Why apps will never save the world

3 Oct|Andrew Smart

Shooting apps at disasters is a futile act of desperation

Silicon Valley’s new “rescue apps” are at best futile and at worst just another way to profit from disaster, says Andrew Smart

In the literal wakes of three of the most powerful storms to strike the United States in history, the newest fad to engulf the tech industry is rescue apps. Yes, the answer to monster storms and destruction fuelled and amplified by human – read capitalist -induced global warming is: apps.

The internet was amused by the story about a person who proposed going out into the street and firing guns at the approaching hurricane Irma. The patent absurdity of this recalls the mortally wounded Tom Hanks shooting his pistol at an approaching German tank in Saving Private Ryan: Hank’s character is dying, knows all hope is lost for him, and so fires his pistol at the tank in futile last act of desperation. Naturally Hanks is unaware of the approaching US reinforcements behind him who bomb the tank right at the same time – and we get a dramatic Spielberg moment when the tank suddenly explodes seemingly in response to Hank’s pistol.

Unfortunately for us now as we face the spectre of a climate rapidly spiralling out of the stable equilibrium that has allowed human civilisation to develop in the first place, there is no reinforcement army behind us. Like shooting a pistol at a panzer or a goddamn hurricane; shooting apps at disasters is a futile act of desperation. The dire predictions of the climate scientists are continually being revised to be even more dire. Using phrases like “catastrophic warming” is apparently not enough for human society to quit its oil habit. It is unclear how many more psychotic storms are necessary before the United States acts.

Of course, the sincerely well-meaning millennial techies thinking that apps are a solution to the catastrophic impacts of global warming cannot be blamed for their myopia. And if these apps manage to have real practical benefit in disasters then we should applaud them. But there is something insidious underneath the evergreen-but-misguided optimism in the tech industry. Behind each of these apps that are ostensibly created out of a genuine desire to help and save people is an investor who has no other genuine desire than to make money.

Rescue apps are almost like a white flag of surrender to global warming and a tacit acknowledgement that we’re fucked. But what’s really driving this fad is again the very capitalist logic that got us into this mess. Why would disaster apps be a viable idea in the first place? Because we’re going to be having more and bigger catastrophic weather events: i.e., there’s a future market in disasters. There is no other reason anyone would be interested in creating rescue apps. This is also exactly how pharmaceutical companies view the increasing prevalence of life-style related diabetes: as a huge market for their medicine. Pharmaceutical companies have no more incentive to help prevent diabetes than drug dealers have to help prevent the conditions that lead to addiction. Of course, the treatments for diabetes should be made and be (cheaply) made available to people suffering from this disease– but it would be far cheaper and better to prevent diabetes in the first place. But that would require a complete transformation of our industrially produced food and sedentary lifestyles.

Thousands of work hours will be devoted to programming and marketing rescue apps, hours that could instead be devoted to driving the political change that will be necessary if human civilization has any hope . These two things could go on in parallel – but they don’t. The tech industry will pat itself on the back and proclaim to the flooded and burning world that it is the only force for good capable of saving us all with the same thing it thinks can fix any imaginable problem: an app. Traffic-clogged cities with crumbling public transportation and infrastructure? We get Uber. An explosion of diabetes and obesity? We get Apple HealthKit. Now, as we get storms the size of Ohio with more energy than atomic bombs we get rescue apps.

The problem is not the tech industry doing the only thing it knows how to do, the problem is confusing computer programming with doing anything more than slapping a flimsy Band-Aid on severe structural and ecological crises that require massive social, political and cultural movements to truly fix. Uber is making San Francisco’s transportation problems worse, not to mention all of Uber’s problems with sexual harassment. Apple HealthKit does not on average appear to make people eat better or exercise. Just like rescue apps will not do anything about global warming.

But maybe we can only at this point accept we are headed for a future of extreme climate events and program apps that will help find flood victims.