Your App Won’t Save the World

Your App Won’t Save the World

Feb 01, 2013 Opinions

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.

  • Steve Chung

    thanks for writing this. i’ve been thinking about this for a while.

  • Nick Leith

    Whilst I can agree with much of what you’ve written here, I really have to recommend that you stop talking about human nature, since it is only as static as the environment it’s in. There are numerous examples of different cultures proving this.
    Additionally, I don’t appreciate being told that I want to change things because I seek control. It is possible to be motivated out of empathy for others.

    • http://twitter.com/DanRuswick Dan Ruswick

      He addresses you first point in his piece. Human inclinations, desires and compulsions are dependent upon the environment, but are ultimately secondary to the immutable nature of the human condition. All humans are greedy, ambitious, apathetic, vindictive, self-aggrandizing, ingratiating, lustful, irrational, and, most profoundly, fearful throughout their lives. They always have been and will continue to be. Society can compel use to behave otherwise, but cannot alter the fact that you and I are still just animals.

  • http://www.sachagreif.com/ Sacha Greif

    I think The Industry is at its best when it covers design, not when it’s a platform for personal opinions. We already have personal blogs, Medium, Branch, Reddit, and countless other platforms for telling the world what you think about “Communism” and “Human Nature”. Why dilute The Industry’s value with this kind of content?

    • http://twitter.com/erondu Jared Erondu

      You make a fair point. But with the same token, the point of our opinion category is to explore such ideas. These articles “are* the opinions of their respective writers.

      In this article, Jordan explores the barrier between tools that can lead to change, and change itself. And that barrier is our mindset, our willingness to encourage change. It could have been written without words like “communism” and “human nature,” but the idea still would have been the same.

      In Dave Morin’s recent interview with Kevin Rose (on Foundation), he spoke of where Path is now, and where he wants it to be. Path is an incredible application. It encourages its user to form a social circle around those we hold the closet, but unless we’re willing to ditch the 2-3k friends some of us have on Facebook and the rest, Path will simply be a tool that sits on our iPhone screen.

  • http://twitter.com/dotjinks Brian Rowdy Hamby

    Sry, I clicked. Was not in the mood for dry irony or being told I can’t try to change the world. Human nature is not static, but the changes are slow coming over generations. Choose your own path dude, but don’t choose mine and don’t assume it’s not the attempt that matters more than the success.

  • http://www.facebook.com/pcperini Patrick Perini

    Anyone who sets out to “fix” the world is naive. Anyone who sets out the change the world is admirable, and likely will.

    You used three pieces of iconography. The globe, the Apple “app” symbol, and a Band-Aid brand bandage. When we finally managed the technology to capture proper images of our planet, we changed the world. When Apple decided to use artistic tools to symbolize software development, it changed the world. When Dickson invented the Band-Aid, he changed the world.

    We no long need to rely on the purely creative interpretations that cartographers once provided. We now culturally understand art, design, and software to be inseparable. We now use the term “band-aid” to mean any quick fix.

    These are massive changes in our culture, and are indeed the shoulders of the giants upon which we stand. So who cares if we can, with the snap of our fingers or a line of code, reconstruct human nature? Human nature is adaptive, clever, and just malleable enough to develop these structures that make the world at least a slightly better place.

    You assume we are broken. That is an unhelpful assumption to make.

  • ZoubIWah

    Humans are extremely easy to manipulate,specially at young age. That is actually stronger than human nature.

    Thus, yes, there’s some sort of hope, through control – which is exactly what the civilization has been doing over time.

  • Neeraj

    No one can save the whole world. Every one’s mission is to make it more perfect. 100 efficiency is an ideal case. But it make some sense in the engine building process

  • Damian

    “Capitalism worked because it acknowledges human weaknesses and turns them towards the good of society.”… now that’s funny. Capitalism and good in the same sentence.

  • http://suckmytrend.com/ Ashley Pearson

    Might not be able to save the world, but you can change the world.

  • http://twitter.com/DanRuswick Dan Ruswick

    This article affirms my long-held belief that technology has no innate value, it is merely an amplifier that will exacerbate the prevailing traits in an individual. Those who are prone to things like laziness will become more so due to the enabling effect of technology. Those that are prone to proactivity will likewise become more proactive and empowered.

  • JohnStack

    Hoping that there is some something to be learned, I always click on titles like these.

    On that note, I learned only by you making me think about this, not exactly from any fresh insights in your article (sorry?).

    Acting on great ideas may save the world. The implement doesn’t matter. To suggest that world change can come within is an oft-used and mostly broken notion that somehow billions of people will think and act alike or share the same views, save one: We are our brother’s keeper.

    Therefore, I believe your title is correct but your underlying support is a bit selfish. VCs most typically ask “How is your company (or app) going to change the world?” Not save. And yes, they frequently change the world or more specifically, the course of events or personal behaviors that affect a culture. Most frequently, the apps that “change” the world are those that accelerate communication, facilitate/increase understanding, or increase collaboration.

    Besides, we all know that VCs save the world, not apps. ;)

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