Endless desert. Crumbling cinderblock buildings, some abandoned, some still clinging to life. Wild dogs roaming the streets. Discarded tires, soda bottles, and newspapers covering the red sands as far as the eye can see. A few miles away, across an imaginary line, an entirely different world - one lit by neon signs, where men and women sleep peacefully in hotels and apartments and spacious houses, unaware or perhaps just unwilling to see the plight of those on the other side of the line.
This is the city of Juarez, Mexico and however I try to describe it, I fall flat. That’s because you and I and everyone else are constrained by something called the locality of empathy. We are incapable of really feeling the pain of those far away from us. Perhaps it’s a defense mechanism, because how could anyone function if they really could wrap their head around all the suffering in the world? We watch the news; we read statistics about the number of people living in extreme poverty or dying of preventable causes, but they are little more than statistics to us - how could we go on otherwise, if every death had the same effect on us as the death of a close friend or a family member? It’s not that we don’t care about people in Mexico or India or subsaharan Africa - it’s that to a large extent, we can’t care about them. A few weeks ago at CCF we tried to bring some of these issues closer by going just one day without shoes, electricity, food, shelter, or water. It’s a great initiative, and it really did raise my awareness of these issues, but it pales in comparison to seeing them in person.
This week I met a man and woman who lived in a shack built out of garbage - pallets and cardboard boxes nailed together, only slightly better conditions than the pigs they tend. For most of the past three days I’ve been in a sort of a trance of manual labor, working with a team to build them a real house. It wasn’t until the work was done and the pastor came to dedicate the house that I really began to process what I’d seen. The pastor thanked us for looking past the well-earned violent reputation of Juarez and seeing the need, and with those words it hit me, at least partially, how great that need was.
We gave one family a house, but I wished we could give them so much more. Matias and Rebeca now have a shelter from the heat, cold, wind, and sand of the Chihuahua desert, but it’s hardly more than an insulated box, a bit bigger than a single-wide trailer. We put in electrical wiring, but there’s nothing to hook it up to - this place makes the middle of nowhere look like a thriving metropolis. They still have no transportation into the city except to walk hours to the nearest bus station. They lack even an outhouse - instead there’s an open trench near the back of the property. And it’s not just them - there are four other families in that compound, and countless more in the rest of the city, the country, the world.
It feels wrong to follow this up with a $30 steak dinner back in El Paso. $30 won’t get Matias and Rebeca electricity or plumbing or a car, but I can’t help but marvel at the level of disparity it indicates that I can throw that money away while billions struggle just to survive each day. And faced with this reality, what I do to earn this money sounds pretty stupid. I make software, for the most part, that solves annoyances people have with other software. Is this really worth that much to society?
And yet I don’t think technology is useless even to those in extreme poverty. Groups like One Laptop Per Child and the Raspberry Pi Foundation are making computers more affordable and getting them into schools in developing countries. Even mainstream technology can have a global impact. Matias had a cell phone and used it to take a picture with our team. Feature phones apparently hit a sweet spot of price versus utility. Communication is their killer app, but you get a camera, an alarm clock, and a number of other things essentially for free - and critically, the battery lasts long enough to make it usable by someone without electricity at home. What’s the next technology that will hit this sweet spot and see massive global adoption? What can I work on that will solve real problems and not just first world problems?
You won’t find an answer here. This blog, for me, is as much about asking questions for which I have no answer as telling you things I already know. It depends a lot on how far into the future you’re willing to look. AI and robotics seems like the ultimate first world problem, but in 100 years self-driving cars could make transportation more affordable and more convenient, eliminating the inefficiency of owning a car that sits in a driveway or parking lot 90% of the day. The point, I guess, is that people like me should be thinking about how to use our skills to benefit humanity. We need to think bigger than the next “social network for dogs” type web app. And maybe we need to think smaller as well. Spending my spring break in Juarez, I didn’t use any of my unique skills, but it was something. Something that made a difference for one family. I don’t think that’s enough, but maybe it’s enough for now.