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Another Tech Dude Dreams Up a Dumb Idea to Fix Homelessness

One of the curious contradictions of the tech world is that—despite being an industry predicated on exacting, scientific attention to detail—when it comes to the bigger picture, many in Silicon Valley tend towards a Utopian impracticality. Don't-bother-me-with-the-factual limitations dreaming is a good thing for startups, but it can be less useful when applied to social problems.

Last week, in the midst of a larger rant about all the things wrong with San Francisco, one founder, Peter Shih, complained on Medium (a publishing platform backed by one of Twitter's founders) about the city's homeless population "San Francisco has some of the craziest homeless people I have ever seen in my life," he wrote. "Stop giving them money, you know they just buy alcohol and drugs with it right? Next time just hand them a handle of vodka and a pack of cigarettes, it’ll save everyone some trouble. I’m seriously tempted to start fucking with people and pay for homeless guys to ride the Powell street cable cars in the middle of the day, that ought to get the city’s attention." (The post appears to have been taken down.)

This week brings yet another instance of tech-industry insensitivity to the problem of homelessness—but one that is far more typical in its pseudo-constructiveness. Also on Medium, a New York programmer suggested that one way to help the homeless might be to teach them to code. "I like to think I can see the few times when it’s a wayward puzzle piece," he wrote. "It’s that feeling you get when you know the waiter, the cashier, the janitor is in the wrong place—they are smart, brilliant even. This is my attempt to fix one of those lost pieces." He had a particular homeless man (a young guy he passes on his commute) in mind. "I will come back tomorrow and give you three JavaScript books, (beginner-advanced-expert) and a super cheap basic laptop. I will then come an hour early from work each day—when he feels prepared—and teach him to code."

What this suggestion shares with earlier ideas to turn the homeless into wireless hot-spots and to act as app beta-testers is a belief in the saving power of the tech world. It's not that the ideas are intentionally exploitative or ill-intentioned; rather, it is the bubble-bound thinking that is bothersome. In this worldview, involvement in the startup scene is the kind of transformative thing that can be a cure-all balm. It's a narrow sort of Utopianism, one that doesn't fully consider that there might be problems that the tools they have at their disposal can't solve. These instances get noticed because it’s not good PR to be insensitive to the less fortunate, but this mindset pervades the tech world far beyond its interactions with the homeless. 

Noreen Malone is a staff writer at the New Republic