's as if you've murdered me a little bit.

    By the way, I love cooking. I take great pleasure in doing the simple things that make up daily life, things like cooking, gardening, taking a walk to the grocery store ...

    I suppose if someone hates doing all that stuff and wants their groceries delivered and their meals cooked for them, well, that's their choice. And if they can find an app that takes care of it that's their choice too.

    But if they're simply too busy because they're slaving away at a job, even a high income job, to pay for all the stuff that they don't have time to enjoy ... well, that seems to me like a sad life.

    Please excuse my rant. I enjoyed your comment.

  12. Business is not driven by morals but by the lust for profit. A lot of 'apps' mentioned here wouldn't be there in the next five years. Technically it is more appropriate to classify these 'apps' as product developments rather than use the term innovation. Real innovation is happening in many areas of medical technology, alternative energy, and of course there is CRISPR. These may not be flashy enough but would leave serious imprint on our societies and business in the coming decades.

    One key reason driving rising inequity in the US is the flight of manufacturing jobs and that is a trend we cannot stop. Labor in some of the emerging markets will enjoy a significant cost advantage over the US market for the foreseeable future. If some of those manufacturing jobs that Apple has outsourced to China are brought back, the Iphone would be so expensive that far fewer people could afford it.

    So any new consumer product that entails mass production would be shipped east. Its the reasonable thing to happen from a business perspective and a fine one by most Moral standards, since in the past few decades nearly a billion people globally have escaped poverty due to this model. To reduce inequity, tax the ultra-rich, promote STEM among students so that some high paying jobs can stay home, and importantly invest more in the creaking public infrastructure. These solutions cannot be implemented overnight and require strong bipartisan commitment. We all know how difficult that is.

  13. Allison Arieff and several of the commenters so far ridicule technology being created now, but would never even consider not using technological innovations from tens or even a hundred years ago, which they rely on daily without questioning it.

    You could write this same article replacing the examples with older technology, for example who needs a "washing machine" when people have been washing clothes by hand for centuries, how is this something we need? What do these "motorcars" do that horses and carriages can't do? This is clearly a solution to something that wasn't a problem. This "telephone" invention is silly and clearly addressing a problem that doesn't exist, who needs to speak to someone through a contraption using your voice when letters work perfectly well, and if that's not fast enough, we have the telegraph!

    And of course, people could have said the same, and probably did, about telegraphs and carriages and probably even washboards instead of just washing clothes by pounding on a rock.

    No, most of the newest innovations will not resolve the large, pressing issues that we face, but that demonstrates nothing; there are certainly people working furiously on technology to create alternate forms of energy and make voting more foolproof and easier for the masses, but it's up to the voters and the politicians to decide to employ these things. Most innovations won't be addressing societal ills, and that's perfectly normal, and has been forever.

  14. I'll comment first on the telephone. There is an 1870s letter from A G Bell to 'The Capitalists of the Electric Telephone Company' setting out his vision. It begins with displacing speaking tubes in 'counting-houses' and other businesses, proceeds to connections between buildings (public right of way being needed for this), then between cities . . .
    In other words, there was an immediate need, and an evolution path.
    If you have ever seen washing done by hand (I helped my grandmother with it as a child) you'll know why the washing machine was needed. The motor vehicle was a solution to the horse manure problem, as well as offering higher speed potential and more personal autonomy to people who could afford them. (The bicycle was the dominant mode of personal transport as late as the 1950s, at least in Europe.)

  15. The problem arises when proponents of a counter cultural movement find themselves at the helm of things. The tech community in the San Francisco has always seen themselves as outsiders-hippie counter cultural, socialist, nerds who are against jocks, Wall Street and Trump like behavior. As a result despite their wealth and contributing to rising inequality they still see themselves as the oppressed class fighting against the old conservative elite without realizing that they are the liberal elite. This blind spot is even more dangerous because while they believe that they are changing the world they are making it worse. Research and funding should be directed in things that matter. To quote Bill Gates- "I left Harvard with no real awareness of the awful inequities in the world... humanity’s greatest advances are not in its discoveries – but in how those discoveries are applied to reduce inequity"

  16. We were promised flying cars and instead we got Twitter. Too many bytes, not enough atoms... Many similar observations have been made - who really benefits from those "inventions"? Why are we even funding some of them?

    The answer to that question is statistics - we do not know in advance what a good invention is, but we know that if we fund 1,000 inventions at least one of the will be a major one.

    The same idea is used on physics (particles) and in nature (reproduction) : we use millions to have one good, solid creation.

    We just need to be humble and recognize that the process of creation involves lots of waste.

    And we need to be grateful to all entrepreneurs who, as a group, are courageous enough to take on those odds.

    Of course, one may say that lots of money is wasted. This is true. That money could be used somewhere else. Building infrastructure, schools, fighting poverty.

    But we need to limit ourselves in this discussion to the funding of innovation. Research and innovation are by all means inefficient, but they are indispensable to our survival and our progress.

    So don't mind the cost. The real cost is not yours. It's the burden of the 99% of the entrepreneurs who don't make it and still continue with their efforts - while you have a cushy job typing your words on your computer - with very little risk. Enjoy!

  17. I grew up and live in what has recently become "silicon beach." The name is almost as nauseating as the new inhabitants who flock here daily with a burning desire to disrupt something and become a billionaire. As far as I can tell - they've just renamed old fashioned services like grocery and laundry delivery to "service on-demand" and convinced themselves they are changing the world. I'd find it more comical if the housing prices in my neighborhood hadn't increased fivefold over the past two years insuring that I will probably have to forever be a renter. In the meantime, the only lives that have been meaningfully improved are the handful of venture capitalists and well connected founders of these startups who've become millionaires and billionaires. The rest of the staff makes nothing relative to cost of living in these areas and get laid off at a moments notice if a funding round fails. But at least we get free sodas and the comfort that we are changing the world!

  18. What an absurd article.

    The objective of technology, startups, etc is not to solve the world's most devastating issues. the objective is to provide a product or service that eventually acquires enough users to turn a profit, or to create value worth acquisition.

    The reason innovators and investors are not pursuing technology that can make a huge impact on issues that "matter" is that there is little short term profitability in solving those issues, and therefore only companies with tremendous capital and resources can make investments in those areas over the long term; and even then, these investments require the promise of profitability. Look at Facebook's Internet.org project as a key example.

    What the author is doing is asking founders, investors, and innovators to do is take over responsibility of problems that require huge resources. If we want to solve these issues in our society, we need to solve them collectively - and that means through government action and spending. Because solving these issues may not be profitable - it is an economic externality that cannot be addressed by the free market. By turning and blaming technology, you are giving a free pass to the government to continue to abdicate its responsibility to invest in the collective interest.

    Yes, the attitude that every new app is world changing is getting ridiculous. But if solving major problems was profitable, they would be doing it.

  19. Parking tickets and car vandalism make life harder and more expensive, especially
    for those without disposable income. Two of the ideas mentioned make parking more affordable and safer.

    If changing your toothbrush actually matters, and most people don't, this service matters. A patron who rents a yacht doesnt buy one, and gives to charity instead, with fewer unused yachts in the world.

    The "cause and effect" app is silly.

    But the invitation of capitalism is to recognize unmet needs in the world, and to then more closely align resources with our united needs, in a way that's the most compelling to you. For Allison, that's writing about architecture and design. Perhaps this is the way she most wants to help retune our moral compasses - and that is fine.

    I would also invite her to work on any of the other problems she mentions, leading by example and doing so with empathy, humility, compassion, and conscience, joining the many who do. I imagine it will have more impact for her and the communities she clearly cares about then talking down the tinkering and experiments of others.

