Apr 162013

I love software, and I love writing software, but these days there seems to be a belief amongst developers that software and good programming can solve all humanity’s problems. Don’t get me wrong, software can solve a lot of problems, especially problems that involve keeping track of a lot of stuff, tasks very repetitive, and doing lots of math. However, as good as software is, some problems are systemic, people problems, and no clever coding can make that disappear.

Software can make what we do easier, and it can help us do things better, but getting the benefits from using software to shake things up within a system is like getting the benefits from an intervention, the people involved have to want to change. Generally speaking, these problems are more political in nature than technological or anything else. It’s things like trying to focus on making sure your personal budget doesn’t ever get cut, protecting your “thing” at all costs, and in general focusing on one’s self over whatever the goal of the organization at hand is.  

I’ll use schools as an example, largely because it was a job ad for a company looking to use technology to completely change education that got me thinking about this, although it’s not limited to education. The potential for “disruption” is  indirectly proportional to the barriers to change. Cell phones are very disruptable, they’re commodity electronics that just about everyone owns, and just about everybody replaces theirs every few years anyways. Carriers, on the other hand, are much more difficult to shake up (although T-Mobile’s making a go of it right now), since spectrum is limited, expensive, and building a network requires a lot of up-front cash, leaving fewer companies capable of offering the service and thus making it harder for people to find a better option.

If you really want to disrupt something that hasn’t been shaken up in years, then the first thing you need to do is make it easy for people to a) trade whatever they’re currently doing for whatever you’re doing and b) easy for people to drop whatever you’re doing for something else. With schools and education, that means you need to make your alternative for the regular public school system easy to join up, and you need to make it easy to drop your option for something else (back to public schooling, another schooling model, whatever). It’s not just about convenience, the reason most people send their kids to public schools is that they can’t afford the private ones. Most importantly, you need to make it a replacement for public education, not something to add on to everything else parents are putting their kids through these days.

But here’s the biggest problem to “disrupting” things like education. Remember earlier when I talked about systemic, people-related problems make trying to completely change some things difficult to futile? Why else do you think education hasn’t fundamentally changed in generations? There’s a huge resistance to doing something drastically different, largely from the politicians and administrators who have a lot riding on the system remaining as-is. Before you can disrupt education, you have to disrupt a system. That requires social and political changes, not technological ones. No algorithm is going to fix that.

Sometimes, what needs to be disrupted isn’t an item or a service, but rather people and systems. And to disrupt that doesn’t take code, a solid web service, robust API, or quality app. What that takes is advocacy, public outcry and outrage, and actually getting out and dealing with people directly. The Internet didn’t overthrow dictators in the Middle East, rabidly angry crowds of people in public screaming for change and reform in the government’s face did. The Internet was just a useful tool for announcing where the angry mob should form (providing a central place for a lot of people to talk is something software can do).

Legislatures and heads of state don’t care about Internet advocacy because the Internet doesn’t vote, doesn’t contribute to campaigns, and isn’t at meetings or in front of their offices demanding change. What’s going to disrupt systems are the people protesting outside political offices, calling their representative’s offices, showing up at town hall meetings and calling bull****, and actually showing up to vote. Retweets, likes, re-pins, +1’s are all good for getting the word out that things aren’t right, but they’re not going to change anything. If we’re not willing to directly contact our representatives and threaten their jobs, we shouldn’t be surprised when nothing really changes. We also shouldn’t be surprised when the latest cool new software can’t accomplish much either.

 Posted by at 12:13 AM