Your App Won’t Save the World

Your app won’t save the world. Neither will that project you’re working on, or the next headline-making entrepreneurial endeavor, or the wildest technological achievement of the next hundred years. In fact, if the world is to be saved, it won’t be through human devices.

No matter how figuratively they’re used, the phrases “save the world” and “change the world” betray our true desires. We all have issues we’d like to solve, in varying degrees of Messiah Complex grandiosity. The entrepreneurial instinct is usually accompanied by a strong desire to remake the world in our own image.

Of course, we tend to wildly overestimate the amount of control we have over things. The world is governed much more by human nature than we’d like to admit, and human nature doesn’t change.

The world is governed by human nature, and human nature doesn't change.

Our image of primitive man is that he was a bumbling, grunting idiot. In truth, he probably wasn’t much different than we are now. Time hasn’t made us smarter, nobler, or more compassionate. If we act differently, it is because cultural mores have changed. If we have seen farther than our ancestors, it is because we stand on the shoulders of giants. Civilization has made us docile, but we’re still the same people underneath, and a change in circumstance could send us back into that primitive state. To quote The Art of Looking Sideways: “Civilization is chaos taking a rest.”

Our best ideas recognize the immovability of human nature. Communism failed because it requires people to be better than they are. They would need to be incorruptible by power and unmoved by desire. Capitalism worked because it acknowledges human weaknesses and turns them towards the good of society.

The world is a product of human nature. Look at any population center and you’ll see the character of its inhabitants. The city is a macrocosm of the individual, with the good and the bad arrayed on the news for all to see.

It’s in our nature to want to feel in control. When I’m unhappy with something in my life, I usually come up with some system with which to manage it. Not being productive enough? I’ll try a different to-do system. Not waking up on time? Maybe I’ll switch to a different alarm clock. We develop structures and formulas to manage our discontent.

We develop structures and formulas for managing our discontent.

The thing is, true progress must come from inside — no amount of external prodding can force a change of heart. That’s why we fail so predictably when we try to force an internal change through external methods. It’s why we can’t help others unless they want to be helped, and it’s why the Crusades went so terribly wrong. You can’t convert someone to a cause to which they don’t want to be converted.

Technology can help change, but it cannot drive it. No matter how many times I log into Everest or Lift, if I’m not motivated to work towards a goal, that goal won’t be accomplished. Path won’t make anyone more social if they aren’t so inclined. Runkeeper won’t make an athlete out of someone with no desire to run. LinkedIn won’t make you a networker any more than owning a hammer makes you a carpenter. We’ve built some amazing apps in the name of spurring self-improvement, but they can never be more than tools that perpetuate an existing pattern. Real change comes from inside.

We can’t save the world in any meaningful sense. We can fix the problems of the day, but while human nature remains the same, we’re just putting band-aids on a broken bone.

We're just putting band-aids on a broken bone.

This isn’t as bad as it sounds. Knowing our history, if we could save the world, I’d be scared to see what state we’d leave it in. Our best conception of how the world should be is still tempered by our own brokenness, and the world remade in our image would pale in comparison to all it could be.

Of course this doesn’t mean we should stop building and hoping and fighting for change. We should chase perfection, but only with the understanding that we’ll never catch it. Human nature is static, but we can alter the context in which it operates. Keep on making things that leverage that nature into progress. We may not be able to save the world, but we must cultivate our garden.

The bar is set too high, but that doesn’t mean we should stop reaching for it. If the world is burning, all we can do is tend to our little corner of the fire, whether or not we can deal with the whole thing. Giving up isn’t in our nature. We’re creatures of the impossible.

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