The world is not a better place. Somewhere along the way something went systemically wrong.
The Early Days
If you grew up in the late 1970s, you may remember the creative explosion of the 8-bit era. A blissful pandemonium of home computers, games, and computing languages. It was a time of invention, where the rules were not yet set. No wonder it gave birth to companies like Apple, the much smaller but influential Sinclair, and Acorn Computers who invented the ARM architecture dominating today’s smartphones.
All of those companies had two things in common. They were driven by passion, and they started small with little to no funding. The latter simply due to the fact there was not much of it around for such companies. Yet.
In the late 1970s venture capital (VC) was not a very large industry. Based on the Small Business Investment Act of 1958 a number of early VCs were formed focusing their investment activity primarily on exploiting breakthroughs in electronic, medical, or data-processing technology. But it was not until 1978 that early VCs came to fruition with companies like Apple, Digital Semiconductor and others.
When Wozniak and Jobs started Apple, they created it in a garage. As BYTE magazine stated in 1984: “Apple is more than just a company because its founding has some of the qualities of myth … Apple is two guys in a garage undertaking the mission of bringing computing power, once reserved for big corporations, to ordinary individuals with ordinary budgets.”
In the early days of Acorn, its ancestral company (Cambridge Processor Unit Ltd, a.k.a CPU) was funded through a consultancy contract to develop a microprocessor-based controller for a slot machine for Ace Coin Equipment (ACE) of Wales. That revenue fueled the first Acorn personal computers, later to co-venture with the BBC to build the BBC Micro educational computer.
Both Apple and Acorn founders, even though residing on the opposite ends of the Atlantic, shared a common set of values. Values that would seed and fuel the biggest technological revolution man kind has ever seen. The internal need to build, and the passion to better people’s lives. And then something went sideways.
What Went Wrong
The path from passion, creativity and making the world a better place to the sordid state of affairs only three decades later was a long journey. And as such things usually go it was mostly about (big) money.
The inflection point exact time and place are unclear, nor is it important. However at some point technology ceased to be about passion and creativity and making money, and became all about generating an ever growing amounts of it.
Revenue and growth became the two corner stones on which the technology industry was built, and the ruler by which goodness was measured. And while revenue and growth by themselves are not a bad thing, they cannot serve as a single catch-all metric. But they did, and by no accident, nor a complete fault of technologists.
Capitalism is an economic system based upon private ownership of the means of production and their operation for profit. Characteristics central to capitalism include private property, capital accumulation, wage labor, voluntary exchange, a price system, and competitive markets. In a capitalist market economy, decision-making and investment are determined by every owner of wealth, property or production ability in financial and capital markets, whereas prices and the distribution of goods and services are mainly determined by competition in goods and services markets.
Modern western economics theories and practices are so deeply rooted in our culture that it seems they were there since the beginning of time. The continuous growth assumption, the need to ever grow the economy in order to make up for the inherent inflation introduced by the debt-based model of money supply and related factors, are at the roots of the oversimplification designating revenue and growth as the most prominent metric for goodness.
It is by no surprise then, that the cultural agents of those assumptions, i.e. bankers, private equity and VCs have introduced and embedded those metrics into the technology industry, and as more venture capital poured into the exponentially growing tech world, capital owners started calling the shots, and the tech ecosystem adapted.
Two guys in a garage, quickly became two guys with a presentation. Instead of building something simply because you love doing it, only then considering its financial value, young entrepreneurs looking for funding calibrated their vision in order to maximize the probability of getting funded. On the other end of the field, VCs were funding what was most likely to produce a quick ROI, and thus a vicious circle was formed.
This process accelerated through each and every technological revolution, starting with the proliferation of the free Internet in the mid 1990s – paving the way for the Ad Tech industry – exploding exponentially with the introduction of smartphones and social networks.
As the race for funding and ROI accelerated, goodness became synonymous with revenue and growth. One would witness CMOs glorifying technologies whose primary purpose was to make money by exploiting human weaknesses portrayed as helping the average person, contributing to his well-being, and generally in the words of Steve Jobs, making the world a better place.
Examples are numerous. Ad tech has been exploiting users data, to track, target and sell products to people who never needed them in the guise of funding the free web while doing their best to nip in the bud any paid content model. The smartphone app industry has created games who openly and deliberately instigate addiction in adults as well as teens and younger children. Startup companies like Dopamine Labs specialize in app retention which is the laundered term for deliberately creating a neurological addiction in your brain. Facebook is designing its feed to scroll infinitely so you’ll be forever scrolling through its content, and more importantly, ads, and designed its famous red dot to trigger FOMO. And of course the large-scale misuse of user-data in order to manipulate public opinion as exposed in the Cambridge Analytica recent scandal.
Those are not the shady rims of the technology industry. This is the technology industry.
