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.