by Phoebe Farag Mikhail

Read to the end to learn how to enter the giveaway for one of three copies of How to do good: Essays on building a better world.

There is a scene in the movie Hidden Figures when Dorothy Vaughn walks into the room where the IBM 7090 computer was installed. In the movie, she borrows a book from the public library on FORETRAN, then teaches herself as well as the other women she supervised how to program and run that computer. It dawned on me that this huge computing machine was larger than my living room, and it was used for the purpose of helping the United States win the space race and send a man to the moon.

We now carry around computers more powerful than that IBM 7090 in our purses and back pockets in the form of smart phones. While this now-primitive looking machine helped launch satellites into orbit and astronauts past the Earth’s atmosphere, most of us are using the powerful computers we have for self-entertainment. We access social media, take photographs and videos, listen to music, watch movies and play games on our phones.

It dawned on me that while we are carrying around these world-changing tools, many of us are not using them to change the world. Even their most productive uses – learning, finance and fitness tracking, reading – are still for personal productivity and gain. The power of a computer, it seems, does not just lie in its processor, speed, and memory. A much slower computer accomplished a huge feat for a nation because it was being used by a team of people united with one goal. And this makes me think that the power we have, no matter how well we use it for personal growth, is underutilized if we don’t use it to build together.

Right now millions of people around the world have their own mini-supercomputers. We are carrying tools that could take us to the moon, but we’re using them to take selfies instead. It could be argued that the dispersion of this powerful tool with its ability to immediately access social media is actually serving to fracture us into our own personal orbits rather than bring us together to achieve common goals for our communities.

Let’s change this.

There are super computers being used for important ends – the machines helping churn out weather simulations to help predict the path of hurricanes are one example – but there must be more ways we can all be collectively using the power we have in our back pockets to change the world. Some of us are using them to sign petitions and make donations. Can we do more? Will our little supercomputers pull us down like the gravitational pull of the Earth, or can we use them to propel us to the stars?

My friend John with fellow volunteers at the Montgomery County Food Bank in Texas.

The Hurricane Harvey and Irma response has given me some great inspiration. A Facebook message from a family advocacy group shared links to donate to the Texas Diaper Bank, and when I followed the link I found that in a few days it had raised over $3 million. Several tech companies have thrown their weight behind the relief, with many providing donation links directly on their platforms, and others using their technology to support. Amazon has a designated wish list for the American Red Cross where people can make purchases that get sent directly to the areas that need relief. Also on Facebook, I was able to support a local Texas food bank through a friend I “met” in an interfaith discussion group who shared photos of the work he was doing. My friends in Florida and Texas shared the link to the Coptic Orthodox Southern Diocese designated fund for hurricane relief efforts. The Preemptive Love Coalition shared stories of the families they are supporting who do not have a home insurance safety net.  Technology has made it easier to learn, connect, and support. Through Twitter, I learned about ways to support the efforts of BRAC and Save the Children to support the flood victims of Southeast Asia, where over 1,200 lives have been lost and millions more displaced.

Although that computer in my purse allowed me to learn about all these initiatives, share information with others, and make donations on the spot, perhaps I am giving too much credit to this little tool. Neither the IBM 7090 nor my smartphone can do anything on their own. That IBM supercomputer could not even compute without a multitude of programmers, and, as Hidden Figures so powerfully demonstrated, we could not accomplish our lofty goals as a nation without dealing with the racism that suppressed (and often still suppresses) some of our greatest talents and brightest minds. Only the sheer determination of those women and the collective action of the Civil Rights movement could do that.

Rouba Mhaissen at the May 8, 2017 “How to do good” event in New York City.

This past May, I attended an event that was part of the How to do good: Essays on building a better world book tour. The founder of Sawa for Development and Aid and a speaker at this event, Rouba Mhaissen, gave this advice for making a difference in the world: “Call your mom.” All our problems, she notes, are interconnected. If we can work on the problem in our own backyard, we will be helping solve global problems as well. No mention of the need for a supercomputer. Melinda Gates notes the same in her essay in the book: “Because Bill and I come from a technology background, we had a natural bias towards technological solutions … And while those are important – essential, even – we’ve also learned that designing a solution that makes sense in the daily realities of people’s lives is as important as the technology itself to broader success.”

And so perhaps the best use of the computer in our pockets is to use them to call our moms. 

Share your ideas and recommendations for helping people in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma, and any other natural disasters in the comments below. The organizers of the How to Do Good tour graciously provided me with three copies of the beautifully written and illustrated book, How to do good: Essays on building a better world to give away on my blog. Three commenters who subscribe to my email newsletter and make a comment below with ideas for helping people will win a copy of this book.


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