Is Silicon Valley Finding Its Civic Voice?

Hugh McFall
Dec 20, 2016 · 5 min read
Reboot Democracy

Silicon Valley has been roused from slumber in the election’s wake. A number of interesting organizations and movements have emerged from the tech industry in the past few weeks, including the Never Again pledge from over 2,300 tech workers, who refuse to comply with the incoming administration’s proposed data collection policies. There’s the recent pledge from tech CEOs and entrepreneurs to support civil liberties, and the Economic Security Project, a multi-stakeholder effort focused on exploring a universal basic income.

Many in the Valley viewed their work as self-fulfilling: By making amazing startups, we checked the box on civic responsibility. The classic example: when a Facebook worker didn’t make time to see Obama speak, remarking “I’m making more of a difference than anybody in government could possibly make.”

Clearly, times have changed. The results of the presidential election left most of Silicon Valley shocked. Most did not see Trump coming, and many felt that they could have done more to stop it. The result: a pervasive sense that our political system is not working as it should be, and that the tech industry should be doing more to help.

A group of Bay Area techies — many from startups and VC firms across the Valley — has decided to look outwards and put their political leanings aside to form an organization called Reboot Democracy. Their stated goal is to “help people break out of their echo chambers and create tools through technology to enable more political engagement and education.” Their first event was held last week, a hackathon at 500 Startups in San Francisco focused on building scalable tools that increase citizen participation in government, and making our political system more accessible and representative.

“As I saw more and more of my friends getting upset about what was going on in democracy and politics right now, and I decided to be one of those people who takes action,” said Emily Baum, co-organizer of the hackathon. Another participant explained the shift towards political engagement: “I think a lot of energy will go towards fixing the political process right now. In the 50’s and 60s, the best people coming out of school wanted to work in politics. They wanted to work on big problems related to government. Now, tech has taken over, but we’re seeing it spread to all these other places.”

Interviews with hackathon participants and the organizing team

The election might not have gone the way that the Reboot Democracy team and hackathon participants had hoped, but it did serve as a wake-up call. “This is not a ‘stop Trump’ thing,” co-organizer Mike McCormick said. “We’re focused on systemic issues like citizen engagement, voter education, government accountability and echo chambers, to name a few.”

“After the election,” as participant Melanie Gin said, “I was pretty upset and disappointed that I didn’t have empathy for a whole population that also lives in the United States. So, I tried to think about ways that, as a software engineer, I can help.”

Over the course of the weekend, teams built and pitched 19 different civic tech products. One of the entrants was Hey.ai, a Facebook Messenger bot that connects users with someone with different political views, to, as their pitch went, “help people better understand how other people think.” Another pitch was for Herd, a microblogging service built on the blockchain, which empowers to have control over their own data, not social media companies.

Also notable was FeSi, an interactive tool that quantifies and visualizes U.S. job loss due to automation. As a recent Oxford study has found, up to 47% of U.S. jobs are at risk of being automated within the next 20 years. Automation will transform our economy and society, but it’s not clear to policymakers and the public exactly how it will do so, what industries are most susceptible, and what areas of the country will be hit hardest. As one of the participants noted, “we in the tech industry are responsible for the loss of these jobs, so we should also be looking towards solutions and actively thinking about them.”

Another timely pitch was AdStrike, an automated platform that aims to make make it easier for consumers to find and contact brands that are advertising on hate speech websites (thanks to the opaque nature of adtech, advertisers often unknowingly fund fake news content.) A Twitter account called Sleeping Giants aims to defund websites like Breitbart by going after their advertisers, employing a simple strategy: taking a screenshot of a brands ad being displayed on the Breitbart site, publicly shaming them on Twitter, and demanding them to stop supporting the site. The formula is working: over 300 brands, from 3M to Kellogg’s, have blocked the publisher from their media buy. Sleeping Giants is effective, but it’s largely a manual process. AdStrike considers itself the “Sleeping Giants movement on steroids,” automating and scaling the Sleeping Giants effort so they can have a broader impact on similar publications across the web.

In order to help participants understand the complexities of government, and the difficulty of using technology to fix it, the organizing team paired tech talent with leading policy experts and advisors. Using technology to improve government can be a difficult task, even for high profile organizations like 18F, Code for America, and the USDS. It requires cutting through the red tape of slow-moving legacy systems, and building for users with very different needs. For participants, the real challenge was not in their ability to build, but what to build. “Democracy doesn’t need a killer app,” one pitch noted for their volunteer engagement tool, “we just want to connect volunteers to the groups that need them.”

This kind of humility — acknowledging the limitations of technology to solve complex social issues, and working to find a solution within those constraints — can sometimes be difficult to find in Silicon Valley, the land of moonshots and magical thinking. But it is increasingly common as tech starts to grow up. As Kara Swisher recently noted, it’s high time it did.

NewCo Shift

Covering the biggest shift in business and society since…

Hugh McFall

Written by

Writer, reader. Product Marketing Manager at Samsara.

NewCo Shift

Covering the biggest shift in business and society since the industrial revolution

Hugh McFall

Written by

Writer, reader. Product Marketing Manager at Samsara.

NewCo Shift

Covering the biggest shift in business and society since the industrial revolution

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