  20. I've thought the same thing, and it smells like another tech bubble. There really is no need for most of the apps that you talk about unless you are rich, and even then they are just toys or reconfigurations of things that already exist. In addition all these apps, Silicon Valley types are also furiously working on data analytics applications that are designed to further slice and dice up information about workers (customers, patients, etc.) to be used by companies that just want to cut costs and eliminate jobs for actual people in order to make more money for investors. How is this a good thing for anyone but the rich?

    And something like Khan Academy is fine, but it isn't going to make even the tiniest dent in the underfunding of education. Big claims were made back in the 1950s that said that television was going to revolutionize education. That didn't happen. I like my iPhone and use a bunch of different apps, particularly those that use GPS technology. Silicon Valley didn't invent that. The US government did, using taxpayer money. Sometime soon people are going to figure out that little of value is being created by all those techies and the herd will begin to thin.

  21. I like this article, but as a technical person, I have more of a technical perspective than an ethical one of the author. There are two reasons why we have people "solving all the wrong problems”, one related to the other.
    The first is the current "start-up fad." Entrepreneurship is needed to creatively solve the problems. But if it is encouraged only for the sake of doing it, it may lead to half-baked ideas like the ones mentioned in the article, without solving any practical problems. Unfortunately, the entrepreneurship has become the buzzword.
    The second is that a real innovation is lacking. Maybe due to this fad, many people are so impatient these days, thinking of ideas and bringing them to the market right away. This impatience has resulted in a lack of real innovation. Where are the innovations like combustion engine and internet? But these things take a long time to make and requires proper education. However, it seems like every young person is busy dropping out and running off to set up companies that make one-off consumer products. He may be able to make apps, but can he make real technological advances in science and engineering?
    In the end, I see the same phenomenon as the author, but I do not see an ethical problem. To me, it’s OK for people to want to change the world for the better: only as long as they are working on nuclear fusion reactors or room-temperature superconductor, not some useless apps or Internet of Things that do not need internet connectivity.

  22. Income inequality is not only the result of these companies, it's the cause of all this ridiculousness. In the era of reasonable taxation, public funding of science gave rise to discoveries that truly benefited humankind, as well as individuals. The 1%ers' rigging of the tax system so that they don't pay has left science starved for funding and Silicon Valley awash in venture capital chasing the boys' next toys. These truly are the bizarre delicacies for the king - and about as substantial. The only way to bring back substance is to bring back the middle class and that, I fear, is going to take a revolution, the way it did in the past. The 1% are beyond moral outrage; studies show they feel no empathy or connection to other humans.

  23. Let's take this a step further and ask the question, "What drives this pointless innovation?" Folks are trying to make easy money and there is minimal financial support for small players to make innovation in the areas that Ms. Arieff highlights; climate change being the most significant. In the 1950's and 60's, that innovation came from government investment. Now with the battle cry "down with big government," folks have left it up to the private sector to determine who can play in the more expensive realm of innovation that would contribute meaningful change. Where are the people who would advocate for a modern day moon shot and be willing to pay the taxes to support it?

  24. The availability of capital for such frivolous yet rewarding projects is a direct result of the super concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. The problems being solved by these startups are for the elite urban yuppies (myself included). This readily available capital could instead of be spent better by solving real world problems like providing universal healthcare, affordable college education or infrastructure. The only way to tap into this capital is to adopt is steeply progressive tax system and basically setting a cap on super high incomes through 1950s-60s type of top marginal tax rates.

  25. Media has been so ensnared by the breathless press releases of technology start- ups, IPO's and paper wealth created overnight (mostly for the VC's and founders) they have lost perspective. Technology has its limitations, and a capitalist system demands the big hit that pays off that becomes glorified by said press. It's not the answer to everything and it's success primarily serves a relatively few insulated masters. They have no incentive to help humanity solve the problems facing us.

    Dr. Jonas Salk did not patent his polio vaccine. He gave it to mankind. Not to gain his own fortune or possess the IP and sell it. But to cure a crippling, deadly disease and serve a higher purpose.

    Salk was not a wealthy man. But he was richer than all of them.

  26. Excellent article, but I would append to the article two ideas:

    1) What the author rightfully complains about was said a long time ago, by John Kenneth Galbraith, in the "Affluent Society" (1956 or 1957). He said that advertisers convince us that we need to spend money on things we really don't need. He said that America was awash in superfluous, redundant manufactured detritus (Just look at junk yards). He said that more money should be spent on vital human needs, such as Education, health, housing for the poor and recreation and the Arts.

    2) I think that many of our problems result because too many rich people have far too much money to burn. The Dot Com bubble, and the resulting contraction in the economy, was caused because too many people could afford to buy lots and lots of nonsense stocks -- and that led to an inevitable recession. The real estate crash was in large measure caused because too many entities were overflowing with money to invest and they created a bubble and the bubble brought down the house. In the essay at issue, we see that too many people have the money to invest in trivial services that will only "comfort" the rich.

    MY SOLUTION: Massive increases on taxes on the rich (so they won't have the money to create bubbles in markets that inevitably lead to depressions).
    Use the tax revenues on compelling human needs

  27. The other perspective is that it is often not easy to know what exactly is the problem, and even when one does know, circumstances conspire to deny either this knowledge, or intervening based on this knowledge. And so 'frivolities'--may that be the whims of those in power, or who wants to make a quick buck with a resoundingly simple idea (!), or whatever that can get that VC listening, or that it is hardly possible to solve the problem at that most needed level--exist in design. But I wouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater: to deny the aim of 'making the world a better place' is to make such frivolities more likely than less likely. What is however needed is to be very specific in what betterment entails, and who and exactly what benefits from the design--and be downright honest with the costs or externalities of this design. Then check this against one's vigilant conscience and one's own intellectual or moral community, and then see if this new design artefact or intervention can be ethically justified. What is needed is therefore nothing short of the knowledge of design ethics.

  28. Silicon Valley is not only solving the wrong problems, it using the monetary and intellectual wealth of the world to do so.

    We are destroying the planet, in desperate need of green energy solutions, alternatives to plastic, solutions to clean the oceans and prevent further pollution, and solve for over population.

    Instead our smartest minds are building fit bits.

    The truth is that making apps is easy. Solving complex multi variable problems that blend science and economics and human values is hard.

    Silicon Valley is exactly what we get when stop recognizing hyperbole, glorify technologists, fail to evaluate their claims critically, and become focused on the fastest way to get rich.

  29. "The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one's life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history..." (p. 17).

    Fukuyama, Francis. "The End of History?" The National Interest (1989): 1-19.

    For centuries humans conceived of creating a "better" world based on the idea of "progress."

    Today the technological "visionaries" preach a message of "disruptive technology", the only purpose of which is to make people buy more stuff.

    The concept of "progress" no longer exist. Instead we have the innovative Capitalist world described by Edward Abbey:

    "Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of a cancer cell."

  30. In Silicon Valley lately, it seems that many people I meet are connected with a startup in one way or another - either working for one, investing in one, or hawing one. Behind many of these apps mentioned in the article is a developer/entrepreneur who has set his/her mind on making an amazing startup which is invested in by various people, such as VCs, angel investors or group funding sources. These investments are very risky and the majority of them are likely to fail. This is fine, because the people who are doing the funding are supposed to be sophisticated investors who understand the risks but are well-capitalized enough so that if they do lose their money, it's not a large part of their net worth, much as if an everyday citizen loses a quarter (or pick your denomination) on the street.

    Recently, the law regarding investment in risky startups has changed, so that one no longer has to prove that one has the financial wherewithal to withstand a loss. This has the potential for unsophisticated investors to be easily fleeced of their money by entrepreneurs with an enticing slide deck and a convincing manner. The fact that this law has been changed, and why, is the real story behind this article.

  31. Cars revolutionized the way we transport ourselves.
    TV and movies transformed how we spend our time.
    Scores of household appliances made the rigours of daily life more manageable, viz: stoves, fridges, mixers, microwaves. These innovations slowly, yet readily, permeated into every household in defining the middle class.

