As one of the earliest, and first, female investors in Twitter, I had great hopes for its potential to improve human connectedness and relationships. Today, it’s become clear it’s done the opposite—by becoming a thunderously divisive tool weaponized by the leader of the free world.
Susan Wu (@sw) is an entrepreneur, engineer, and angel investor. Susan is cofounder of a new educational movement focused on empowering children to thrive in the world of the future. She is also part of the founding team of Project Include.
Consider other harm caused by today’s major technology companies: The immense power wielded by Facebook in the 2016 presidential election and its complicity in stoking genocidal violence against the Rohingya people of Myanmar. The pervasive ethical shortcomings surrounding Uber’s business practices, and Airbnb’s sometimes devastating influence on neighborhoods. Not to mention revelations about workplace harassment and discrimination that occur in many corners of Silicon Valley (and beyond).
Our industry hardly needs more evidence that what constitutes success in the digital age urgently needs to be redefined.
Technology has recently played a positive role as well, with the long-awaited revelations of long-standing abuse by men amplified by #metoo, and in galvanizing a movement around longstanding racial inequities with #blacklivesmatter.
It’s crystal clear that Silicon Valley’s chief executives are no longer merely startup founders, product creators, and business executives. They’re societal leaders too, oligarchs shaping the very nature of our identities, communications, and relationships.
In a world where software and algorithms run most every part of our lives—where Google and Facebook control close to 70 percent of all digital advertising, and smartphone penetration is nearing 80 percent—creating innovative software and launching indispensable apps is no longer enough.
As basic social contracts across nearly every aspect of Americans’ lives are being dismantled by a voracious, so-called free market system and gluttonous political administration, citizens each have an even more urgent need to acknowledge our responsibility to one another. Today, racking up a stratospheric market valuation without significant consideration of the product or company’s broader societal impact is reckless and irresponsible.
Urgently, innovators must consider the massive ripple effects of their creations as part of their imperative. Being an innovation leader isn’t just about delivering quarterly shareholder results or hitting product launch dates. Genuine innovation isn’t just about making technological advances, but also about reimagining and understanding structural issues underlying society.
The tech industry can either design for and build positive externalities, or we can inflict many negative ones—job displacement, fracturing of neighborhoods, addictive behaviors, compounding isolation, fortifying tribalism, and widening income equality, to name a few.
As a veteran angel investor, engineer, and technology entrepreneur, I worked to popularize and commercialize the World Wide Web 20 years ago. The hope then was to revolutionize power structures, increase access to opportunity, and construct a level playing field for all. The tomorrow I hoped for has not yet arrived: one grounded in engaged empathy and equality, where humanity and technology are synthesized and integrated in a new force, one that empowers people to thrive as whole human beings.
Achieving this requires a commitment to the belief that true progress and discovery is only possible by addressing the fundamental human needs of many, not just those fortunate to have a voice and a presence at the table. Though stratospheric income inequality may insulate the most privileged from the real-world impact of many of their decisions, there are some global crises that are inescapable, like climate change.
Harnessing the perspectives of women, people of color, and underrepresented communities, including the 80 percent of the world who lives on less than $10 a day, would offer a diversity of lived experiences that could propel genuine, structural innovation this coming decade. Imagine the types of platforms, products, and inventions that can be created when we expand the pool of entrepreneurs to welcome entirely new viewpoints.
Without thoughtful consideration of how technology interacts with structural and systemic issues in society, would-be innovators are inadvertently rehashing history, by moving around the same pieces on the same game board over and over.
Look, for instance, at the most likely probability that men hold well over 90 percent of the asset value of today’s techno-darling bitcoin, the latest example of merely shifting power from one group of privileged men to another.
Perhaps it’s time for an updated version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, one that underscores what’s essential not just for individuals to flourish, but for the greater good of society. Startups and management executives universally invoke this theory as an accepted canon for framing the human problems they’re trying to solve.
The problem is that Maslow’s framework pertains to individual, not societal, well-being. The reality is that individual needs cannot be met without the social cohesion of belonging, connectedness, and symbiotic networks. A revised design focused on a thriving civilization would have at its root empathy and ethics, and acknowledge that if inequality continues to grow at its current pace, societal well-being becomes impossible to achieve.
The very idea of what it means to be human is changing—and we who are leaders in technology are aiding and abetting that change. Let’s acknowledge and embrace the magnitude of that power—and our responsibility to put it to good use.
We must never forget that the innovations of today set the standards for the future: how we learn, socialize, enjoy, work, shop, mate, and navigate this tiny rock we call planet Earth. Great leaders in innovation understand that they’re continually earning the right to be leaders, effectively representing the needs of all communities, and empowering all of humanity to live ever better lives.
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