Five years ago, an eight-minute cartoon delightfully demolished all the conventional rationales for grand concentrations of private wealth.
The crippling inequality that exists in the world today could hardly be more inefficient. A more equitable distribution of wealth and opportunity would, after all, benefit the poor far more than hurt the rich. That inefficiency means there’s potential energy waiting to be unlocked.
We don’t need to tolerate this, and, what’s more, a catalyst that could enable a more just distribution already exists — in information technology. But this technology hasn’t so far come anywhere near fulfilling the promise its champions have made to international development.
Those of us who work in technology need to wake up. We can be complicit with technology’s failure no longer. We have all the tools we need to build a more equal world today.
I’ve been lucky enough to help grow two small social impact-focused companies over the last seven years. The first, Vera Solutions, has built data systems for over 200 nonprofits and impact-driven companies. The second, the Open Function data integration platform, connects the key technologies used in international development programs. Both companies endeavor to help build a more efficient and effective social-impact sector.
Both these companies have benefited tremendously from the support of organizations that fund and support “start-ups.” But my co-founders and I often shy away from letting that “start-up” label get applied to what we’re doing. We operate in a slightly different space than traditional start-ups. Our goal is to generate sustained social change that doesn’t depend upon philanthropy.
Too much of our brainpower seems to be focused on making marginal improvements to already comfortable lives.
We also don’t consider ourselves part of the start-up culture because we’re not single-mindedly “growth hacking” our way towards an exponential revenue curve that bases profits less and less on the continued work of the founders.
Start-up culture promises technologists that if we make enormous personal — and sometimes ethical — sacrifices, we’ll eventually reach “success.” We’ll be able to spend the rest of our days living off the wealth generated by our mostly automated and monetized “IP,” intellectual property. In some start-up circles, “consulting” and “project work” have become almost dirty words. They imply that some of us may never get to exit and enjoy living off our wealth.
This start-up culture has one big gap in its logic: At the point where we have enough wealth to meet our basic needs, still more wealth doesn’t always lead to more happiness. Why then should people spend their youth working like mad for some exorbitant amount of future wealth and the happiness that immense wealth so seldom brings?
As a quick aside, I’m aware of my own hyper-privileged position here. I have been incredibly lucky — thanks to the country, state, and even the neighborhood I grew up in. I’ve had the kind of public and private safety nets that have allowed me to focus on things other than maximizing my personal earnings. Most people in the world today don’t have that option. They find making ends meet a constant struggle.
Striving for immense wealth, on the other hand, takes us into a different realm. Our current start-up culture, I worry, rarely frames earning a fair wage as entrepreneurship’s financial objective.
I should also mention that I’m a huge fan of start-ups as “disruptors,” as a way to shake up old-fashioned, top-heavy industries. I do believe in information technology’s potential as a leveling force in the world. IT can tear down barriers to access and education in ways we haven’t seen before — but only if we, as software developers, are constantly questioning what we’re building and why.
Unfortunately, here in the still-young 21st century, too much of our brainpower seems to be focused on making marginal improvements to already comfortable lives.
Technologists working at large companies don’t face the same situations as founders or “accelerators” or start-up incubators. But all technologists do, in the end, face the same essential questions. All of us need to be asking ourselves these questions over and over.
If you work at Google or Apple, ask yourself what you’re building and why you’re building it. Is your brainpower going into making the already comfortable more comfortable?
Software developers can do better than that. Our role in the social change movement could be massive. In a world that’s increasingly built on top of open-source software, we can now vote with our “pull requests” — the standard method for making code contributions in an open-source environment — and contribute to those projects that decrease inequality.
Company founders, for their part, do face other questions as well, not just questions about what technology we’re building and why, but questions about what kind of company are we building and why. Is our goal to amass a private fortune so that we can . . . do what exactly? Should the further concentration of wealth really be our big-picture objective? Is that what’s keeping us up at night, straining our relationships, and working our own fingers to the bone?
For most entrepreneurs I’ve met the answer is a clear “no,” but we’re not asked to consider these questions often enough. The really dangerous thing about capitalism may be that it has become the default. Its norms too often go unquestioned.
What we do, what we practice, day in and day out, shapes our minds. Our daily “business,” if separated from “life” in a society that values money above all else, becomes the “numinous,” a term made popular by the German theologian Rudolf Otto. The “numinous,” the special wholly other, operates in a space where normal rules don’t apply and extends beyond even ethics.
If money becomes the “wholly other,” people become monsters because, well, “it’s just business.” We simply must be constantly vigilant about what we’re doing day by day. We can’t let our daily business change something fundamental about our values.
The potential pitfalls of entrepreneurship and technology may be many. But both can — and sometimes are — making the world a more equitable place. Projects that focus on access to information and opportunity, that strengthen democracy to put decision-making power back in the hands of the poor, that tear down financial walls and expose the predatory tactics banks have employed over centuries are all making incredibly exciting contributions.
At OpenFn, we’ve had the privilege of working with some of these initiatives. In Kenya, the Lwala Community Alliance is using Android phones to provide a real-time decision support tool to community health workers. In South Africa, Abalobi is helping fishers join in conservation efforts while providing them with better market access. In Myanmar, Population Servicies International’s nationwide network of private retail outlets is distributing essential health products using social marketing techniques.
Mobile phones can truly be a game-changer, mobile money and currencies even more so. But such technologies are not inherently good or bad. They are just platforms. They can be used to deliver mobile gaming and gambling just as easily as they can be used to improve the lives of the poor.
I’m not sure what inspires you as a technologist, and it’s likely different than what gets me going. But I can’t help but feel like we’ve been drinking too much start-up culture Kool-Aid. We all need to open our eyes, get more critical about how we’re spending our time, and make more active choices.
Whether we like it or not, we are building the future. We’re uniquely positioned to make a difference. Let’s make that difference with care.
Taylor Downs, the founder and core contributor of OpenFn, an innovative software package that teaches technologies to talk to one another, earlier this year became the San Francisco-based Tides Foundation’s 11th annual winner of the Antonio Pizzigati Prize for Software in the Public Interest. The prize honors software developers working to fashion open source applications that aid activists and nonprofits in their struggle for social change and renewal.