    Modern innovations have not improved human lives in the same way, nor have they been aimed at societal improvement. We are talking about self-driving cars, really? And since when can humans readily manage and promote exercise through deciphering the difference between walking 9,200 steps this week and 8,700 steps last week? All things considered, I am hesitant to say that smartphone has really made my life easier. Do I really need to get facebook, twitter, email, text, whatsapp, updates now?

    Innovations struggle to be rooted in social relevance. Many are mindless expositions of 'what is cool'. I am not sure the tech industry care to understand social issues. Recent discussions have invoked the question of proper needs assessments in product innovation. What problem is it solving? Does it promote equity? Are we simply imposing a technology into the world in hopes of social adaptability leading to impact? Instead, it is propitious to be knowledgable of the issues first, then craft necessary solutions. Life needs to be lived and understood first, not simply a credulous trumpet of innovation.

  32. This may be the most obscene argument I've ever seen for censorship - and make no mistake, this is nothing less than an argument for censoring creations based on the egos of the creators.

    No, most apps don't actually serve a constructive purpose in the lives of the people of the world. But neither does the vast majority of television, or literature, or theater, or video games. Does that mean that we should stop the production of all forms of entertainment?

    Or are you saying that we should just ban tech start-ups from making frivolities, because there are adverse socio-economic effects on the world, and because the people behind them are just so annoyingly smug? That's how all censorship starts - small things, ones that seem reasonable, benign, even beneficial. But I argue that so long as the United States Constitution protects the dangerous and the obscene - and it does, in both cases, with very little legal leeway on either count - it should damn well protect the inane.

    After all, this op-ed is no less arrogant, entitled, and outright inane than any statement made by any app developer or start-up investor. And while I may find its ignorance to border on the offensive, I believe fully, without question or reservation, in its right to exist, in the NYT's right to publish it, and in the author's right - any author's right - to author it.

  33. It didn't start with apps. Have you seen the owners' manual for automobiles, televisions, and cell phones. They look like the Manhattan telephone directory. People probably don't use 80% of the functions which are available to them. I would guess if you tested people on all the functions present they would either be unaware of their existence or would be totally clueless as to how to access them. Take a look at a simple devise like a remote for a television. It used to be the basics were the on/off switch, the channel changer, and the volume control. I counted 41 buttons on my Verizon remote. A young friend of ours who lives with his parents was recently on a 2 week business trip and learned on his return that his mother while operating the remote had pressed a button which disabled the picture. Unable to determine how to restore the video and to embarrassed to tell their son what had happened the parents sat for two weeks without a functioning set. One can only begin to recognize the effect this over abundance of useless functions and keys will have on an aging population.

  34. Thank you for making clear how much talent is being wasted on developing trivial apps and products while there is so much that could be done that would profoundly affect the majority of world society. Things like medical monitoring apps for people with diabetes, epilepsy, heart arrythmias to alert them to take action. Education apps that go beyond rote practice to make deep learning truly accessible to all. Cheap solar chargers and worldwide internet access to bring education and health care to everyone. These are not easy things to create. When the elite keep looking for instant gratification, the talent is focusing on the "problems" with quick solutions and quick payoffs. As with so much today the "world" is becoming more and more defined as the 1%, and the 99% with their harder to solve needs are apparently not worth the effort.

  35. The Great American experimentors have not always been STEM focused. The founding fathers and the New Dealers applied their unique analytical skills to attempt to better organize government for the citizenry. The Revolution and it's aftermath as well as The Great Depression were philosophical emergencies. Europe was expert at forging wrong philosophical paths. A nation built on ideas has more incentive to get things right. If our best technology minds do not see the real problems then they are not our best minds. The New Dealers were a mix of lawyers, mathematicians, engineers and a dozen other professions who were tasked with a difficult but ascertainable challenge - stop the negative national momentum. One can argue about their immediate success, but 80 years later the residue from that time still positively impacts millions of Americans who collect Social Security or have electricity. The negative national momentum has returned. It's too bad our brightest are playing with toys.

  36. It’s a challenge to not become cynical given the seeming frivolity of the goods we desire, produce, and consume. Anecdotally, I think it’s safe to say that the majority of people in our relatively wealthy, western society share a sense of this disconnect between what we feel is right and good versus the lives we are living on a daily basis. This article touches on a small piece that.

    Now on one hand, making better apps won’t definitively fix those problems. Inequality, avarice, apathy, these things begin within and emanate out from each us. As does the desire to do the hard work that will ultimately confront this shared dilemma. I’ll be the first to admit that I participate in this silliness more than I would like. But on the other hand I also believe in the redemptive power of small kindnesses shared with each other and in embracing the struggle that comes with doing meaningful good in our everyday actions. Life is a struggle; in some ways that’s point…it’s often a beautiful one.

    The quality of our experience and of those around us, hinges on our humility and joy and on our ability and willingness to make the hard decisions, do the hard work and know we will come out the better for it. We can choose to a large degree the areas in which we exert our energies and how we use the small time we have in this life and on this amazing planet. I guess it’s up to each of us to take a hard look at that and determine what really is a worthwhile use of that gift.

  37. I agree with everything the author says here. And the problems she notes receive far too little attention in traditional media. But this is the world we've created, and those on the cusp of change are riding that change blindly (and probably to their own destruction). We are not likely, as a society, to stop and rethink, reset, and redo.

    A fascinating but little known article was published decades ago, projecting a societal collapse in the 2020s as the result of negative, irreversible trends in economics, technology, and politics. Such predictions of doom have come and gone before -- anyone remember Paul Ehrlich? -- but this one looks more and more on the mark.

    The undeniable decline in the health of the nation, America, can be traced to two factors. First is the fact that in 1945 we emerged from WWII simply too rich and powerful for our own good. This led to the wasting of resources on insane foreign adventures like Vietnam and Iraq, while at the same time we spent public money carelessly and wastefully to the point that we are now almost $20 trillion in debt, and adding about half a trillion more per year. These are not insignificant sums. At the same time we've had the leisure to pursue all sorts of insane individual get-rich schemes, be it speculating on Wall Street or the nonsense in Silicon Valley described in the author's piece.

    Add to this the fact that we are a nation that was built on slavery and genocide, and you have a karmic reckoning to deal with.

  38. Uh, Ehrlich was right. Desperate migrations underway.

  39. While I appreciate Mr Harrison's comment on how powerful the US emerged from WWII, I feel compelled to argue against the idea that we have too much debt. Governments have been in debt for centuries and their ability to get good things done hinges on amassing debt. These good things are of the type that the author of this article is trying to get us to realize are missing from her list--those that solve real world problems. By focusing on just one side of the government balance sheet (debt), the deficit scolds have us believe that we are in immediate trouble and need to slash spending on things that we really need to spend on (eg, improvements in infrastructure). Let's not forget that our GDP is increasing too and that people are practically paying the US government to hold their money. What better time to focus on practical problem solving like minimizing climate change.

  40. The cult of Technology. I was once nearly sucked into it. In retrospect I can say it all started with the ability to set my iPhone alarms to keep me on task. So we have all this gimmickry and goo-gaws. But it is all really meaningless and pointless. I find myself embarrassed when middle r people ooh and aw about the latest high tech bauble out there. I think the still normal or close to normal people are getting burned out by all of it, and yet these companies our fortunes are tied to as consumers and as investors, keep rolling this Dada out to us non=stop. Smart lightbulbs and internet of things? Who needs a fridge that can spam the world, or a watch that can be turned on remote to hear you making love to your partner, or yelling at your teenagers? It is all useless, and yes, Dada. I've been buying Old technology that is practically dumb by comparison, and which no one will have much interest in reverse engineering, since the take will be minor, everyone tossed those old things for the latest, by planned obsolescence. I think we are done with this garbage, it is costly, pollutes the environment to create it or toss it, and has no real purpose except that some numbskull angel investor financed it. I sense a second tech bubble about to burst. Time to go low tech and enjoy life unconnected once again. Slow reading, pick up a paper and magazines. Slow cooking, figure it out and cook it yourself.

