From Doorbells to AI

I live in Santa Rosa, CA. Recently, almost 3000 homes and hundreds of businesses were lost in the Sonoma County fires. My own neighborhood was evacuated because there was no end in sight. In the initial evacuations, more than 100,000 people were displaced and now many thousands are homeless. The devastation is huge and will take years to repair.

Naturally, the reactions have ranged to every extreme. Sorrow and conspiracies both fill my Facebook feed. I’m not sure what it says about my search history that I’m seeing conspiracy theories now, but there you go...

As technologists, we have a toolkit unlike anything in all of human history. We can build anything.

One thing is clear, however: We live in the future.

Technology is being used by novices and experts alike to respond to this crisis in ways that, just a few years ago, were impossible. Twitter gave me more current and accurate information than CalFire or the news. YouCaring, GoFundMe, and PayPal are being leveraged to move millions of dollars into the pockets of the newly-homeless and assist them in rebuilding their lives. Insurance companies can respond immediately, without delay, to begin assessing damage and reimbursing home owners. Streamlined manufacturing processes have made it possible for people to buy “Sonoma Strong" shirts whose revenue gets donated directly to non-profit organizations. People have used online bill-pay to contribute to churches, the Red Cross, and other relief funds. And in less than 5 days, Undocufund.org was built to funnel funds to undocumented migrants who are ineligible for FEMA and other recovery funds.

It wasn't always this way.

As technologists, we have a toolkit unlike anything in all of human history. We can build anything. New products can be built faster than I would have been able to pick up a table and organize a fundraiser at the downtown square.

Content Management Systems, Design Tools, Workflow Management, Electronic Funds Transfers, Database platforms, high-resolution displays, cloud hosting, high speed internet connections, smart phones…These things have freed us to think, care, and worry about more important things. They’ve given us products that we don’t have to think about. We can walk around knowing that when disaster strikes, we can reach out to our loved ones and we can help those less fortunate than us, the moment that we think about it.

18 years ago, when I began my career in Tech, the focus of technology wasn’t solving real-world issues. I’m sure there were visionaries out there who talked about technology in those terms, but in general, most of us were using technology for games, spreadsheets, and eBay. Over time, smart people started making software and hardware that addressed real-life pain points. So much that even last week, when it seemed that armageddon came to my town, technology was used to route fire trucks to the scenes efficiently. Mobile phones were used to ensure people were able to leave, and people notified their loved ones by checking in as “Safe” on Facebook. Now, we’re using the same technology to help people rebuild.

I want to thank the many who came before us — even whoever invented the doorbell that my own neighbor used to wake me up and tell me to get my family out of there — for giving us the technological building blocks to solve real problems in the real world. You brought us into the future.

We who are about to build, salute you.