Tech isn’t the underdog anymore. It’s time to act like it.

Mar 14, 2018 · 5 min read

Last night, March 13th, the kind folks at SXSW Interactive Festival inducted me into the Interactive Hall of Fame. Here’s what I said.

THANK YOU for this award. My experience of SXSW is that there are such amazing panels and parties and keynotes — so many, it’s almost overwhelming. So this really opens up a whole lifetime of feeling like I’ve picked the wrong panel and am missing out on something amazing somewhere else.

This has been quite a year for the tech community. Not only have we seen the fall of Juicero, this has been the year of Facebook and Russian trolls. The year of fake news and bots and phone addiction. The year we discovered that YouTube was a hotbed of extremist sentiment. The year of Travis Kalanick, and the year of Susan Fowler and tens of thousands of other women like her. The year we came to grips with just how horrendous the workplace experiences of so many women have been. The year when Equifax let all of our data get stolen. The year Net Neutrality was overturned.

What do we make of it all?

For me, as an activist and a startup guy and a commentator, it makes me think about power. This is the year when the mist and mythology around tech started to clear and we began to see how power is actually working in the new landscape built on code. And we’re seeing what it looks like when that power isn’t used for good.

The first time I came to SXSW, in 2004, I believed deeply that the Internet was going to knock over the existing power structure and build something beautiful and decentralized and more truly democratic. That it would empower the disempowered.

But I think it’s now clear to us all that that hasn’t really happened. We haven’t disrupted the structure of power, we’ve just transferred it from some people to others. And we’re seeing this year that they are deeply incapable of wielding that power for the benefit of all.

I don’t think that’s because they’re bad people. Well, I think Travis Kalanick is kind of a bad person. But not the other ones. It’s not about them. There’s an obvious reason for this: these structures and companies — the Facebooks and YouTubes and Ubers — were never built to bear the weight of the power they now hold. They’re businesses. And that’s great! But this is sort of like trying to hold up a bridge with a hot dog stand — they just weren’t made for this purpose. Businesses are organized around turning a profit, not around building a strong society.

But it’s not surprising that they’re having trouble bearing that weight because they’re not used to thinking of themselves in that way. if you came here 10 years ago, it was pretty clear that we, the tech world, were a bunch of scrappy underdogs. We were the powerless, confronting the powerful and disrupting them. We were the insurgents. And the big banks and big media and big whatever were the power brokers.

It made sense that SXSW was in Texas because we were pioneers on the frontier.

But frontiers have a way of turning into cities, and counterculture has a way of turning into culture. And what’s cute in an underdog isn’t a good look on a 200-pound dachshund.

One of the most dangerous things in the world is a person who doesn’t understand the power they have.

This community, the community that’s grown up around SXSW, is now immensely powerful. It’s getting more powerful all the time. We’re not the underdogs any more. Look around — everyone here has been blessed with the extraordinary privilege to be able to build these brilliant, beautiful creations. And let’s also acknowledge that this room is far less diverse than it ought to be. But there are lots of people in this room — probably dozens of people — that are going to be well known to all of us as power-brokers in the next few years.

So I have three requests for you all today:

  1. Own that power
  2. Wield it justly and honorably, and don’t be an asshole. Real leaders lift up people around them.
  3. Find ways to share it.

And I’ll say here to myself and the other straight white dudes in the audience — sometimes the honorable and right way to wield power is to make space for other people and get the F out of the way. That might mean bringing in a more diverse board, or supporting and mentoring a startup entrepreneur of color, or simply not talking over people in meetings, something I struggle to do.

Because if we want to build the gleaming futuristic interplanetary utopia I know you’re all here to build — figuring out how we want to think about power and who gets it is critical.

More and more, the places created by technology, are our open spaces, our parks, our fresh water. They’re the places where our children play and where we do our work and where we make and keep some of our best memories.

Personally, I don’t believe that any one person in this room, however good their intentions, should be able to make unilateral decisions that affect all of us.

That’s why the decentralized platform for decision-making I’m still the most excited about is this old one, still in beta, called democracy. Sometimes the best solution to a problem isn’t code, it’s a law that makes things fair, makes things even, makes it possible for the next Facebook someone in this room is probably designing to compete with the current one. As the philosopher John Locke said a few centuries ago, “The end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom…where there is no law, there is no freedom.” Quite tweetable, actually.

Yes, democracy has had some big bugs recently. Especially in the last 18 months. They’re solvable ones, though. And I know that if all of the brain power in this room was directed at how to do that, we could crack it once and for all.

At the end of the day, we haven’t found better structures for dealing with power — and how to wield it well — than that. Building a better democracy — a real democracy — is the thing that would be truly disruptive.

So own your power, wield it justly, share it, and use it to help reinvent and reinvigorate democracy. The world sorely needs it. And if we do that, power will never be the same.

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