  41. Half the world gets by selling unnecessary goods and services to the other half. There is nothing new about this. Intermediation was the basis of white collar prosperity and entry into the middle class. A whole class of brokers, agents, suppliers, dealers and sales people have been made redundant as people have become more and more comfortable buying more and more things sight unseen over the internet. 15 years ago, a whole army of people used to deliver newspapers to every household every morning. Now most people read their newspaper over the internet. Will librarians meet the same fate as people get more comfortable borrowing books over the internet? Ultimately, most of these services will meet their natural demise as impractical, unneeded or uneconomical, but out of this debris a few companies will arise that will rewrite the definition of what we consider an essential service we cannot live without.

  42. I believe it's no coincidence that most of these apps serve the 1%. These are the people with so much disposable income that an app which engages a service to gas up their cars is, as they say, a "no-brainer".

    These are the kinds of ideas that get funded at VC startup mills - the 0.1% funding the 1% wannabes, largely for things that improve only the lives of people like the funders.

    But hey, it's where the money is. Say you've got an idea to (a) cure cancer or to (b) send instaphone pix with superimposed cat ears on everybody visible.

    You'll get the latter funded immediately. Because the funders can enjoy a "liquidity event" and transfer their economic risk to the next greater fool as they cash out.

  43. And an entire industry of accelerators has built an ecosystem of propping up companies that are no more than (bad) ideas; convincing folks to throw away money for frivolous "solutions" to problems that don't exist. While credit should be given to groups like Techstars, and Y Combinator for fostering an neo-entrepreneurial ecosystem, they have become nothing more than marketing engines making money off the backs of wide-eyed 20 somethings with no skills or operational experience who are completely incapable of running a company. If anyone has seen an accelerator demo-day, Obama's famous reference to Sarah Palin as "lipstick on a pig" should come to mind. Meanwhile there are real companies, with incredibly accomplished and smart people developing real, world-changing solutions to significant problems who can't get financed because hard problems don't fit neatly into the VC model of financing.

  44. The U.S. is in a state of denial of the major problems that face us, problems that appear to be intractable given the inability of humans to work together, especially when it would mean changing the ways we expect to live. This denial is most obvious and profound with the GOP, but it is much more widespread than that. I doubt that anyone could get elected for President if they spoke honestly and forcefully about our real problems.

  45. If it's any consolation, Silicon Valley is still cutthroat for all its kumbaya PR. It tends to reach saturation for 'silly ideas' and unproven products (like Thanatos) pretty quickly. Call it capitalism working well; but for every Snapchat there are hundreds of copycat startups that failed to adapt or bring something new to the table.

    As for the 'silly ideas' that do make it-- well, I'm not going to lay 100% of the blame at the feet of the Valley if people are paying for the silly ideas. I won't shell out $2.99 for a scooter valet app, but if enough people find it useful, why begrudge an American company returns on their clever idea?

    And I'm more optimistic about these tiny, techy enhancements-- yes, even the diaper app and automatic coffee brewing app. A great power of tech is to equalize opportunity in small ways. For one, I'm sure many of our differently-abled brothers and sisters will benefit enormously from delivery and 'remote control' apps, especially as they become more ubiquitous and affordable.

  46. This article is so right on. I have been preaching "progress in search of a purpose" for a while now. The fact is we pretty much have what we need at this point but inertial forces for "more features and choices" have reached the point of absurdity. We need to stop and do a major reboot and figure out what really makes sense from here. The bottom line is the trajectory we are on is unsustainable. That is what needs to be addressed. As Edward Abbey said, "Growth for its own sake is the ideology of a cancer cell".

  47. Remove the phrase "Or Brexit?" and this is a fantastic piece. (The Brexit phenomenon is complex, and not germane. And it certainly isn't a solution in search of a problem, as are the many other apt examples adduced.) I am a teacher of middle and high school students, and I hear many of them express eagerness to design video games, develop apps, etc. I often wonder if I am doing them, and society, a disservice by encouraging them instead of directing them toward something less trivial. It's a tough call, particularly as I agree with all but two of Ms. Arieff's words here.

  48. There is a physical limit to the amount of services a person can consume. Hence the 'growth' of services has a limit.

    Yet any service is infinitely scalable requiring few people to run it. It's a great way for a few owners to make a lot profit in captive consumer market, but it offers very little employment opportunities.

    How can a consumer based market economy continue to function without a balanced trade of goods and services?

  49. The problem with this method of critique is the author selects a subset of tech companies to bolster her point. It would be more intellectually honest to select a random sample and see how trivial they are. Regardless, the vast majority of human creation is unremarkable. It's called regression to the mean. Music, movies, books, academic papers, companies - the vast majority of them will fail to be amazing, by definition.

    We're also limited by access to capital. As an engineer and a startup founder I'd love to cure world hunger, or tackle humanity's other hard problems, but those cost a lot of money. It's instructive to see that many post big-exit entrepreneurs (Musk, Page, Gates) do tackle decidedly non-trivial problems.

  50. This column is a "service" that advices us to beware of dumb services we probably do not need. Is this necessary? It is for the author. In fact in America any method of earning a living is going to be tried on for size. The concept of invention and sales is as old as money itself.

    In the early 70s a friend, a brilliant classics student at BU, ran ads in local newspapers & magazines offering, "Any three questions answered, $5!" As his girlfriend ripped opened the incoming letters and read questions aloud and the money fell out of the envelopes, he sat at a typewriter with a stack of 3x5 cards (kids can look that up) knocking out answers.

    "Hacking" originally (again the early 70s) meant hacking into our national phone monopoly run by AT&T, to place free long distance phone calls with a clever device called a "blue box." It imitated the noises used by the phone company's automated long distance service. I hitchhiked across America and back with a blue box in 1975, and was able to stay in touch with friends the whole way for free.

    Nothing changes much under the sun, including scams.

  51. While I agree about the stupidity of those services and apps listed in the article we have to remember that a lot of the useful products that we enjoy today were by-products of, or based on other, less useful inventions. What the writer is arguing for is almost akin to saying why don't musicians make only good music, or artists only good art. The invention machine will progress just because it can generating a lot of useless waste and heat, some of which will eventually solve real problems.

  52. This is a great commentary, but it fails to analyze what the incentives are for all of this faux hacking. I love to be irritated by fake producers like those mentioned in the article, but they are really only responding to a set of dispositive incentives created by our society and economic system. We need to think much broader in terms of how our entire socio-economic matrix is designed in order to solve these larger problems. Then ... drumroll ... the discussion gets a lot more boring and technical, as it involves taxation systems, education funding, housing policy, and, etc.

  53. A central tenet of the American faith in "Progress" is that all problems can be solved through technology. But a cursory glance at reality shows that technology is a primary CAUSE of our most daunting problems, including a few that threaten our species' survival. While Silicon Valley "innovators" delude themselves into thinking their "disruptions" are "making the world a better place," the high-energy, high-consumption economy undergirding their industry is driving the Earth's climate toward a 4 or 5 degree C. increase by 2100, which surely means the collapse of civilization. Will more technology solve problems caused by too much technology?

  54. You know what is even more depressing; it is the moment when these silicon valley folks show up in Africa in order to "help" the poor Africans who are clearly bereft without their input. If you think the "solutions" you mentioned in your article are bordering on the useless/futile in the West then just imagine how these ideas come across in Africa. What is more, Africa has a thriving development community which comes up with fantastic ideas that actually address people's day-to-day issues, such the need for mobile money and mobile banking. But boy try to raise money for these folks - and I am trying hard - then the level of interest from those who quite happily poor billions into a hoax such as Theranos is next to zero. What is more when we try to raise half a million or a million we are laughed out of the room because this is too small an investment. (In other words, we the investor have a cost structure and on such a small investment we cannot make any money). In other words, it is not just the developers who are misguided when it comes to deciding on which problems to solve, they are driven in that direction by the money people who for the most part are not very interested in investing in anything that is not "sexy" or for that matter safe, I mean god forbid that you have to leave California. So if you want to meet people addressing real life issues with enormous ingenuity come to Africa. Note these people do not need aid, they need investors with vision and courage!

