Scaffolds of an Intentional Tech Movement

This past weekend at the Berlin Future Forum (BFF), a conference bringing together creative artists and entrepreneurs, technologists and spiritualists, an agenda crystallized for me that has been nagging at me for some time: what are the conditions for a more intentional technology movement?

Wandering around London train stations as the Amish Futurist

As some of you know, for the past few years I’ve been wandering around start-up conferences dressed up as “The Amish Futurist” prodding digital technology evangelicals with moral and Luddite instincts around the “why” of innovation. Through gentle, Socratic probing I’ve heard many first hand accounts of the errors of the Silicon Valley elite, confessions of techno-phobia from some of the most advanced start-up founders, and first-hand user accounts of the ills of modern technology on wellbeing.

For a summary of some of these explorations, please see inspiration below:

Searching for the Soul of Startups: “At times, the startup scene seems utterly myopic: everyone trying to imitate a tired Zuckerberg-inspired formula: drop out of school, wear a hoodie, learn to code, start a company. But beneath the surface there is actually quite a real culture war going on, a war between those founders truly trying to change the world (and leave humanity better off) and those merely riding the wave of the tech bubble.”

Link: http://www.fastcoexist.com/3027874/futurist-forum/searching-for-the-soul-of-startups

The Power of Buttermilk: We are being forever driven forward by technological advances. But is the use of technology sustainable for our psyche? What if some technology could help keep us grounded in our more human-centric roots? Even if we simply ignore the increasing stresses of constant digital accessibility on our iPhones, at Twitter or Facebook, the eventual consequences will be felt. The Amish Futurist looks at the impact that technology is having on our minds, emotions, relationships, sense of place and purpose. She shares her perspectives on buttermilk, technology fears and phobias, and her search for the soul of the startup scene.”

Link here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t1qvV9Rc73w

Moreover, within the sharing economy movement, there’s been backlash that’s pointed out the undemocratic and old power principles that companies like Uber, AirBnb and TaskRabbit employ. For a wonderful forthcoming discussion of some of these challenges see an upcoming event on Platform Cooperativism: http://platformcoop.net/

To this end, I believe a greater community of practice needs to emerge to help bring critical thinking and reflection to the start-up community. While some of this activity is emergent, what I’ve tried to do is sketch out a framework for thinking about what a more intentional technology movement could look like — what are it’s key challenges and interventions. This is an invitation to you to help think through a framework that could provide a meeting point of different actors working on this agenda. I welcome your thoughts.

Here’s a mock-up of what I’ve got …

THE SCAFFOLDS OF INTENTIONAL TECH — A POTENTIAL FRAMEWORK

A framework for thinking about interventions within an “intentional technology” movement. Initiatives can be mapped against barriers and strategies.

A note about methodology: The Discovery Framework is a tool that we use to use when I worked at Ashoka to help map systemic problems as well as distil concrete strategies social entrepreneurs were using to overcome these challenges. I found the framework methodology useful because it focuses your attention only on defining barriers that are “moveable.” So rather than talk about something like “capitalism” or “inequality” I am forced to frame problems in a way that makes them hack-able. Hacking inequality is massive and overwhelming, but hacking an entitlement culture or short-term investment products becomes more actionable.

As this framework evolves you could see how particular initiatives could map as interventions against a specific barrier and strategy. You then can begin to see where interventions are taking place and where more activity might be necessary. It becomes a heat map of systemic action. That said, these are just some early thinking on what those barriers and strategies would be. I’ve explained them in a bit more detail below, but you might have other ideas.

BARRIERS to INTENTIONAL TECHNOLOGY

  1. Short-termism

· Success becomes defined by money and “exits” rather than craftsmanship

· Promotes copycat start-ups that appeal to investors

· Scaling imperative and growth paradigm e.g., capital doesn’t work for the long-term interests of society

2. Founder dependency

· Power maximized in the interest of a few

· Enterprises and organizations dependent on “visionary” model of leadership

3. Entitlement

· Bro-culture

· Less tolerant risk appetite for women and minorities

· Beta masculinity & geek patriarchy — what to watch out for

4. Privatization of resource & infrastructure

· Exclusivity; environments not designed as commons

· Tech hubs not open to other types of “entrepreneurs”

· Tech communities have no social contract for general welfare or for maximizing benefit to local communities

· Proprietary nature of information reduces pace of innovation

STRATEGIES for INTENATIONAL TECHNOLOGY

  1. Conscientiousness & existential awareness:

· Boot-camp approaches e.g., Y-combinator for how not to be an a**-hole start-up founder, diversity training for start-up founders, cultural and political theory for start-up founders

· Self-knowledge and awareness of privilege; wisdom training e.g, lose your ego.

· Existential reflection — connected to a bigger “why?” — making sure your start-up has a higher purpose

2. Platform cooperativism & participatory control:

· Decentralized model of leadership & participatory ownership

· Bringing democratic principles into entrepreneurship

· Shared profit structures; not extracting values from users, not centralizing power from workers

3. Humanistic engineering & design:

· Tech that amplifies the best of what it means to be human

· Targets real human needs

· Non-addictive technologies

· Building end-users and marginalized communities into design

4. Patient capital:

· Long-term financing

· Investment that preserves ownership

· Hybrid financing techniques; built it fiduciary responsibilities to local communities

5. Open source and collaborative entrepreneurship:

· Abandon “lone ranger” cowboy script of entrepreneurship

· Shared R&D and design for acceleration of innovation

· Decouple innovation and proprietary ownership

· Community and collective models of enterprise development

· Start-ups ecosystem become IP free zones and nurture relationships with local communities

· Constitutions and democratic principles to govern collaborative venturing

Can we bring greater craftsmanship and integrity into technological development?

CONCLUSION

Ultimately, an intentional technology movement would depend on choreography between these different strategies. Change won’t come from any one point of leverage. It won’t be born through consciousness alone (the Enlightened start-up founder) or through correcting perverse investor incentives. As a result, it requires a greater coordinated community of practice.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

· Does the “intentional tech” framing work for you? Is this a movement you would support — why or why not?

· Who is practicing “intentional tech” at the moment? Where do you see traces of this emergent philosophy?

· Is “geek patriarchy” a thing? Have you experienced this personally? I’m very interested in new economy masculinity and ways in which old power might be perniciously introducing itself.

ACTION CONSIDERATIONS

· Would you be interested in starting up an “intentional technology” boot-camp for start-up founders and investors?

· If we were to start an intentional technology reading list — what articles or book or general literature would you recommend?

· What else? Interested in ideas folks have …