The Internet Cannot Save You

From coding for the homeless to wireless for the world, there are limits to Silicon Valley's plans to heal the globe

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Robert Galbraith / REUTERS

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's co-founder and chief executive, during a press event in Menlo Park, Calif., on April 4, 2013

What a powerful thing the Internet is. Consider: you — yes, you, whoever and wherever you are — are reading words that I’ve typed. They came to you instantly and for free, and you can dispose of them just as easily as you found them. The Internet is great.

Take this week’s Internet star: young software engineer and entrepreneur Patrick McConlogue, who announced his grand mission to end homelessness through the Internet, one man at a time.

McConlogue described his plan on Medium in two parts. In the first post, McConlogue explained that he would offer a choice to the “unjustly homeless” man he passed daily. “Without disrespecting him,” McConlogue would give the man either $100 in cash, or supplies and tutoring so that he might learn how to code for the web.

Mark Zuckerberg thinks the Internet is great too. He thinks it’s so great and so powerful that this week he announced a long-term initiative to bring Internet access to the 5 billion people in the world who lack it. He has several leading partners from the tech industry, including Samsung, Nokia and Qualcomm. Google isn’t Zuckerberg’s partner, but it has its own similar initiative. Project Loon, which calls for balloons to supply wireless Internet to not-yet-wired places, recently began a pilot program in New Zealand.

“Is connectivity a human right?” Zuckerberg asked in a blog post. He seems to think so. “The more things we all know, the better ideas, products and services we can all offer and the better all of our lives will be.” The Google folks concur. “Loon for all,” reads the site’s playful script logo, set over a starry night sky. This is more than business.

Well, not exactly. For Google, for Facebook, for the other companies, the philanthropic rhetoric makes a clever pose. More Internet users mean more data, which can be sold to advertisers (Facebook) or used by the advertiser (Google), and all of which must be transmitted through some device (Nokia, Samsung, Qualcomm). The corners of the world without Internet present vast, untapped markets.

But it’s a little reassuring to see corporations behave as corporations do — maximizing future profit opportunities, minimizing regulatory opposition through canny p.r. — given what has recently dribbled forth from the mouths and keyboards of true believers throughout the tech industry. I’m thinking here of the Facebook executive who told the New Yorker that “social capital” (e.g. doing fun things with friends) would come to surpass “financial capital” (which is to say, capital).

Back to the choice facing Leo, McConlogue’s “smart, logical, and articulate” new friend. $100 doesn’t get anyone off the street, but it could fund a handful of meals, maybe new shirts and shoes. Coding skills don’t get anyone off the street, either. A job might, maybe. But this isn’t a job. It’s only one skill, necessary but not sufficient for sustained employment. It’s hard to work in an office, to navigate social politics, to become a model employee — especially in an industry filled with well-educated types.

He could have pocketed $100, sparing us the forthcoming updates and gross generalizations and book deal. But that would have been too easy. He opted for the laptop, early-morning lessons and the books on coding.

So we’ll get a bad parable. Either he’ll thrive, and we’ll learn that so many of America’s homeless are just 3G Chromebooks away from prosperity — the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps stuff that overlooks every structural cause of homelessness. Or he’ll fail, and the story will become that America’s homeless are too lazy to care for themselves. Wrote McConlogue: “It’s up to him if dedication is also his gift.”

The Internet is not magic. The Internet cannot nourish, and it cannot give a homeless person a home.

Someone else put it better recently when talking about Project Loon. He said, “When you’re dying of malaria, I suppose you’ll look up and see that balloon, and I’m not sure how it’ll help you. When a kid gets diarrhea, no, there’s no website that relieves that.” The words of a technophobe? Not quite. It was Bill Gates.

59 comments
johnson_yinka
johnson_yinka

@TIME The only one who can save you is JESUS. We should rely on God the Author & Finisher of our faith.