  55. Great article. For years I have felt that technology advances have turned out products (gadgets, apps, etc.) that are developed just because they can be made, not because they are really desired, much less needed. Some items are useful and even important (e.g. rear cameras and side lane warnings in cars) but so many seem unnecessary and frivolous. Now if someone were to develop an app for world peace and prosperity, that would be something!

  56. It is a lot easier to design an app for your refrigerator that can take a photo of the contents and send it to you wirelessly, than it is to invent a battery that runs an entire household for a few days until the rain passes and the solar is working again. Or to invent solar panels that don't need Chinese rare earths.

    It is a lot easier to invent a way to bypass taxi regulations than it is to retrieve carbon form the atmosphere, or from old plastics in the landfills.

    The real problems we have - such as how do we build everything out of carbon such as roads, houses, furniture, clothing, cars, without killing our environment? Or how do we feed and employ 7 billion people? - are hard and require investment. Writing a toothbrush app? Not so much.

    But advertising that "We are too lazy and too cheap to put our monster brains on real tasks that could improve life" wouldn't really be the American way. So we get apps that help us flirt instead.

    Nero fiddled while Rome burned.

  57. A few ideas for apps:

    An app that shuts of the cell 'phone when in a vehicle that is moving faster than 0 miles an hour.

    An app that shocks the driver when they don't use their turn signal.

    An app that sets the car's engine on fire when the driver cuts into a lane any less than 2 car lengths in front of the vehicle they've overtaken.

    An app that forcibly ejects the driver from the vehicle into oncoming traffic when they flash their lights at the driver in front of them who is driving the speed limit.

    I'm sure I can come up with more on my daily commute on I87N to Ballston Spa.

  58. I regret that I could only recommend this once.

  59. I like these ideas. It is a very good thing for peace and tranquillity that I don't drive a James Bond car.
    I'd change your solution for headlight flashers to a laser taking out their headlights and radiator though- no casualties that way, and no driverless vehicle.

  60. This is really end of paradigm behavior and it happens all the time because humans run out of things to do under the current modus operandi, in this case tech. Tech is over, we just don't know it yet. For comparison look at Nixon's kitchen debate with Khrushchev in the late 1950s. It was over the practicality of a kitchen device made specifically for peeling a lemon. Khrushchev didn't see the point. Nixon defended it as an example of innovation at work in a free economy. Nixon was clueless, so was Khrushchev but he was closer to right though for the wrong reasons.

  61. Actually, the apps on meditation are very helpful. If it is useful to someone, a valet parking app is no more offensive than $500 skin care products or $300 jeans.

    San Francisco's affordability problem has little to do with silly apps. The city can no longer support the number of people who want to live there. The solution is for people unwilling to pay exorbitant prices for a lousy apartment to move.

  62. But if those people "unwilling" to pay those rents move, who will do the work? You know, like teach, fight fires, pick up the garbage. Oh, silly me, there must be an app for that!

  63. Easy to make fun of the phrase "making the world a better place" and to properly assess that many apps do little of vale (they also required little to be created - they're apps after all - little packets of code that let your phone or computer do little things) but to say the world is no better off today for innovation in the private sector or to say the American public is actually focused on the mundane conveniences of their cell phone apps is to ignore reality and pander to the sentiments of the Times's Sunday morning readers - afluent pseudo intellectuals and believers all in the "blaming American business equates to open-minded thoughtfulness" crowd. This column addresses a problem that doesn't exist more than the apps it belittles. The app to provide wisdom is banal. This column is smug vacuous posing.

  64. If nobody is building your dream social-do-gooder app, it's because there's no money in it and there's money in the coffee-brewing system. That's not as cold-hearted as it sounds! Prices tell us what's really important and what's not. Market forces, while imperfect, are the best idea we've yet found for figuring out how to allocate scarce resources (developer time) to the most productive ends.

    You might think that a coffee-brewing app is less valuable than avoiding "disruption" of inefficient modes of production, but the market disagrees, and in any argument where social crusaders are on one side and the market is on the other, I'll bet on the market. This strategy would have correctly predicted the outcome of the drug war, after all.

    One of the things that annoys me most about valley culture --- I'm enmeshed in that status-conscious milieu --- is that nobody openly embraces the market forces I just described. Everyone needs to dress up capitalism as some kind of social quest. Every company needs a mission statement. Every company needs "values".

    You can tell that these noises are just posturing because whenever a modern tech company has a choice between upholding its values and making more money over the medium term, it'll choose the money every time. Being successful on El Camino Real means becoming very good at saying one thing and doing another.

  65. This article slightly misses the point. These products aren't created to help Silicon Valley types who need a virtual mommy to handle their chores. There is a class of would-be entrepreneurs who want to make a zillion dollars but have no idea of how to solve the big problems, so they tweak existing products and hope that their app will somehow catch on and make them rich. They are bright people for the most part, and they know perfectly well that global warming, Alzheimer's disease, pollution, and overpriced housing are problems that need to be solved. They just don't know how. They also know that our society does not reward the scientists, engineers, and city planners who actually are trying to solve these problems. There's a lot more money in Uber for house plants than there is in cancer research.

  66. Kaleberg: "... global warning, Alzheimers disease, pollution ... our society does not reward the scientists, engineers and city planners who are actually trying to solve these problems"

    This is simply not true. Google "green technology growth" to get a sense of the figures, it's generating and attracting huge amounts of money.

    This article selectively picks the most trivial and first-world-problem-solving apps and innovations, almost all of which will fail and vanish by the way, from the law of numbers, and reaches the same conclusion that you do, that they are the only projects attracting money.

    The only advance that the author praises is a television sitcom's claim that it has gotten people to use a phrase less often. If this isn't lavishing praise on the trivial I don't know what is.

    This is basically from the school of Andy Rooney, a "these kids today" in the vein of "Bottled water? What do we need *bottled* water for? We were fine when it just came out of a tap", overlooking the fact that taps, not to mention plumbing, were new fangled inventions at one time. And I'm sure someone was complaining about that as well.

  67. "There's a lot more money in Uber for house plants than there is in cancer research." Yes, but which endeavor will put a smile on your face when you put your head on the pillow for the very last time?

  68. Thanks!

    That was a treat to read. I'm past the half-century mark and on the right-hand side of the income bell curve. So I'm not the demographic that is growing up with this stuff (thank heavens!).

    Personally, I find it a pleasure to live life without any of that clutter. I have a laptop and a dumb phone. That's it. That's all I "need".
    Next week some teenybopper (or Apple) is going to come up with some new gadget that I can't live without and I'm not going to buy it and I'm going to go on living.

    I'm not alone. And some who are questioning are not so old. A young friend, Amber Case, who has already started and sold one tech company is now becoming well known on the lecture circuit advocating what she calls "Calm Technology". It's all about designing so that the focus is on technology that actually DOES improve our lives, and in addition, stays in the background of our lives.

  69. I absolutely feel cheated that I can control a swimming pool heater on my iphone but can't buy a jet pack. Also as a child in the 60's I was expecting colonies on the Moon and Mars. We got the things that were easy.

  70. I too am upset that the Star Trek utopian world promised to me by the Greatest/Silent Generations and Baby Boomers did not happen. The space race and Cold War basically laid the foundation for all the technology that followed. It furthered medical monitoring, computer technology, long distance communications and much more. Then sometime in the 70s of my childhood those generations balked at paying for the space program along with basic research and development for all fields and began sharply curtailing funding. Then Baby Boomers insisted no more war and promised to make love not war, end racism and sexism, and return us all to nature.

