How To Change The World

Confessions of an Internet Nerd

I recently read George Packer’s New Yorker piece, Change The World, which is something of an excerpt from his recently published book, The Unwinding, and now I am moved to say something about it.

Unfortunately, you’re probably thinking now that my post could go one of two ways:

  • Option 1) Defend Silicon Valley, point to the sweeping impact its innovations have had on our society, point to the oppressive governments and the stagnant industries that it has disrupted. This is a worthwhile line argument, by the way.
  • Option 2) Decry its excess and vanity, call on entrepreneurs and investors to step up their game in order to create a better tomorrow. Ditto.

In fact, I’m going to try something different. I’m inspired by the nuance of Packer’s delivery as much as by its content. The article is about noticing; it’s about calling attention to a culture, and drawing a connection to the industries with which that culture coexists. While Packer’s skills, experience, and hard work mean that he can tackle such a project for an entire section of our country, I’m going to lower the bar a bit — I’d like to try and articulate something I’ve noticed about myself.

I’m going to quote Packer’s article at length here because these words are both relevant to my confession and beautifully written:

“A few years ago, when Barack Obama visited one Silicon Valley campus, an employee of the company told a colleague that he wasn’t going to take time from his work to go hear the President’s remarks, explaining, “I’m making more of a difference than anybody in government could possibly make.” …At places like Facebook, it was felt that making the world a more open and connected place could do far more good than working on any charitable cause. Two of the key words in industry jargon are “impactful” and “scalable”—rapid growth and human progress are seen as virtually indistinguishable.
“When financiers say that they’re doing God’s work by providing cheap credit, and oilmen claim to be patriots who are making the country energy-independent, no one takes them too seriously—it’s a given that their motivation is profit. But when technology entrepreneurs describe their lofty goals there’s no smirk or wink.
“Technology can be an answer to incompetence and inefficiency. But it has little to say about larger issues of justice and fairness, unless you think that political problems are bugs that can be fixed by engineering rather than fundamental conflicts of interest and value.”

I, for one, am guilty of pretty much every arrogance called out above. I’ve said these things. Pretty much to the word. It sounded something like…

These issues of the moment — these “causes” — are for another person. They’re for my peers at law firms, in government, in journalism. My issues are the issues of the future. Don’t talk to me about things happening this year — the system is so screwed up that I couldn’t possibly have an impact anyway — I’m focused on building the things that will dictate the next twenty! I don’t have time to change the world in your way, full of inefficiencies and tradition, because I’m busy changing the world in my own way.
Yeah yeah, I know these issues are important, but I don’t have time to read the volume of articles that would make me sufficiently intelligent about the subjects such that I could talk about them in public (and make it clear to all listeners that I am an expert). If it comes up at dinner, I’ll just dismiss them as unimportant and return the conversation to the future of connected devices.
Yeah yeah, I realize that I should know more about what’s going on around me. I know I should do more about what’s going on around me. But wouldn’t you, society, rather I spend my days and nights obsessing about the future of news discovery? Wouldn’t you rather I take my passion and energy and point it in just one direction? Isn’t impact correlated with focus?
That’s what we want anyway, to make an impact. We want to make a difference, in the most literal sense. We want to change things and then turn around and say, “look, I changed that.”
For the better?
Honestly, isn’t that a secondary concern?

I’m beginning to see that these were just excuses, born out of laziness, and forged in the fiery pits of self-deception. I’m beginning to realize that “for the better” is not about the changes you can make with your product. “For the better” is not about how many people you can employ. It’s not about health benefits or distributing your stock options more equitably. It’s not about making your investors rich. It’s not just about sending your children to school.

It’s about recognizing that you are a participant in a series of — to borrow words from the internet — overlapping networks. It’s about recognizing what you’ve gained from being a part of those networks. It’s about recognizing that the only way to improve them, is to improve them today.

Changes don’t happen in the future, they happen in the present. They happen when the smartest, most passionate people remove their blinders and join the moment. Myopia isn’t the same as focus.

So I’m going to make an effort to be a little bit more aware. And because every statement that renounces self-interest must, in the end, point out that renouncing self-interest is actually the most self-interested thing you can do: I have a hunch that being more culturally and politically aware will help me build better products, but I’m certain that it will make me a happier person.

(Thanks to Eric Lach, Josh Stylman, Nick Chirls, and Alex Rosen for helping me think through these ideas.)