Changing lives with lines of code

by wynlim

There was one day I was feeling particularly inspired and grateful for the work I do, so I tweeted out:

Isn’t working in tech potentially so powerful? You have an opportunity to change someone else’s life with lines of code.

Wnat resulted was a somewhat intense debate on twitter with a friend, who argued that there are other professions that can change people’s lives too (I was not discounting other professions with my original tweet); that it was my sort of thinking that led to initiatives like the OLPC, that “code has no influence on the majority of the world”.

I really wanted him to see my point of view – that I am not saying that we should distribute PCs to poor children with no access to electricity or water, nor am I asking people in poor remote villages to learn Microsoft Excel – but I truly believe that we can be more imaginative with how we choose to use software to make lives better, even for people with no access to electricity. 

Perhaps I err on the side of being naive here, but there is no point lamenting about our first world snobbishness – that we do not understand the real problems poor people without electricity face. 

If that is truly the case, then to me, all the more we should bring awareness to these issues. Let’s admit that most people would not care, but there will be a rare few who would. And what would help bring awareness to these issues? Unfortunately or fortunately, the internet is really helpful in this area. Powered by lines of code. 

I know of people doing quick fund raising for the third world just simply through emailing their personal network alone. To me, the existence of email is so powerful, just the speed of dissemination is like magic. Imagine having to ask for help through traditional means. And this is all possible because some geeks decided to sit down and write some code.

So poor people cannot use the internet but perhaps we could use the internet to help them ease some of the problems. Or at least use the internet to debate on what is the most effective method to try and solve these issues. At the very least, can we use the internet to mobilize possible volunteers or resources?

I am not saying absolutely that it will help but just the mere possibility equates to hope.

Just look at initiatives like Kiva – I wonder how many people’s lives have been impacted by Kiva. Or the many online fund raising platforms. Yes, we know that some initiatives have questionable agendas, but I think it is really important to count each and every blessing rather than look at the ugly. 

It is all about hope, and continuous improvement. Baby steps are better than none.

It used to be that you will need a powerful publisher to get your software out to the masses. Or that computers were only toys for the rich. My own parents couldn’t really afford to buy me a computer until I was 15. But my life was changed when I first got my computer. I cannot imagine my life without a computer. I would have been sweeping the road by now. And I can proudly say, because I am not sweeping the road, I may in a better position to care about the less advantaged.

Change one person’s life and the very same person could change millions’. I wonder what would Bill Gates be doing without software. For all the causes he is involved in now, it is only made possible by lines of code which gave him his wealth. 

Conventional success used to be skewed to the elite’s favour. But today, if you hustle hard enough, with talent, hardwork and with the current software ecosystem, the odds of success are much higher than what it was ten, twenty years ago. I know plenty of people who used to come from disadvantaged backgrounds but because they were talented with computers, their lives dramatically changed. It is an ecosystem with a low barrier of entry. You do not need to be able to afford a college education to have a good shot at improving the quality of your life. Someone with a computer and minimal resources (compared to many other industries) can release an app.

I have no grand delusions that code can change *everyone’s* life. But to me, even if it is like 1% of the world’s population has had their lives enchanced through software, it is still a step forward. That is like 60+ million people. 

And don’t get me wrong, by software I am not only talking about Internet companies. Software powers planes, postal systems, logistics, tax systems, medicine, research and analysis, construction, I can go on and on. Remember those days when we had to handle our accounting and taxes through pen and paper? Remember how it used to be with no online banking? Or *gasp*, remember how we needed to buy stamps?

So I cannot agree that code has no influence on the majority of the world. Even if it is not the case now, it will eventually be. We have the power to change people’s lives with lines of code. Even if the influence is just on people around you or just your industry, I think that is enough.

(I used to use this time-tracking webapp letsfreckle, which was so well thoughtout in its interactions that it made time tracking delightful and it saved off precious seconds off my workflow, not to mention lessen the frustration I have with my paperwork. That to me, is meaningful.

There is also this guy who was a javascript evangelist in his local area, he was so passionate about javascript that he regularly held meetups out of his own effort and will. I remember him telling us that it was very much worth it, because there have been cases whereby he introduced something like node.js to his meetup group, and that changed the careers of a few people. That to me, is powerful.)

Overhyped? I don’t think so. Even though plenty of companies out there are just out to gain a quick profit through any means possible, there are always some that are geniunely trying to better the human race.

Sometimes I don’t think we fully understand the potential we have. Or the impact we could possibly have. That’s why it seems like we are overhyping the software industry. That is because of what we choose to do with those lines of code. We can choose to write code that will be meaningful, or we can choose to create software that prey on the psychological deficiencies of the masses. 

It is not code that is not powerful – but our choices that render us less hope than we could possibly have.