    Then they all elected Ronald Reagan, turned everything over to the religious right wing, and ushered in the greed and destruction of the 80s to which I came of age, totally bewildered. And it was downhill from there...

  71. "If the most fundamental definition of design is to solve problems, why are so many people devoting so much energy to solving problems that don’t really exist?"

    The joke of the mid-90s when the 'internet startup' craze began:
    'Icecubes.com', a useless, snappy sounding ripoff.

    Great piece, AA. We need more like this.

  72. When the auto arrived and destroyed the buggy industry, creative destruction demonstrated that innovation could improve things. While there is a plethora of big important problems to be solved, the entrepreneurs who deliver beer to your door or pack your suitcase have figured out how to make a living for themselves, and sometimes also for other people, their employees This does make the world a better place (and the taxman agrees).

  73. With so many of the "innovators" in Silicon Valley under the age of 25 and having come from very small worlds, it would be difficult for them to innovate solutions to problems they neither know about of understand. Perhaps a two year stint in the Peace Corps as a condition for hire at a tech company would broaden some horizons.

  74. Apps are toys for people with far more disposable income than they know what to do- with. An *App* is a gadget of pampered helplessness; the tech version of the butler, cleaning-lady or gardener: The ultimate social engineering experiment of reverse evolution of the "gadget-class"

  75. Some of these items seem frivolous to me, some seem quite useful. They may not be useful to the author of the article, but they will useful to someone, or they'll cease to exist. That's the nature of functional design.

    Writing is a design process. What greater purpose did this article serve?

  76. Well said, but I wouldn't take those applications and services too seriously. Many if not most of them are simply, openly, auditions for employment at the big tech companies.

  77. We are inventing solutions for problems that don't exist. Americans don't need to pay for things with their phones, they simply need more money to buy life's basic pleasures. I wish all the tech geniuses could help alleviate the traffic jams in San Francisco, that's solving a problem that does exist. Good luck.

  78. "'the unexotic underclass' — single mothers, the white rural poor, veterans, out-of-work Americans over 50 ..."

    So poetic. So true. As an engineer, I always pondered good problems to solve. Alas, people with no money have good problems, and people with good money have silly problems. Capitalist systems focus on problems that people with money have.

  79. Most of these companies are not in it for the long run, just pumping and hyping and waiting to get bought out at an exorbitant price to have someone else holding the bag.

    Those days are mostly over even with Nadella, Whitman, and Pichai writing the occasional large check. What we really have here, is the face of future unemployment. But from those who anyway always scorned steady employment as being one of their key strengths.

    Make the world a better place dudes, but minus your funky websites, apps and databases. Think no free food, no animals, no ping pong, no stock options, office hours from 8-5, and dressing-up, all for close to minimum wage.

    Have a nice day.

  80. There are a lot we can get out of that silly coffee app. Believe it or not.

    Yes I question the need of an app to make coffee. But that's what people can get money to do, I don't see why not. Some VC might wake up one day and realize it is a bad idea. But while the engineers are making these seemingly silly things, they are learning new skills and growing themselves. They could also be developing new technologies. The coffee app will likely to die, but it could get pivoted to something more profitable and/or useful, hopefully both.

    Yes there are real problems out there to solve. But let's not kid ourselves that there is cost to solve problems and someone needs to pick up the bill. If we can get the technologies developed for that coffee app and turn it into a medicine-dispensing app and have some VC pay for most of the development. That sounds like a win to me.

  81. Used to be people would at least consider whether a vocation had social value before deciding on a career path. The theory was that if you were doing something useful the psychic rewards would make for a fulfilling life, and at-least adequate material rewards would follow.

    How quaint.

  82. For most of history people were turned into slaves against their will. Today we have allowed ourselves to be turned into slaves willingly. We have enslaved ourselves to the trite, the inconsequential, the idiotic, and to the often outright harmful. Ultimately we have enslaved ourselves to our own willful stupidity.

  83. Thinking of your comment at the end on how the real world generally functions and improves matters, consider how long we live. In most countries of the world, including the US, we are mostly living longer and in better health. Some specific groups have had tragic setbacks in recent years, but overall the main story for many decades has been improvement. Each four years life expectancy at birth has gone up one year. That's three months more each year, or six hours a day. So when you switch of the light tonight reflect that of the previous 24 hours you have only been charged for 18.

  84. "Empathy, humility, compassion, conscience: these are the key ingredients missing in the pursuit of innovation ..."

    So right you and Ms. Helmand are to bring this to our attention.

    Unfortunately, there is such a dearth of any of those traits in our society, one filled with: Antipathy, self-aggrandizement, agression and immorality. This is what we see in Congress, the GOP, Trump, the NRA, rap music and individuals in search of their next selfie. We've become a vulgar, self-indulgent, narcissistic and insensitive society.

  85. I'm glad to see people finally waking up to the fact that the Digital Age, for all its plaudits, has not delivered any real substantive improvement in people's lives. Economists are now starting to point out that what the "information revolution" has brought us pales in comparison to previous advances that benefited humanity like water treatment and sewer technology, electrification and antibiotics.

    If you really look closely at what's on offer from Silicon Valley, most of it is a self-licking ice cream cone designed to enrich a few clever people.

  86. First, complaining about the competitive app market is like complaining about evolution. Second, you can't prove that substantive apps don't exist by pointing out that frivolous ones do. Third, it makes no sense to attack a quotation about capitalism making people better off in absolute terms by citing a statistic about income in relative terms.

    If the author has some great idea for an app that doesn't exist (presumably because there is no money or fame in it for the developer), she should ask the government or a charity to bankroll it. That would, however, require concrete solutions and not mere criticism.

  87. Great article. I especially appreciate the ridiculous quote from Marc Andreesen. Imagine all the venture capital, time and brain power wasted creating all this useless technology when the technology we actually need, is nowhere to be seen. Capitalism is not perfect. It needs controls. Capital can and often is put to work on projects that benefit only the investor. Is that really the force we want driving innovation?

  88. Much about nothing. Trivial pursuits are, well, trivial. The big issues for the most part are complicated and require a lot of thought and many participants. So some folks need a break, like solving a crossword. It's not a sin.

  89. But with many schools cutting the arts and humanities out, in favor of science and math, how will we know how to solve those big issues, how will we develop the compassion and perspective needed to change things in a real meaningful way?

  90. Allison Arieff is looking at the world with a Silicon Valley lens. Beyond companies working on the umpteen millionth app/service or another form of social network or a few perpetrating fraud there is plenty of interesting innovation taking place that indeed makes the world a little bit better.

    Inventors in middle America regularly conceive of cool and useful product ideas that serve their needs. I know because some of them come to my company to seek help with those ideas and sometimes we license them. These ideas aren't disruptive, but they will reduce frustration and may result in fewer dogs being kicked. Here are a few of the things we're currently working on:

    - Drink that enables fast and easy adjustment to high altitude
    - Tasty nori snack food
    - Better universal cover for containers, bowls and plates
    - Improved locking pliers, staple gun, desktop stapler
    - Easy to use truck bed cover that prevents debris from flying out
    - Germ resistant applicator for ointment
    - and... for Silicon Valley guys and gals the coolest desk lamp ever!

  91. When you have an educational system that fetishizes STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Medicine) courses and minimizes the importance of the humanities, this is what you get. We have been training generations of young minds who know how to make all sorts of wondrous things, yet so few who know which things need to be made or why we should make them. Our colleges and universities excel at filling young minds with knowledge, but they have forsaken the obligation to also instill wisdom; and without that we have built the nihilistic dystopia which Allison Arieff so aptly describes.

