My latest for Wired:
Levels is on a quest to launch 12 “startups” in just 12 months, and he’s a third of the way home now. One, called Play My Inbox, gathers all the music it finds in your e-mail inbox into a single playlist. Another, called Go Fucking Do It, gives you a new way to set personal goals. Basically, if you don’t reach your goal, you have to cough up some cash to Levels. Gifbook, due to launch by the end of the month, is his fifth creation.
Launching one product a month would be a major endeavor for anyone, but Levels has ramped up the degree of difficulty. For one, he’s building all this stuff while traveling the world. He has no fixed address. Instead, he lives out of a single backpack and works from coffee shops and co-working spaces. And two, each of these “startups” is a one-man operation. “I do everything,” he tells WIRED from his current home, The Philippines. “I’m sort of a control freak.”
Depending on who you ask, Levels represents either everything that’s right about the state of the technology industry or everything that’s wrong. He’s self-motivated, ambitious, and resourceful, building each of these projects without any outside investment. But on the flip side, he’s yet another young white male making products that solve what many people see as trivial problems for an already privileged subset of the population, while ignoring larger issues like global warming and wealth disparity.
Worse, as a “digital nomad” who has left to West to create new tech gizmos in places like Thailand and Indonesia, some argue that he’s exploiting wealth disparity to his own benefit. But Levels no fool. He’s deeply aware of the contradictions in his work, and he’s trying hard to sort through them. He may or may not succeed.
What I intended — and I’m not sure I succeeded — was to do a meditation/case study on the state of the tech startup ecosystem. We had to cut a lot of material from this article, and there was more that didn’t make it in, but one of the things on my minds was David Graeber’s “bullshit jobs” idea. From an interview in Salon:
Suddenly it became possible to see that if there’s a rule, it’s that the more obviously your work benefits others, the less you’re paid for it. CEOs and financial consultants that are actually making other people’s lives worse were paid millions, useless paper-pushers got handsomely compensated, people fulfilling obviously useful functions like taking care of the sick or teaching children or repairing broken heating systems or picking vegetables were the least rewarded.
But another curious thing that happened after the crash is that people came to see these arrangements as basically justified. You started hearing people say, “well, of course I deserve to be paid more, because I do miserable and alienating work” – by which they meant not that they were forced to go into the sewers or package fish, but exactly the opposite—that they didn’t get to do work that had some obvious social benefit. I’m not sure exactly how it happened. But it’s becoming something of a trend. I saw a very interesting blog by someone named Geoff Shullenberger recently that pointed out that in many companies, there’s now an assumption that if there’s work that anyone might want to do for any reason other than the money, any work that is seen as having intrinsic merit in itself, they assume they shouldn’t have to pay for it. He gave the example of translation work. But it extends to the logic of internships and the like so thoroughly exposed by authors like Sarah Kendzior and Astra Taylor. At the same time, these companies are willing to shell out huge amounts of money to paper-pushers coming up with strategic vision statements who they know perfectly well are doing absolutely nothing.
So as much as we bash on techbros* wasting time building silly apps, there’s a bit more going on here. It’s hard to find a job today, especially if you’re young, and especially one that is “meaningful.” Tech just happens to be one of the few booming industries at the moment, and one of the only ones paying living wage**. So while many people might rather be curing malaria or fighting poverty or fixing global warming, instead they’re building apps for Silicon Valley startups. And what’s their real alternative? Work for a big company like IBM, or go work for the NSA? They’re probably better off working for Yo or Rap Genius or whatever.
“Get rich writing apps” may be the new “make money from home selling Tupperware,” but it’s the best many people can hope for today, and blaming young programmers, as opposed to the politicians and capitalists who got us into this mess.
*Note that I’m not calling Pieter Levels a techbro here.
**Which is part of why it’s important to change tech culture to make it more inclusive, which is another topic entirely. (One covered very well at Model View Culture).