The Case for Optimism in Tech

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard...“ - John F. Kennedy

When did it become cool to be pessimistic in Silicon Valley? 

Perhaps it started when our astonishment and joy in innovation began to feel tainted by our concern over the lack of diversity in tech and the ethically questionable choices being made in our industry. Or maybe it started with the ever-more more disturbing revelations of the social media age, from the privacy concerns of Facebookto hate speech on Twitter, to the artificial intelligence decisions made at YouTube 

Right now, it’s a fair question: Is Silicon Valley ‘stalling out?'

My answer is: not by a long shot.  

I’m certainly one of those "true believers" who has become an ardent critic of the way things are going in tech recently—the outcome of mixing my two decades of experience in tech and my bone-deep frustration with the slow pace of societal change. I have certainly felt my own excitement turn frustrated, then angry at the immoral and in some cases criminal behavior I witness in Silicon Valley. As a result, I’m often snarky, irritable, and vocal about it all on social media. 

But I still love working in technology in Silicon Valley. And that’s because I love technology. Every day I can see the power of science and technology—and the people behind them—improving the human condition. And I’ve been struck recently by the return of a palpable, almost rebellious sense of optimism that has returned to Silicon Valley, and to me, too. On the Stayin’ Alive in Tech podcast, my guests are teaching me that my childhood enthusiasm for tech, stoked by John Kennedy’s moon shot, wasn’t misplaced. I’d like to introduce some of these modern-day legends who are at once immersed in tech and optimistic about where the world is headed—and see if we can all follow their lead.

 

MAKE WAY FOR GIANTS

We live in an age of wonder, and giants still walk among us. Just this spring, the Jet Propulsion Lab announced they had taken photographs of a Black Hole, and the world stopped for a moment to feel that sense of wonder.  

Philip Rosedale

Giants like Philip Rosedale, founder of the virtual worlds Second Life and High Fidelity, have created a virtual space where the marginalized disproportionately benefit by connecting with others in ways never seen before via faster chips and near prolific internet. A place where adults can play with unfettered creativity.

“The range of things that people are able to do together creatively in virtual worlds is very considerable and suggests to us that we should humbly regard ourselves as being only at the first few steps of the journey in terms of what we as sentient beings are able to do together. “- Philip Rosedale

CINDY GALLOP

Giants like Cindy Gallop, the “Michael Bay of business,” who likes to "blow shit up." From creating an award-winning ad agency to recognizing a new opportunity in the growing industry of sex tech (and giving it its name, too), to being a champion for gender equality and diversity, Cindy has been at the cutting edge of culture for more than a few decades.

What these giants show us is that big things are still coming in tech. Some of the world’s greatest minds are focused on making technology more accessible and easier to use than ever, and that, friends, is cause for optimism.

 

HAVE WE FORGOTTEN HOW AMAZING THIS IS?

Those of us who grew up before the ubiquity of computers and the internet still marvel at what this technology has done for us, and what is still to come. Just this month, a man found his 84-year-old birth mother for the first time using the internet.

Technology makes it possible to interact with top thought leaders with little friction. Access to decision-makers on LinkedIn and Twitter has certainly helped me grow my business. Take that access to nearly anyone and combine it with the encouraging cultures of the companies that make these technologies, and you’ll find that many people are more empowered to learn, to work, and to be heard than ever before. We sometimes forget how cool and unprecedented this all is; that we’re all connected. 

AVINASH KAUSHIK

Avinash Kaushik, Digital Marketing Evangelist for Google, and Author of Web Analytics 2.0 and Web Analytics: An Hour A Day, describes the wonder that he continues to feel for the intricate web that is the internet:

If the Internet didn't exist, I wouldn't exist in a professional capacity. Because to find all the people out there who want to have a conversation, who have made me more intelligent than I ever thought I could be by myself, is just this amazing gift of the Internet to me.” Avinash Kaushik

ELLEN PETRY LEANSE

Ellen Petry Leanse, who helped convince Apple to interact with its users over the internet back in the late 80s, describes how the possibilities of tech should stimulate our collective sense of childhood wonder.

“Look to the inner compass of what is possible and [feel] that sense of wonder that we all had when we were young children for being creative and seeing the potential to do that most human thing of all-—to innovate, to create, to be curious.” Ellen Petry Leanse
 

OPTIMISM—EVEN IN GOVERNMENT?

In Silicon Valley, it’s fashionable to be cynical and hopeless about our government. Many so-called thought leaders think that governments aren’t necessary and that they are deserving of our disdain because they are populated with people who don’t get technology. But I don’t buy it.

Just a few months ago, scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory announced they have designed a plastic that can be recycled over and over again and turned into new materials of any color, shape, or form, often called “the holy grail” of recycling.

KUMAR GARG

I dare those with anti-government sentiments to read about that discovery, or listen to my guest Kumar Garg and still believe that. Kumar, who worked in the White House Office of Science and Technology during the Obama administration, will show you just how hard our public servants work, tirelessly and patiently, to put government investment into the areas where it’s most needed. 

 
I think we have to run at the fire, not away from the fire. Because as folks who work in science and technology, we can actually play a helpful role rather than a disengaging role.”
— Kumar Garg 
 

WE KNOW IT’S NOT ALL RAINBOWS...

Now, to be fair, technology and society face real challenges today. Our guests aren’t shy about identifying them, but they're also doing something about it. Get this: 

  • Karen Catlin was a successful technology VP who left her position to pursue a career teaching others to be better allies to marginalized people.

  • Sian Morson clearly calls out the “dismal” numbers of black women receiving VC funding and calls for more investment in women in general.

  • Engineering leader Ron Lichty realized that tech’s culture wasn’t healthy for developers, and its failure to train engineering leadership was an opportunity he chose to pursue.

  • Coraline Ada Ehmke and I discussed the issues of identity on the internet, which have become a serious threat to marginalized people of all kinds.

  • Technology historian Mar Hicks raised the call about the risks that human bias is building into artificial intelligence which challenge the very foundations of our free and fair society. They document clearly the erasure of women in technology, but even still, believe it’s not too late to harness technology to serve humanity instead of the other way around.

  • We asked 75-year-old management powerhouse, Tom Peters, what he thought was getting better and his answer was crystal clear: “If you’d told me 40 years ago that gay marriage would be legal, I’d have told you were full of shit.”

It’s impossible not to be buoyed by these guests’ perspectives on life, even as they point the finger at technology and demand that we put humanity at the center of innovation instead of treating each other as disembodied wallets and faceless “users.”

Maybe that’s the equation for returning optimism to Silicon Valley: it’s not being blindly positive, it’s acknowledging the dark corners in the same sentence that we talk about how to fix them. Just as John Kennedy pushed us 60 years ago to do the things that are hard, the only way out of a dark situation is to identify the ways we can each make things better. Even in the dark, keep an eye on the light, whether it’s JFK’s moon or something else in your sky.

What gives you hope and optimism about technology today, in spite of the challenges we are facing? For me, right now, Dr. Katie Bouman's photo captures it so well.

 
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