Is there an app for that, though?

One of the consequences of living in California, and spending a great deal of time in the Bay Area, is that I am saturated in startup culture, and the phrase ‘is there an app for that?’ isn’t entirely sarcastic. It’s not just that I know a number of people who work at startups (as well as larger and established tech companies). Almost every dinner table conversation includes a mention of an app; and when people aren’t talking about apps that already exist they’re coming up with ideas for new ones, some of which grow increasingly esoteric, oddly specific, and bizarre. And I, too, rely heavily on applications, ranging from readily accessible train schedules with information on delays to takeout ordering apps so I don’t actually have to talk to human beings.

There’s an app for everything, they like to say, and in a way, it seems paired with the infamous adage that if it exists, the internet has porn of it. The sheer climate of phone tools is absolutely staggering, with more startups popping up every day, getting vast rounds of VC funding, and developing products that acquire huge market share. As smartphones and phablets become the crux around which so many lives revolve, it’s not surprising to see an immersive and often isolationist culture arising among their users, and apps really facilitate this.

But I often return to the question of whether there really is an app for everything. I’m not condemning the culture as entirely superficial or alienating — for example, some groups have built apps for helping people communicate when telecommunications networks are shut down, as in the case of protests in nations like Iran. Others have created applications that allow people to exchange food to ensure it doesn’t go bad, though these are more popular in Europe; I’d love to be able to say ‘I’m going out of town, anyone want a loaf of bread and two avocados?’ Some of these tools are incredibly powerful and they offer the possibility of immense social good, including a focus on the collective good, which makes them precisely my jam.

There is, however, a persistent belief that everything can be ultimately solved through the application of technology, and I am not convinced by this argument. This presupposes that technology is readily available, accessible, and capable of resolving all physical needs. Examining the homeless community, for example — and it’s worth noting that large homeless encampments are a frequent sight in SOMA, tech central in San Francisco — it’s easy to see that apps won’t resolve the social issues that contribute to homelessness, let alone address the immediate needs of the community.

How will an app change social attitudes about homelessness and iterate the fact that people aren’t homeless because of a personal failing, but because of social faults? How will an app educate people about the fact that homelessness is often tied with mental illness, but also with being given a very poor start in life backed by few opportunities? How will an app force the discussion on affordable housing and the fact that even people with jobs and good salaries have difficulty finding housing — and some of them turn to shelters as their only realistic option, which is absurd. How are these issues resolved by an app?

How does an app force policymakers to adjust their position on the homeless community, or push law enforcement to reassess policies of harassing homeless people? Applications also won’t promote better funding for social services and outreach to address mental health conditions in the homeless community, to target abuse, to provide shelters and create a safe environment for homeless people of all backgrounds and with all needs. While an application with resources on shelter locations, food banks, and other services might help individual homeless people get help — which is important — it won’t address the larger issue of why people are homeless, how society contributes to the persistence of homelessness, and of course the fact that not everyone owns a smartphone or has access to one. Nor does it address the common social attitude that people with smartphones and other tech can’t possibly be homeless, or are wasting the funds they receive, because look, they can afford iPhones.

There isn’t an app for social issues. There are some indirect tools that in some cases can be helpful, but they don’t cut to the core of the problem, and they can’t. Action on these issues requires a different kind of activity, one that includes more active engagement with society and the issues themselves. The individual action of owning a phone and downloading something, no matter how specific and do-gooder it may be, isn’t enough, and it won’t help in a meaningful way, no matter what pitch developers use when approaching VCs to ask for funding.

The pervasive and insistent app culture in California may be the subject of mockery in some regions of the US, but it uncovers deeper social problems. Californians and tech-focused people across the nation are focused on the belief that technology is the key to unlocking the problems of the world and setting people free, but it’s not. It’s a tool. It’s a very valuable one, and one that can contribute in concrete way to solutions — as for example with simple water purification and well maintenance technologies developed and used in the Global South — but it’s not the only solution, and sometimes it’s not the right one.

There’s no app for being homeless, for being disabled, for being shot by police. And yet, these are all social issues that need to be addressed, urgently.

Image: Phone, Matthias Ripp, Flickr