While traditional industries can get away with ignoring broader social ills or hot-button political issues, tech companies big and small are increasingly expected to solve the former and speak out on the latter — a position that’s either totally fair or a too-high standard depending on who you ask.
If you asked most of the people onstage at Disrupt last week, that expectation is just another thing that makes tech special. As the industry soars on the wings of so much venture capital, it’s hard to argue that tech isn’t uniquely positioned to effect major change in areas where it directs its energy. In many instances, these changes seek to address gaps that the U.S. government hasn’t quite figured out how to bridge yet. These themes came up onstage at Disrupt last week in a variety of ways.
At the Hackathon that ran prior to Disrupt’s big main-stage events, a single massive theme emerged loud and clear. Of the 102 hacks that took the stage, a solid 30 were focused on leveraging tech to aid rescue and relief operations in disaster zones. We revisited many of these in a post, collecting some of the best projects that could lend a hand in disaster relief efforts.
A Startup Battlefield participant called Bridgefy also tackled the challenge of disaster relief with a mesh networking service that would allow cell phone communications when traditional mobile infrastructure is disabled by natural disasters.
Even security companies have a higher calling. In his appearance onstage at Disrupt, Signal’s founder Moxie Marlinspike explained that the vision of his encrypted messaging app is to democratize the knowledge set that security experts use to protect themselves from prying eyes in positions of power. As we thoroughly examined onstage at our Justice event earlier this year, state-sponsored surveillance disproportionately impacts the most vulnerable members of a society. In 2017, that can mean everything from peaceful protesters to ordinary citizens crossing U.S. borders.
“What we’re trying to do is make cryptography accessible to ordinary people,” Marlinspike said, noting that Signal is a powerful way to fight back against mass surveillance. “I think that surveillance should be a little bit difficult.”
Marlinspike noted that a software maker’s work is never done, mentioning that the five-person company is now looking into how to solve privacy concerns around metadata, the invisible location data that accompanies files like images.
In 2017, many tech companies are waking up to the world of politics beyond simply engaging with regulation that affects their bottom line. With its vast financial and technical resources, Silicon Valley is positioning itself to be more politically engaged than ever.
“I think startups are a really effective vehicle to make things happen in the world today,” Y Combinator’s Sam Altman said onstage at Disrupt.
“One of the things I’ve learned about the political process is that it’s basically about how much other people think you can raise. It is controlled by a small number of donors and these very powerful but I think horribly run large political entities.
“I have met a number of very promising junior office holders… they just have no chance, they’re not chosen by the existing system. I think in the same way YC found out there was a huge amount of value to unlock by finding unknown people that are really talented but don’t have a network and giving them resources, I think there’s something cool to do there politically.
“It’s going to be a small experiment for us next year, but if it works I think it’s something we could really scale up.”
Altman intends to democratize politics itself by opening up the playing field to more potential candidates through his The United Slate initiative, which will seek out and back a group of 2018 candidates for California’s races that support “creating prosperity through technology, economic fairness, and maintaining personal liberty.”
While skeptical about get-rich-quick schemes involving initial coin offerings (ICOs), Altman does believe that the technical solutions they present could be useful in opening up investing to people who are excluded from the wealth requirements in a typical system.
“The promise of [ICOs] is really good thing,” Altman said. “One of the trends that bothers me about Silicon Valley is that more and more of the wealth creation happening here is not available to most people. If there’s a way that new technology can democratize [that], I think it’d be great.”
Housing and utilities
Tiffani Ashley Bell’s Y Combinator-funded project, known as The Human Utility, helps low-income households in Detroit and Baltimore pay their water bills. Onstage, she spoke about how she hopes that the data that The Human Utility collects is the key to systemic change around water affordability and her project’s long-term goals.
“The goal is not just to keep paying water bills actually,” Bell said. “I think also that governments need to better understand what problems they’re causing. There needs to be some national law around water affordability. We have millions of lines of billing data from Detroit for example. I want to really try to use that kind of information to try to influence policy.”
Joining Bell, Rosanne Haggerty of Community Solutions discussed how tech’s ability to collect and organize that kind of big data can offer a powerful new take on the longstanding issue of urban homelessness.
“Real-time specific information in the hands of an accountable party at the city or county level is really game-changing,” Haggerty said. “Ten of our communities have now ended chronic or veteran homelessness because of that data-driven accountability.
“Are we going to dig into the data and be accountable for results? Or are we going to let this issue drift?”
Onstage as part of the Startup Battlefield, a company called Boundless took on the paperwork nightmare of immigrating to the United States, offering a service that streamlines that process and offers counseling and makes it affordable. Founder Xiao Wang explained the idea came from his own difficult immigration experience when his family moved to the States from China when he was young.
“My family spent five months of rent money on immigration lawyers because we just didn’t know how to do it and didn’t know any better,” Wang said.
“This is an experience that’s repeated by millions of families all around the world, and what I realized is that it doesn’t have to be that way. Instead, you can actually take all of the knowledge that was previously trapped in the minds of the government and immigration lawyers and make it accessible to everybody.”
With Disrupt’s heavily international audience, Boundless wasn’t alone in thinking about the ways that tech can aid immigrants who might be coming to the U.S., whether to work in tech or otherwise.
Onstage, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) also came up. Investor Ron Conway and Laurene Powell Jobs of the Emerson Collective offered a heartfelt plea to attendees to get involved to help DACA recipients at risk of losing their legal status in the United States.
As Silicon Valley turns inward to reckon with its homegrown culture crisis, it also turns outward toward some of society’s toughest problems. Whether you agree that the tech industry should be setting its sights on the kind of civic problems that a government normally handles or not, you’d be hard-pressed to make a case that anyone else is better equipped to pick up the slack.