Dan Avery: Why I’m Coding for America

I’m definitely not going to claim that I qualify as an old-school technologist–in the first place, I don’t, and in the second place, there’s always someone who will out-old-school you if you even think about saying that (“Erm. I wrote the first ENIAC emulator for System/360, buddy. So.“).

What I will say is that my first email was over BITNET. My first job out of college involved setting up an internet server that didn’t serve web pages, but Gopher menus. And I have vivid memories of the headiness of that time: the internet was going to make people smarter, more connected, more empathetic; it was going to change the world.

And “change the world” it certainly did. (Whether any of those other things happened is most certainly open for debate.) In the Bay Area today, you still hear lots of people in the tech industry talk about building apps and platforms that will “change the world.”

The problem is they’re not very specific about what that means.

You can change the world by providing the opportunity for millions of people to click on virtual farmland every day (and as Ian Bogost found out, cow-clicking seems to be something people really, really want to do).

You can change the world by getting millions of people to take sepia-toned pictures of their dinner and distribute them in real time to thousands of people every night.

You can change the world by helping individuals to create their own personal filters so that they never see, hear, or read opinions they don’t already have.

Not all of those things are entirely bad or wrong, of course. Not every website or mobile application needs to try to fix the world on its own. But do they help make social and political systems work better? Do they help people bring together their real-world communities? Do they help us become the best citizens we can be? And are there places that actually work on those sorts of things?

Last January, I went to a Code for America open house. I had been to several other tech- and startup-related events in the months before, where it seemed that many people were trying to change the world, but weren’t concerned about whether they made it better or worse, more or less interesting, more or less thoughtful. But at the CfA event, I met people who still wanted to change the world in concrete, thoughtful ways. I decided to apply for a 2013 Fellowship so I could join them.

I’m coding for America because I want to work with those kind of people, who still share that sense of the potential for technology to have a significant and positive impact on the real world. I’m coding for America because like those people, and after all this time, I still think that the judicious and thoughtful application of technology can help make a world that just works better.

You can code for America too. We’re accepting applications for the 2014 Fellowship now through July 31. Apply here: http://codeforamerica.org/apply.

Questions? Comments? Hit us up @codeforamerica.

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