    If we want the coming world to be filled with compassion, our devices designed to end suffering, and our businesses run in partnerships with their communities, we need to teach our young people to feel for one another, to be aware of each other's struggles, and to relish those moments when we can come to the aid of a stranger. The works of John Steinbeck, Arthur Miller, Willa Cather, James Baldwin, Isabel Allende, and countless others have the power to achieve those ends--if only the scientists and engineers which Ms. Arieff is writing about are exposed to them. Without the Humanities, we can easily lose touch with what it is to be human.

  92. Bravo! As an elementary teacher, I fear the loss of funding and time for art, music, dance, and simple, child driven play! We need these to be well rounded people.

  93. Al: Largely agree. But wait, universities can't instil wisdom. That is something learned, if at all, over a lifetime. Certainly the universities should expose students to more of the humanities, but who can teach them?

  94. I am a physicist, engineer and educator. I am willing to bet you a large sum of money that I took many more humanities courses in college/grad school than you took STEM classes. I also will bet you that I routinely read many more humanities books/magazines, etc. each year than you read STEM books/articles.

    Your argument holds no water.

    And yes, the humanities are important. The problem is, few can make a living with an English, History or Sociology degree. You can get the degree, but then you have to do something else to support yourself!

  95. Any society that commits its resources to solve trivial problems will end with true problems

  96. The backlash against tech-world hype has been building, as more and more people get sick of the claims of being disruptive as a way to make the world a better place. The author here has an easy task of pointing out how false the whole thing is. I regret that I was too late to be in the true vanguard of the backlash, but thanks for taking it on.

  97. This is a wonderful article...one all too painfully true. A better life has come to mean a convenient life and not one that is more deeply human. I graduated from a university that claims to be in the nation's service. Talent and opportunity were once put to the service of the truly greater good. Now, a limited bottom line of convenience and profit is what we serve. The nation...the world...our neighbor...an ideal...hardly!

  98. This mania isn't new. In the 1720s an investment opportunity was floated for the manufacture and sale of Puckle's Machine gun, which would fire both bullets and cannon balls--which might be round, for Christians, or square for Turks.

  99. Is there an app that gets rid of all apps?

  100. This may have been the most unenlightened piece I've ever read here.

  101. It's hard for me to see this as anything but a false equivalency. I know the line was hyperbolic but, an app can't stop police killings. Tech companies are doing what they should be doing: innovating. The problem lies in the group of people not doing what they should be doing: politicians.

  102. Great take on our "app economy"! We have so many excessive solutions that solve insignificant problems these days. Most of these start up founders believe they are changing the world, but what they really are is punch drunk by drinking to much of their own Kool-Aid. Nobody needs another Uber of everything.

  103. Wonderfully incisive piece. Thank you for stating the obvious.

  104. "A service that sends a valet on a scooter to you, wherever you are, to park your car." - Where does he park his scooter while he's parking your car?
    "An app with speaker that plays music from within a mother’s vaginal walls to her unborn baby." - I can see intriguing spinoffs from this. Could be big.
    "An app to help you understand “cause and effect in your life.” - Yes, it's called a random number generator.

  105. A suggestion for anyone wanting to make the world a better place: Vote. And don't vote for Republicans.

  106. Thankfully we have someone to illuminate these products, apps and services for us.

  107. They aren't trying to make the world a better place. They are trying to get someone to pay them for their app. They look for a market which they think someone will pay something for and then develop an app to extract cash from people. If there isn't a market from which to extract cash, there is no app. "World changing" is simply a marketing tool.

  108. Am I the only one exhausted to the bone by contemporary life's insistence that I know everything, keep up with everything, participate in everything, and make my life easier through all-consuming, all-surrounding, omnipresent technology? Am I the only one who feels bludgeoned and sad by the 25 beaches I MUST visit before I die? Where is life in all of this progress? Where is life?

  109. Who do you mean by We?

  110. The Cult of Automation is driving these services. It's the idea that everyone can sit around philosophizing (or depend on an app to think for us) once we no longer need to buy toothbrushes.

    The day someone's coffee maker gets hacked and the coffee doesn't get made, we can expect to see the creators of these e-gadgets think twice.

    Thank you for making the world a better place with your article.

  111. The answer is no. We don't.

    Though as a culture we are pretty poor with Cause and Effect. That one might have some veracity.

  112. Most of this stuff seems like a solution in search of a problem that doesn't exist, aimed at people with more money than sense and the sensibilities of magpies.

    Working stiffs don't need these things. What would make the world a better place for us are things such as steady jobs that pay a living wage, affordable health care, affordable day care, retirement security (just how the HECK is a minimum-wage worker supposed to stash enough in a 401-K to retired in anything other than abject poverty?), and affordable college that doesn't leave people laden with huge debt.

    Is there any app for any of that? Nope, didn't think so. Ever wonder why? Well, if you do, don't ask the GOP. They don't know, and they don't care. And neither, I suspect, do the self-congratulatory entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley. The change they're interested in is putting more cash in their pockets.

  113. Imagine being a baby boomer and seeing this. What I am finding in Gen-Y's, is a need to sit across a table now with a person and actually have a flicker between them that is not swiped right, liked or yelped. Too many choices, too many services from strangers, too much 'growth' that is forcing those once friendly cities, i.e., San Francisco, Portland and moving east, is forcing people to re-evaluate how much they have lost. When we have out-source people to teach our kids to ride bikes (while watching the Tour de France), something is wrong and we have to fix it . . . fast.

  114. " Products and services are designed to “disrupt” market sectors (a.k.a. bringing to market things no one really needs) more than to solve actual problems..."

    How painfully inaccurate. As Henry Ford is quoted (though may not have said): "If I had asked the people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses."

  115. Thank you! Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  116. Thank you so much for this article. I've had the same thoughts. Why can't tech start ups focus their brilliant minds and energy on the real problems and make a real difference in our world.

  117. I'm developing an app that reviews apps and will eliminate the need for nerdy tech writers who get excited about such things.

    I just need a million dollars in start-up capital, bean bag chairs for the office, and a clever name for the app that employs an intentional incorrect spelling. I can swing the bean bags (getting them from another start-up that failed) but need help with the other items.

    I'll be at my usual table at Starbucks.

  118. I've had an app to brew my coffee for 55 years. It will start the coffee wherever I am............in my house. After all, why would I want to brew coffee if I'm not home?

    Oh, the app? Two legs.

  119. Why do I think that the app makers are wired differently? A detachment or at least a good lack of empathy.

  120. No invention, discovery or creation ever solved a wrong problem.
    The MIT geeks were probably belittled for their "Galactic network", little knowing that it would lead to the creation of the Internet.

  121. ahh the wonders of the free market.

  122. Well put Allison! I live in San Francisco and ask myself the same questions everyday. I see people everyday who are so virtually connected on their devices, yet so disconnected from the real world directly around them. Why? They are missing out on the essence of life in the joy of human interaction!
    No need to shop, no need to cook, no need to go out and meet someone, no need to talk, there are apps for all of the above. Oh, and yes no need to see that homeless person lying every ten feet as you walk the city!
    I refuse to buy in, I refuse to live in "Wall-E" world!

  123. The pathetic thing about this oh so true examination, is that even the basic sorts of apps (such as personal calendars) cater only to the interests of the Silicon Valley puerocracy. All these apps assume that you have ample free time during the day to schedule brunches and lunches with friends, that you have time and energy to ride bikes to work so you need bike routes, and that you're always jetting off somewhere so you really need up-to-the-minute plane schedules. What most people need in a calendaring app, for example, is something that schedules their minimal 2-hour free time that they have after working 9-to-5 in a job where you punch a clock... after getting the kids to bed... before you collapse on the bed in exhaustion.

  124. My long view: Perhaps these are all 'inventions' by those others trying to come up with a way to make a living, having lost their way they did have to make a living due to downsizing or globalization.

