BY: LUC RINALDI
Surfing the web the other day, I discovered Coolest—that is, “a portable party disguised as a cooler.” Boasting a built-in blender, Bluetooth speaker, USB charger, cutting board, bottle opener, and more, the Kickstarter project is undoubtedly the most impressive cooler I’ve ever seen. Apparently, most people agree: It’s raised more than $7.2 million in pledges (its goal was $50,000), joining the likes of Star Citizen—a video game that, with nearly $50 million pledged, is the most successful crowdfunding campaign to date. There is a long list of other video games, cult films, TV shows, and smart tech toys that follow the crowdfunding trend.
These kinds of quirky projects are synonymous with crowdfunding, the digital equivalent of “passing the hat.” By giving the average person the power to support projects that might not attract the attention or confidence of a typical investor, crowdfunding has democratized financing. Along the way, it’s also grown into a multi-billion-dollar industry. It’s time we had a mature conversation about whether we, faced with global poverty, can justify dropping millions of dollars on video games and picnic accessories—regardless of how cool they are.
Crowdfunding, in essence, dates back to the first time someone asked a friend to borrow some money. Indiegogo and Kickstarter, launched in 2008 and 2009, popularized the online model and made it the default monetary strategy for indie arts projects and obscure tech ambitions. Then, last year, the $5-million Veronica Mars movie Kickstarter arguably ushered in a new era of crowdfunding, in which Hollywood blockbusters could turn to the audience, not industry backers, for funds. Enter the infamous Rob Ford Crackstarter campaign and a number of Radical Islamist initiatives and suddenly crowdfunding inherited an ethical layer beyond its innocuous beginnings.
But crowdfunding’s expansive growth presents its own subtler ethical dilemmas. In a model that relies on the support and good will of the public, popular and easy-to-sell projects inevitably take the prize. While not a problem exclusive to crowdfunding, this populist approach leaves more complex, harder-to-sell ideas—and many of the world’s most innovative and beneficial ideas are exactly that—neglected and underfunded. In this system, a remake of a popular ‘90s TV show raises millions of dollars while technology that could revolutionize healthcare struggles to swim.
It’s fair to argue that crowdfunding’s purpose is to finance our wants, not our needs. There is nothing wrong—in fact, it’s somewhat altruistic—with pledging to an indie video game, smartwatch, or local artist’s opening show (I’ve personally supported a friend’s poetry anthology and my favourite singer-songwriter’s albums). But since crowdfunding has grown into such a significant force, perhaps it’s time we examine our priorities and consider using this model to support life’s necessities in addition to its luxuries—to throw some broccoli in with the ice cream.
A Massolution report estimated that crowdfunding generated about $5 billion in 2013, while a World Bank study projects the industry will be worth almost $100 billion by 2025. This is good news: People are willing to give. Let’s make the most of that.
This is not a call to boycott crowdfunding. This is just an appeal to be intentional about what you fund—to pause before you pledge. Is the project you want to fund really worth backing? Are there more worthy ideas out there (probably)? And, if a campaign you’re passionate about has already reached its goal, why not divert the $50 you were willing to give to something that supports another in need?
Ultimately, it’s up to us whether we use our money to support worthwhile tech innovations, compensate for dismal scientific funding, and improve the lives of the least privileged—or use the $100 billion to pay for the next generation of tricked-out coolers.