Everywhere now, there are services that deliver laundry or a Starbucks latte. There are businesses that ship subscription boxes of beauty products, chocolates and tampons to ladies on their period or monthly razors to stubble-faced men. There are useless “smart” inventions like bluetooth salt shakers, sophisticated floss dispensers and electronic condoms.
Among the waves of innovation emerging from Silicon Valley, there are the billionaires behind Facebook, Uber and Nest — our highest test-scorers and highly-motivated valedictorians — taking knowledge acquired at the country’s finest educational institutions and applying it to increasingly minor inconveniences. The unfortunate consequence is an American economy with a massive waste of human capital as the brightest minds of our generation focus their time, talent and creativity on fixing problems that don’t really exist.
The underlying dilemma is that there’s no money in saving the world. Apps that could revolutionize elderly care, ease the burden of poor single parents, or fight global scourges like homelessness, hunger and disease, simply don’t offer the proper financial incentives. Even if these altruistic ideas could create a tempting paycheck, they’d never attract the media buzz or venture capitalist investments necessary to survive.
Instead, the innovations destined for success are those that pander to professionals who value their time more than their disposable income. The ideal consumers have become educated young adults living in major metropolitan areas, looking for apps to help them find a parking space or have groceries delivered to their doorstep.
Yet there should be no fault found in giving consumers what they want. If the mass of subscription companies, social network sites or Candy Crush gaming apps are providing a valuable service, how can we criticize the brains behind these little luxuries for not committing their skills to cure cancer?
Simply put, we can’t. The implication that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are knowingly creating useless tech only to become billionaires would be vehemently contended. Many engineers, developers and venture capitalists emphatically insist that they’re trying to make the world a better place. As reported by Fortune, one of Airbnb’s executives recently announced he would love to see the company win the Nobel Peace Prize.
At last count, there are four simultaneous laundry delivery start-ups in Silicon Valley, and they can’t all be under the auspices of advancing global prosperity. Still, for each business model designed to complete the chores our mothers are no longer doing for us, there is another company creating objectively valuable resources.
Among the 100 start-ups featured at this year’s "Demo Days," a meeting among start-up founders, investors and the press, were Volt Health (electrical stimulation medical devices), Delee (blood tests for tumor cells) and Kangpe (health insurance for Africa). Those companies just happen to be competing for capital with Origin (a Keurig for smoothies), Tress (a social network for black women’s hairstyles) and Cowlar (a Fitbit for cows).
Tech boom innovations have undeniably transformed the way we communicate, learn, work and travel, but those novelties that once enriched the world are increasingly giving way to wasteful endeavors to solve first-world problems. In an ideal world, we could applaud the entrepreneurial spirit of our generation and encourage our makers and dreamers to follow their heart — but when our nation’s smartest people are exhausting their efforts on the dumbest ventures, we all lose out.
For the sake of our society, economy and all mankind, it’s about time America’s big minds stopped chasing small ideas.