    My short view:Bully for them then.

  125. You know, you aren't obligated to buy dumb stuff. When I was a kid, the shows I watched on TV were puncuated by ads for the pocket fisherman and slicer-dicers that could do everything for the low low price of $9.99. Later there were seven minute abs sold buy guys who looked like Tarzan. I never bought any of that stuff. Instead I kept my sense of humor and my money.

    For fun, you should do a search of patents from the 19th and early 20th centuries. You'd get a laugh and maybe some perspective.

  126. For those of you resetting your moral compass, true north should always be humility.

  127. As a practicing neoluddite I am against most apps. Overkill. They make some people obese and otiose. And they also destroy cognitive thinking and the art of conversation. Social media gave us Trump-a tweeter and a reality tv star. Future schlock. I am not very app-y about our future.

  128. Same w/Hillary, I appreciate that she wants to relieve students of their debt but to forgive just those who will be tech entrepreneurs? Enough w/Silicon Valley, you only have to look to Theranos to see the absurdity... What about young persons who want to be artists, history professors, writers, elementary school teachers et al.?

  129. What we have here is an entire generation of gullible, app-addled 20 somethings creating more and more useless tech junk while convincing each other - and expecting the rest of us to buy it - that they're saving the world. Meanwhile they walk down the street like zombies, their eyes glued to their screens, utterly disconnected from the world they claim to be saving.

    Few of us can actually save the world but all of us can vote intelligently if we unglue ourselves from Facebook and all the other soul-sucking tech monsters, look around and actually be in the real - not the virtual - world.

    Years ago we said "kill your television." Today it's "kill your devices."

  130. I liked the old bread toasters that only toasted bread, the ones without apps and wifi. I liked the old elevators, the ones where a guy in a uniform called out the floors, I liked the old cars where all you had to do was step on the gas to make it go and step on the brake to make it stop. I liked it when they gave you a fifth rubber tire. I liked the old phones you never had to charge. I liked it when women wore dresses and men wore ties.

    I liked it when watches just told you the time.
    I liked it when shirts came in exact sizes. I liked it when pitchers got to bat. I liked
    it when short guys played basketball. I liked it when they had soap operas on TV. I liked it when the evening news was just 15 minutes long. I liked it when there was no breaking news. I liked it when the newspapers put out morning, afternoon and evening editions.
    I liked it when girls wore tangerine-colored lipstick. I liked it when lacrosse sticks were made out of wood and catgut.

    I liked it when they had sleeping cars on trains. I liked it when the post office delivered the mail several times a day. I liked it when you went to department stores and could play records in the music department. I liked it when people visited their friends in the hospital. I liked it when doctors had offices in their own houses and did home visits. I liked it when you could get a shoeshine in a barber shop. I liked it when they had diners.

    I liked it when the country was at least trying to get itself together.

  131. My god, what an unbelievable naïve piece. I can see a young person writing this, but not someone of Ms. Arieff's advanced age and I don't understand why the Times would print it. How can so many people be so blind to the world they are living in, a world we are all responsible for. Welcome to the wonderful world of laissez-faire, consumer capitalism, dearie. It isn't about solving problems it is about making money.

    We don't set priorities based on what should be done or even what needs to be done we base them on what makes money. This is why we are killing ourselves on sugar rich, high salt diets, drinking, drugging and smoking ourselves into early onset dementia, shooting each other daily, and slowly destroying planet earth. It is why the Internet is awash in porn. Why doctors don’t cure diseases but only treat them with lifelong medications and expensive surgeries. And why we pay for insurance that never pays for anything. I don't like it any more than Ms. Arieff, but I at least I know why things are the way they are. We aren't hacks. We are hideously selfish rats scurrying around a maze trying to amass fortunes, whether we are creating a business based on a useless stupid idea, working for someone who is or just playing the lottery. Do you really think you can be free to do anything you want and not pay a price.

    People like Ms. Arieff who don’t understand the world they are living in are the reason liberalism has become mostly about fairy tales and fantasies.

  132. We have a word for this in Silicon Valley. It's "bubble".

  133. “In this humility-poor environment, the idea of disruption appeals as a kind of subversive provocation,” she writes. “Too many designers think they are innovating when they are merely breaking and entering.”
    ______
    The time when disruption causes real change will return.
    Innovations that are more then updates.
    Look through the lens of your own eyes instead of social media you'll might be
    surprised and delighted.

  134. As others will surely say, this is the product of money flowing only to a tiny niche class, served by a privileged tech-startup class.
    But also, I'd put forward that this is what you sow when you decide your society can dispense with all that humanities stuff in favour of the unholy marriage of STEM and money. God forbid we put resources toward re-envisioning the social world, in historical and cultural context. It's not like our current system/stage of capitalism is revealing its unsustainability at every waking moment these days, from every imaginable angle. Nah, let the "market" make even more decisions than ever, and get rid of all that art and critical thinking stuff.

  135. Technology has become the newest incubator for excessive greed, (just behind the whores on Wall Street). In Silicon Valley, caring and compassion is for chumps. The serious problems of the poor and unaffiliated in this country are of no concern to the tech geeks or Wall Street titans.

  136. We need disruption in healthcare and college education, where are the disruptors? Maybe share a doctor across the world.

  137. Just wondering if there is an App to deliver a slice of Marie-Antoinette's Cake?

  138. made my morning!

  139. While I do share the overall frustration of the author, I am pained by her need to bash those who are trying out something. Is "sensor in diaper" really good? I don't know. But when my kids were really tiny, their diapers would have this green line when they peed and we could change their diapers quickly so that they don't get a rash. My cousins in India did not use disposable diapers and were potty trained really early. The poorer folks did not even have diapers and went around everywhere naked as toddlers.

    I don't get much by delivery - I much rather go into a store and see the item for myself. But there are tons of people who get pizzas and spices delivered to their doorstep. Is getting toothbrushes and beer really THAT bad?

    Yes, silicon valley is not trying to solve malaria or dengue or cancer. But they never did. Such long-term and high-risk investments were always made by governments. Why should it be any different today?

  140. Yes! And of course all those making hundreds of thousands and millions already have what is needed (that money can buy) for a good life. They justify earning more so that they and their families can buy these services and things. Those providing them and those buying them are in a devil's loop -- draining their souls and hurting everyone else. And if you question any of this you are called a socialist -- which is somehow turned into the evil. What a world!

  141. Excellent essay. San Francisco has to do something SERIOUS about homelessness. It is heart-breaking to see ever more people with mental health issues, and/or addictions of various sorts, on the streets. I wish Facebook, Apple, or Google would announce a prize for the best "hack" for that problem. In Renaissance England, the big problem was young men going to sea and getting helplessly lost, and often drowning and losing the crown's treasure. The court sponsored a contest for the best reliable clock at sea, and viola, the new world was settled. (I am skipping a few details...) The point is: most things can be solved with focus, determinations, and motivation.

  142. It's the vicious cycle of consumerism. Nobody can live off the land anymore (because Big Agra owns it all), so they have to push these useless items / services to earn a living.

  143. I can't figure out what problem this article is solving. Ironic.

  144. Well said, Allison! I like to compare the state of our research on our own bodies to the amount we know about the envirornment - we research ourselves to the sub-sub cellular level, but we don't know where blue whales go every year, we wonder if elephants or chimpanzees mourn their dead. The divergence of our knowledge of the environment compared to our knowledge of our own cells is ever-increasing, and the world is what we need to know more about, we definitely do not need an app that helps us brew our coffee or another drug to help us sleep.

  145. Great article. If all of those tech companies let programmers spend an hour a day working on truly life-improving projects, they could give us "better life."

  146. Quite ironic that an article criticizing the self-important pursuit of innovation would take an unnecessary, albeit brief, diversion into the writer's political opinion. Seems this writer herself struggles to see the world beyond her own bubble.