Do You Need a Facebook Account
Facebook has provided the world with a new means of social interaction, ability to be heard and achieve public influence never before seen. However it has also brought social isolation in the guise of interaction. As recent study states: “We suggest that social network sites benefit their users when they are used to make meaningful social connections and harm their users through pitfalls such as isolation and social comparison when they are not.”
The operative words being: meaningful social connections.
So, it depends. But one thing is indisputable, your time spent on Facebook is not entirely under your control. Hundreds of engineers, data scientist and neurology experts make sure that you could (almost) never leave – and view ads while at it (generating revenue). A sort of modern multi-billion dollar Hotel California for the mind. In that sense, as others have well put before, you are not the customer rather the product.
Do You Need a New iPhone
Well, do you?
The truth of the matter is that nobody needs a new iPhone. the reason you feel you do is because you were told so, repeatedly.
Your well-being does not rely on your ability to buy a new iPhone, a bigger house that you probably don’t need, a second or bigger SUV, a 50″ TV or a trip to the Maldives twice a year. Especially if in order to achieve all of the above you are working twelve to fourteen hours a day.
One may argue that a new iPhone, streamer, or an app that gets you infinitely scrolling an endless stream of nonsensical news items and images of kittens, is something that makes the world a better place, and yourself, happier.
That someone may be correct in a minority of the cases, for example where a navigation app truly helps people get around, a medical device saves lives or a when stress relieving gizmo allows you to relax at the end of yet another long work day. However, those are the exception to the rule, rather than the common cases.
Most tech products and services are ones that people never needed, made for the sole purpose of creating an addictive behavior pattern that keeps them using it just to generates more revenue.
The fact of the matter, as shown by a multitude of research, is that your well-being, your sense of happiness and fulfillment is negatively affected by the fact that in order to buy or use all those products and services you are continuously (over-)working and spending less time physically interacting with friends and family. The symptoms are even worse in teens. Studies show that teenagers are increasingly depressed, and clearly link the rise in depression to extensive smartphone usage.
So why do we all do it?
The answer is that we were conditioned to identify goods with goodness. To measure our well-being by the amount and value of owned goods. Ownership has become the standard by which measure individual success contrary to our own best interest.
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
The only ones benefiting from our fixation on buying and owning material goods, are the companies who manufacture them, which in turn creates an ROI for the investors supplying them with credit, allowing and instructing the former companies to grow their product portfolio, so they could generate more revenue. The faster you run on the rat wheel gently placed before you, the more energy (revenue) you produce. This of course is great for the economy, but less so as your well-being is concerned.
Simply putting it, you are the food in the food chain.
Dismantling the Rat Wheel
As the technology industry created this problem it would seem fair it would be the one to fix it. That of course is not going to happen. The current industry, abiding by the revenue and growth commandments passed down from Wall St. has no interest in changing the current state of affairs even though they sometimes publicly act as if they do.
Which puts it in your hands.
I think that if we are going to reform the world, and make it a better place to live in, the way to do it is not with talk about relationships of a political nature, which are inevitably dualistic, full of subjects and objects and their relationship to one another; or with programs full of things for other people to do. I think that kind of approach starts it at the end and presumes the end is the beginning. Programs of a political nature are important end products of social quality that can be effective only if the underlying structure of social values is right. The social values are right only if the individual values are right. The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there. Other people can talk about how to expand the destiny of mankind. I just want to talk about how to fix a motorcycle.
Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
The cultural change required is monumental. But as cultural changes go, it lies in the hand of individuals acting in new ways, transforming the world as they go.
Lets assume you are a visionary entrepreneur. What would you do differently? Let me suggest a few simple things that could make a lot of difference in the long run.
Bring creativity back to center stage, bring back garage startups. Love what you do, otherwise don’t do it.
Build a small, sustainable business. Don’t grow more than what is critical to sustain your venture, and make a good living. Never earn a penny more than you need (be careful with the definition of need). Any redundant growth serves the economy, not yourself.
Every startup investor slide deck I ever saw stated that if they’d only take 1% of the target market they will be a billion dollar company. Why would you want to be a billion dollar company? Create a small business that generates appropriate long term sustainable income. Stop there.
Don’t take VC money, simply because you don’t need it – at least initially. With today’s low cost cloud services, plethora of open source tools and libraries, you should be able to build something small and useful getting it to market on an extremely low budget.
Don’t take VC money as most VCs (admittedly not all), would most probably try to get you on the rat wheel spinning your way to quick ROI. Usually that would not coincide with your vision, especially if that vision includes actually helping people rather than using them as revenue generators. Which brings me to the most important bit.
Do good. Build something that truly improves people’s lives. Something for the people, not something to take advantage of people. They would appreciate it, and if you build it, they would come.
And have fun, the fun they had back in the 70s.
July 1st, 2018