The tech industry is rushing to offer remedies to the crisis and, in the process, trying to rehabilitate its image.
Before the pandemic, Yiying Lu was known for her work designing the Twitter Fail Whale and the dumpling and boba tea emojis. In the past few weeks, Lu said she was called to a higher purpose. From her apartment in San Francisco, she toiled away in a Slack channel with two dozen people she has never met to create a free website called Corona Carecard. It asks Americans to buy gift cards to their favorite local shops, providing a much-needed source of income while stores are shuttered.
Lu is one of hundreds, if not thousands, of workers across Silicon Valley trying to, in their words, hack the virus. The pandemic has stirred up a missionary zeal throughout Silicon Valley. Apple Inc. and Google put aside a decade-long rivalry to form an alliance to track the spread of infections. Facebook Inc. and Salesforce.com Inc. are procuring millions of masks for health-care workers. Jeff Bezos is donating $100 million and Jack Dorsey $1 billion.
In other corners of the Valley, people are developing test kits and possible vaccines, as well as software to treat the social and economic maladies of the pandemic. Smaller companies have created entirely new business models in response to the virus. The projects can be as simple as an app reminding people to wash their hands or one that connects users with barbers in Brooklyn for lessons on how to cut their hair at home.
There’s a feeling among some technologists that some of their work in recent years had become mercenary or frivolous—attempts to capitalize on a prolonged tech boom with apps that cater to the whims of wealthy coastal elites, rather than meeting the urgent needs of the rest of the world. “Facebook, Snapchat and the last decade of tech has brought us together in some ways but has also pushed us further away from real life,” said Lu, a former creative director at venture capital firm 500 Startups. “The virus is a warning for people in the Bay Area that we can’t just come here and take and take. We have to give, too.”