How to Solve World-Changing Problems

Wed, Aug 15, 2012 - 11:10pm -- Isaac Sukin

The other day I read an article about global warming, and something about it keeps bugging me.1 My initial reaction was that someone would figure it all out; someone always does. But "someone" doesn't seem to be getting very far this time, and this is a big, important, world-changing problem. So, I thought, why is that "someone" not me?

At this point, most people would have a lot of excuses. There are, of course, many reasons why not me: I am not an energy scientist, most of what I know about global warming comes from magazine articles, I don't have a couple hundred million dollars in capital, and I generally have lots of other things to work on. You know, like making smiley face sliders and reading Twitter and stuff. Of course there are lots of other smart people who are energy scientists, who know a lot more about global warming than I do, who have quite a bit more research funding, who spend all day working on these problems... and who still haven't come up with viable solutions. Sure, I have a lot of practice at learning and implementing new things quickly. I learned enough about 3D graphics to build a first person shooting game in the browser in a single day -- but then, I'm no stranger to building video games. How could I be so naive as to think I could take on such a huge problem so unrelated to my previous experiences?

Well, first of all, I'm not so naive. I recognize that I am probably not going to go teach myself material science, electrical engineering, and maybe some physics, and then go off and sit in a lab for 10 years, and at the end walk out with a globally commercialized magic-pollution-remover that offsets 75 gigatons of carbon per year. So if I am going to be able to make an impact on this problem, the technology has to already exist. Maybe what I would need to be doing is combining existing technologies into a cheaper, safer, and cleaner energy alternative or carbon offset. That still sounds pretty intimidating. First of all I have no idea if technologies to meet these needs are anywhere near ready. Also, this isn't software; even if the technologies are ready, they're probably not exactly open-source.

Being a programmer, I'm intimately familiar with certain world-changing technologies. Every day I work on my laptop, a device which has completely transformed how the majority of humans live their daily lives in the past 30 years. I build a lot of web-based communication technologies; my own software impacts slightly fewer people (heh) but certainly communication platforms have changed billions of lives. I'm no stranger to github, where hobbyists collaborate on making the next generation of all different kinds of software. All of these things share the common trait that they are easily accessible to hobbyists, who have taken advantage of that access to build many other world-changing technologies. Maybe, then, the greater problem of sustainable energy really comes down to one question:

How can I help make complex, world-changing technologies easily accessible to hobbyists?

I don't know the full answer to that yet, but it turns out that learning something new and difficult is usually not as difficult as it sounds if you're willing to just try it (and read a lot of documentation). That's how I built Nemesis and ViralSpread and -- actually, that's how I accomplished most of the things I'm proud of. When I arrived at First Round Capital at the beginning of this summer I had no idea how to do some of the things I ended up doing there (hi Brett!) so I taught myself what I needed to know and kept on working. But somebody had to build the abstractions first, to get things to a level where a non-specialist could pick it up. That's what Heroku and Stripe and Github and many other "platform" startups are doing: making it so damn simple to do awesome, groundbreaking projects that you can't help but just try it. Startups like these sometimes get dismissed as toys because their deepest value only comes once other people start innovating on top of them. But we need these platforms in other spaces before hobbyists can start revolutionizing them as well.

I don't know if I will end up making a dent in the world's environmental problem. (Aside: at school when I was 8 I had to write down what I wanted to be when I grew up. Everyone else wanted to be a fireman or a policeman, and I wanted to be different so I wrote down "I want to clean up the world." When I brought it home to my mother she exclaimed, "you want to be a garbage man?") But I do know that more than anything I have always enjoyed building platforms. There's something satisfying about building foundations. And in our hyper-specialized world, we need foundations more than ever just to make sense of it all.

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1 Specifically, what's bugging me is the fact that we're currently planning to burn 5 times more fossil fuel in the next 40 years than we can burn without raising the temperature of the earth by more than 2°C and thereby unleashing environmental catastrophe. I decided that reducing the amount of carbon humans burn by more than 80% is infeasible through legal/political means, given the amount of money involved, and that therefore the most likely solution is to invent and mass-produce technology that either replaces or mitigates the effect of burning carbon-based fuels. (back)