Sometimes it's not a technical problem

January 25, 2019 (1099 words) :: Some problems arise due to the larger socioeconomic system, and introducing technical innovations won't help unless they actually change that system.
Tags: startups, inequality

This post is day 25 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

Today’s post will be a short one, partly because I’ve switched to using the Dvorak keyboard layout in the hopes of alleviating my wrist pain (hard to tell what’s more painful, my wrist or my Dvorak skills) and partly due to a bevy of personal issues (on which I’d prefer not to say anything more than I already have).

Well, one contributing factor is that I started the day with a creeping desire to play RuneScape again, so I went though the process of downloading the client and even logged into my account - only to discover, at the last hurdle, that my account had been banned. In 2017. (In 2015, I briefly ran a Python script to simulate some particularly monotonous click-patterns needed for skilling, and thought I could get away with it. Mea culpa, I guess.)

No way was I about to start a whole new character and grind all over again - it would have taken hundreds, maybe thousands of hours to get back to the same levels. So I took that as a divine lesson: some doors do not need to be re-opened, no matter how nostalgic. I have way too much reading and writing and dev work to do, anyway. But then I wasn’t quite in the mood to do anything productive, so I spent most of the day studiously ignoring the piles of books on my desk that need reading and/or processing for Bookmarker while also being angry at myself for being so useless. I ate a stupendous amount of ice cream, and had a fairly one-sided conversation with a cat that unfortunately did not yield any useful insights. (If you’re expecting an email response or an article draft or edits from me, I’m sorry - things have been kind of rocky lately, but I’ll get back to you eventually, and follow-ups are appreciated.)

So much for the peek into my glamourous life; onto the topic of today’s post.

I recently came across an ad for a 3-D printed home service, ICON, which bills itself as the “future of human shelter”, in typically grandiose startup fashion. (You can’t just sell “a new option in the field of human shelter, which will probably either flounder or co-exist with existing options for quite some time”; no, it has to be the future. VCs like to think they are investing in the future, after all, and if your startup isn’t going to completely dominate your desired market, what’s even the point?)

The ad, in issue 20 of (fairly uncritical) technology magazine Offscreen, says:

What if you could download and print a home in just twenty-four hours for half the cost? Through proprietary 3D printing technologies and new materials, ICON hopes to provide sustainable solutions to a number of our world’s most pressing issues, including the global pandemic of homelessness; the increasingly unaffordable cost of home ownership; and fundamental issues of sustainability, resilience, and performance of conventional construction methods.

Let’s unpack this a bit. On the one hand, more sustainable homebuilding is a great and important problem to work on, so props to these guys for that. On the other hand, the framing of homelessness as a pandemic is very disingenuous. It makes it seem like people have mysteriously fallen ill to some sort of contagious disease, whose spread is out of control.

As if it’s a fact of nature. But it’s not - it’s a well-understood phenomenon arising from our particular mode of production, in which housing is seen as a commodity as opposed to a public service to which everyone should be entitled. It’s a social phenomenon, not a natural one. And the fact that home ownership is “increasingly unaffordable”? Yep, same cause. When luxury housing in cities like London/NYC is treated primarily as a stable financial asset class for the ultra-rich, of course that’s going to affect the availability of housing for those further down the economic ladder. Jesus, someone just bought the world’s most expensive “home” for $238 million (at that cost, I don’t think you can even rightly call it a home).

All this to say that if your primary goal is to improve access to housing, then trying to 3-D print new homes using “proprietary” technology probably isn’t the most effective way to do that. Not unless you’re simultaneously working on how to decommodify housing (remember, there are way more empty houses than there are homeless people in the US). Similarly, if your goal is more “sustainable” houses, you have to come up with a strategy for introducing them in a way that doesn’t perpetuate the status quo of commodified housing as a means for landlords to extract rent. Because that system is not sustainable on a macro level, either economically or ecologically.

Working on the technical details of how to build more sustainable housing is probably a worthwhile endeavour for the right people. But it’s only addressing a tiny part of the problem. So many of the problems we’re facing today are manmade, the consequences of a horrific socioeconomic system that still shows no signs of abating. Surely the priority should be to change that system, with technical fixes for more sustainable living post-transformation a slightly lesser priority. And yet so many resources are being poured into technical solutions to social problems - to try and palliate within the constraints of the system without considering whether the system itself is the main generator of the problems we’re seeing.

3-D printed houses are cool and all, but maybe they can wait until after the revolution, is all I’m saying.

This isn’t necessarily to cast blame on the individual founders for pursuing this idea as a startup - maybe it was the only option for them in the circumstances - but more a critique of the larger system that gave rise to our current overabundance of market-based solutions to social problems, when the problems are themselves caused by excess marketisation. Market-based, “innovative” solutions will only get you so far; at some point, you have to consider whether the market itself is the problem.

If you made it this far, thanks for reading, and feel free to send me any thoughts you may have on this blog post or any others. I really do appreciate when people take the time to tell me that they’ve liked my writing, even if I sometimes find it hard to believe. If, conversely, you find yourself strongly disliking something I wrote, feel free to tell me that too, though maybe do it gently, if you don’t mind.

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