I have spent the last several months thinking about the role of computer scientists, technologists, developers and tech entrepreneurs in these modern times.
I have often lamented the short term focus of those of us who create products and services based on bits and bytes. The last decade has, in many respects, been depressing to me. The internet did a great thing in that it made all kinds of services accessible to more people. But it also redefined what "technology" means. Today, a web page is considered tech. And so, Alltop, or Digg or Blahgirls, are considered technology. This kind of stuff, which may have merit, muddies the waters, when it is stirred in the same pot with tools that require serious technical depth to create. The other thing that has happened is that an enormous amount of our focus and mindshare has moved to quasi-entertainment focused tools such as Twitter.
As I see it we need to refocus. While there is nothing wrong with Twitter, we as a community need to get serious. The reason our economy is failing is because we have had what I would call a fake GDP. We have been booking growth where there really wasn't any, or wasn't enough. Real growth, or real wealth as a society is, at the end of the day, measured by the number of people we are feeding and the quality of food we are feeding them. It is measured by our ability to house our population. It is measured by the quality of life that we can offer, not to the wealthiest among us, but to the most regular among us.
And by these measures, we have not been doing particularly well. GDP growth has been an illusion.
And so as information technologists, what can we do about it? Well obviously we don't make food. But we may create a tool that helps farmers increase yield, or perhaps distribute more effectively. We can't build a new power grid, but perhaps we can develop a new modeling tool that helps develop insights into the most efficient way to organize such a grid. We will not, for the most part, be teachers, but perhaps we can develop software that helps increase the efficiency of learning.
The point is that we don't tend to solve the most important problems directly. But we can make it easier for those that are solving the problems to do so. We create tools that increase efficiency, and that indeed may make new more effective approaches possible.
And given that this is what we can do, this is what we must do. We must all be focused on how we can improve the efficiency and the effectiveness of our front line. For those of you that care deeply about your role in this world, and that have the skills and the capacity to do so, solving the important problems is where your focus should be.