IF YOU WORK IN AND CARE ABOUT TECH, OUR INDUSTRY IS IN CRISIS
For many of us who have been working in the field for a long time, it now feels like the promise of the Internet era to create a more open, connected, and equitable society is slipping away. In the pursuit of the next big thing, important human values have been subordinated to speed, profits, and market domination. Data are being collected on people without their consent. Fake news, insults, and prejudice are prevalent and amplified on social media. Many of the technologies being developed are designed to kidnap our--and our kids’--attention, only to maximize profits.
The digital divide now refers to more than just broadband access for the poor in urban and rural areas. It also encompasses the inability of large segments of society to participate in the economic benefits of technology innovation. A huge majority of people using technology are accepting “terms of service” agreements without any clue how the data they are sharing will be used. Few know how best to protect their data and devices from being hacked. AI is being developed without any governance framework to make sure it is only deployed for ethical and equitable purposes. And, worst of all, and maybe the reason for much of the above problems: women and people of color are severely underrepresented in the labor force, the executive suites, and on governing boards throughout the industry.
Billions, if not trillions, of dollars of wealth have been created and remain concentrated in the hands of too few people who have collectively shown little interest in creating a commensurate era of socially-responsible philanthropy. In fact, much of this new wealth is just poured back into the next wave of companies who, having been born of this imbalanced system, perpetuate it.
These problems have been known to exist for some time and the response by Silicon Valley, which leads the tech industry, has been meager, ineffective, and self-serving. The result is that governments here and around the world are now gearing up to try and reign in the tech industry. Unfortunately, it will take more than regulations to change the culture of Silicon Valley and the industry it leads.
In the New York City technology community, we believe we have the ingredients necessary to redirect tech’s trajectory towards the positive and help change the culture of technology innovation to be more empathetic, equitable, and inclusive.
First, New York has a long-standing history as a city with the most diverse population of human capital in the world. And not just diverse in race, ethnicity, or economic background. It's also very strategically and importantly diverse by industry sectors. In New York, the technology industry does not so much dominate as stand within a concentration of industries like finance, media and publishing, healthcare, education, and fashion. It helps catalyze these parallel industries by offering them direct access to technology innovation. In return, New York technology startups benefit from having close access to indispensable industries as they think up ideas, raise capital, develop their technologies, and build pipelines of customers and partners.
As partial evidence of this symbiotic relationship, look no further than the 1800+ tech meetups that occur in New York every month. There are dozens of sector-specific tech meetups in finance, healthcare, education, media, fashion, real estate, in addition to hundreds of tech-specific meetups in subjects like data science, VR, AI, mobile apps, open data, etc. On any given night in New York, there are nearly 50 simultaneous meetups occurring, attended by thousands of people. And the people attending are not just tech industry wonks, but professionals from industries across the board, each of whom have different perspectives and skills. The NY Tech Alliance alone has more than 52,000 individual members, and they include people with professions like lawyers, doctors, teachers, journalists, academics, government leaders, and more.
Second, the New York technology community is more empathetic than Silicon Valley. This is partially due to New York’s large and diverse social change sector, which is now aggressively connecting with the technology community to apply innovation to generate exponential amounts of social capital. It's also due to a huge and growing community of technology startup founders who are focused on creating positive impact for the benefit of all.
In New York, we don’t just look for “unicorns”, those pre IPO startups worth billions on paper but rather celebrate “zebras” and next-generation non-profit organizations with human equity-first values that demonstrate positive social impact like Donor's Choose, Meetup, CrisisTextLine, Kickstarter, Witness, and Idealist.
At many of the New York tech meetups, you'll see and connect with people behind a steady stream of startups who exist either solely for the purpose of improving the public good, either directly or by leveraging their profit-seeking activities to create a social by-product that can.
New York also has created numerous initiatives that are aimed at reaching underserved communities to provide them with digital skills training opportunities to ensure that the benefits of technology innovation are more evenly distributed like Access Code, Mouse, CSNYC, ScriptEd, Girls Who Code, Per Scholas, and OATS. Organizations like Data and Society Institute and AI Now are trying working hard to identify the threats associated with big data and AI and the biases embedded in them--and offer solutions to mitigate the impact.
Very large philanthropies like the Open Society Foundations, Ford, Rockefeller, Robin Hood, and Bloomberg, to name just a few, are beginning to target more of their grant-making specifically to help fund the effort to balance the technology equation for the benefit of all.
To be clear, New York’s tech ecosystem is not devoid of some of the same problems we see in Silicon Valley. We just believe that we have a more inclusive and diverse set of conditions that can lead to much better outcomes when technology is designed and applied.
Silicon Valley also has examples of people and organizations that are trying to make sure there are better outcomes for society from the tech revolution. Organizations like Code for America, Tech Equity Collaborative, Black Girls Code, TechSoup, the Internet Archive, Mozilla, Aspiration Tech, Tumml, Fast Forward, and Working Partnerships USA are hard at work but are grossly underfunded in comparison to their counterparts working on the for-profit side of the Valley.
Silicon Valley also has produced some important philanthropy exemplified by now mostly professional philanthropists from or associated with it like Bill Gates, Pierre Omidyar, Craig Newmark, Jeff Skoll, Mitch Kapor, Laurene Powell Jobs, and Dustin Moskowitz. It also has some serious part-time philanthropists who are still deeply involved in running their companies like Marc Benioff, Jeff Bezos, Reid Hoffman, and Mark Zuckerberg who are giving away large amounts of their personal wealth. But as a percentage of the total wealth created by the Silicon Valley, all their contributions are not enough to tip the equity scale or change the culture of the community they helped build.
Something has to change.
It's time for the technology industry to take full responsibility for both sides of the impact equation of technology. If we don't do it soon, it will be too late, not because it will be done for us or to us, but because it will just be too late.
If you agree with this but are not able to come to New York, we encourage you to join or support the various organizations in Silicon Valley that are working hard to make sure technology serves more than the pursuit of profit or only the privileged who can afford it.
Has Silicon Valley made you wealthier than you ever imagined? If so, consider only keeping what you need and giving the rest away in ways targeted to level the playing field for everyone else.
But if you are frustrated with the status quo in Silicon Valley and are interested in being part of a growing empathetic and human equity-first technology ecosystem and are fortunate enough to choose where you can live and work in the technology industry, WE WANT YOU IN NEW YORK!
Founder/CEO Civic Hall
Founder Personal Democracy Media
Chairman NY Tech Alliance
Follow us: #wewantyouinNYC
If you'd like to connect, fill out the form below.
ADD YOUR VOICE
If you're a tech leader, let us know if you'd like to add your voice to ours and help bring greater inclusivity to our industry.