Ashgill23
Ashgill23

@katiecouric @TIME Internet may not feed them but surely can help them how they can feed themselves ! Knowing is innovation !

jtj1333
jtj1333

@katiecouric, we would also be allowed to explore the vast universe that they say we cannot do. It's all about who controls the information.

jtj1333
jtj1333

@katiecouric, We would all have the same opportunities at the same education, etc x3. the greedy, sick, 'controllers' won't let it happen.

jtj1333
jtj1333

@katiecouric, we wouldn't have wars, famine, disease, poverty, environmental disasters, racism, hate, crime, greed, etc x3.

jtj1333
jtj1333

@katiecouric, if we had global open communications, we would turn into a "small town". Everyone would know everyone & what they were doing

PATat911
PATat911

@katiecouric I love tech & having Internet access, but it won’t solve the world’s problems. You can’t eat data or spend data.

raahh_raahh
raahh_raahh

@katiecouric @TIME I'm kinda pretty well depending on the Internet 2 save ME here so I hope the Internet can! Katie, its so hard, do U hear?

jtj1333
jtj1333

@katiecouric @TIME They do not want you all to communicate, or figure out what the elite hide & steal from the mass population, globally.

jhonellebrown
jhonellebrown

So the Internet does have limits...this should not be a surprise. @TIMEIdeas insightful article for many I'm sure.

jtj1333
jtj1333

@katiecouric @TIME they do not want you all to communicate, and figure out what the elite hide & steal from the mass population, globally.

Omeskeren
Omeskeren

The internet is a tool, just like a simple screwdriver.
We use it to, well, drive screws, but you might use it to defend yourself physically from certain animals or people.
Those that insist that screwdrivers can't save you, however, probably has questionable motives.

spot60spot
spot60spot

@TIME It is only a form if communication, it's success determined by the information posted on line.

LoriPetryshen
LoriPetryshen

Internet is a tool. How you use a tool and what you use it for will be its limit.

Anon_J
Anon_J

Really don't know what this article is talking about. Incoherent pieces fail to communicate a clear message. Must be very hastily written. Is it saying that Facebook and Google's projects are all actually interest-driven? Is it just saying that these projects are useless? Is it saying that the whole Internet's role is being overhyped? I can't really agree with all three points, whichever it is the author really wanting to say.

ertem_mehmet
ertem_mehmet

@TIME @GEsfandiari also, neither BM nor NATO is magic...they cannot keep innocent people of Egypt or Syria or Eas East Turkistan alive!

pgnewman
pgnewman

@TIME good food for thought. It's hard to imagine life without the Internet, but the Internet definitely does not give life.

Kidnot
Kidnot

@TIME - Nooo! Whaat? Really? Wow! You're kidding, right? Seriously? Whodathunkit! Any more earth shattering revelations you'd like to share?

mo0nman95
mo0nman95

@TIME is this suppose to be an inspirational quote or something?

caligram1
caligram1

@TIME No it cannot. First in line is giving ppl a job to support themselves. And provide income to own a home. it all starts with money

Sephricloud
Sephricloud

@TIME and that's obvious. It's a privilege, it never was stated as a necessity.

Universalset009
Universalset009

@TIME the Internet is a tool for receiving information. Silicon Valley has a hammer and all it sees are nails.

Sephricloud
Sephricloud

@TIME Maybe the five billion people who don't have Internet are better off without. It can be a weapon as much as a a helpful tool.

Solutionprovida
Solutionprovida

@TIME but it can galvanise people to act as one and get rid of Gov that don't look after their interests then new Gov can do all the above

aseoconnor
aseoconnor

@jongovi he would see coding as a trade, like iron forgers, part of society but put aside in favor of higher pursuits when possible

ThEthanDiamond
ThEthanDiamond

@TIME RE: "Internet won't save you". You mean I can't just google 'cure for cancer'? Damn.

Bushidoken
Bushidoken

@TIME no it cant and to create homeless internet zombies is dumb. people need the basics, food, clothes and shelter beyond that its all crap

FrankBlank
FrankBlank

Every time you feel the urge to go digi-gaga over the net, ask yourself, Which would you rather do without:

Your Car or your Computer
The internet or indoor plumbing
Computers or Washing Machines

And then note that we have large media companies who are so amazingly lame that they put tweets in their online forums. 

raahh_raahh
raahh_raahh

@katiecouric @TIME I rolled over a little earlier than normal today. I'm tired. Last night was pretty tough. I don't feel like doing today.

Chuyanchao
Chuyanchao

@zisforzhang @TIME can 3D-printing print a model of a girl?