goodtech 07: ‘The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed’

Also featuring American tech manufacturing (?!), Zuck’s Icelandic roast, and a FOIA request that’ll take 55 years

(That quote is from William Gibson, ages ago. Sadly, it’s still true.)

Hi friends –

I hope you had time to rest and recover a bit over the new year. It’s been a rough one already and we’re two weeks in – so if this catches you feeling a little down and despairing, just know you’re not alone.

Let’s all give ourselves a bit of grace: this is a hard time to be a human, and you are allowed to be human, and you’re beautiful because you’re a human and not because of any goal or product or external factor.

I’m glad to be back with you and plan to send you this newsletter once a month from here on out. We have some exciting things in the works that I can’t wait to share!


💡 Big Ideas

TL;DR: Time and technology are the two things poor people don’t have, yet every solution we’re building requires both. This creates new pain points for underserved communities – and then more predatory ‘solutions’ step in to solve those new problems we just created. It’s a vicious cycle of growth marketing, and it needs to be stopped.

We’ve talked about the time tax before. WIRED just published a full feature on how requirements around connectivity are effectively creating a smartphone tax on the poor. African governments and the US are now taxing digital payments made via mobile.

When we build a tech product to solve a problem for underserved communities, what we’re saying is that our technology can improve a situation for them. If it works, we sell it, ship it, and people start to require its use.

Yet we often avoid looking at the third and fourth order impacts of our solutions – and in doing so, we open the door for even more predatory solutions that come behind us to solve the problems we’ve inadvertently created.

Take, for example, digitisation of government paperwork, a laudable goal since the 1980 passage of America’s Paperwork Reduction Act (last updated in 1995). Sounds great, right? Reduce paperwork, make it easier for people to access government resources and transact daily business?

Here’s the thing, though; all that digital technology being implemented – however slowly, however haltingly – still imposes new problems on new populations.

Elderly people have a hard time using the digital check in at the DMV. Rural people have a problem getting pages to load on crappy cellphone reception. No one owns a printer or a fax machine anymore.

Poor people pay for every second of data they use, and their only device is a smartphone, so if you’re offering a Word document turned into a PDF that loads slowly, can’t be zoomed in on a mobile screen, and still has to be printed, you’ve only solved the first problem, not the ones you’ve just created.

This is where predatory lending, outrageous fees for services like printing, and the disproportionate price of cell phone access all come in: on the back end, to keep the solutions you just implemented going. It’s the poor people you serve who have to pay the cost.

Take another example – Meta’s new so-called Privacy Centre, where users can learn all about their privacy controls and how they steal use your data.

First of all, that’s putting all the work of learning about data collection practices on us – a difficult enough thing if you’re highly educated and speak English natively, much less if you’re not. Second of all, most of the global population would never spend their limited data doing that – so just by virtue of access they’re giving up more than everyone else.

I could go on – for example, that water and sewer billing for most of the country takes place in a DOS environment that’s ancient, clunky, and results in people paying higher prices because the usage systems aren’t accurate – but I’ll stop here and just say this:

The internet and technology will not solve anything. People solve things.

Sadly, people also create more problems by solving without any consideration for the impacts of their decisions.

There’s an argument to be made this way against web3 and all these new crypto trends, too. Steve Lord (please, stop what you’re doing and sign up for the dork web) put it much better than I ever could:

In 2018, James Mickens outlined the ‘Assumptions of Technological Manifest Destiny’ – see at this link, around 36:47. One of those is that technology is value-neutral, and will therefore automatically lead to good outcomes for everyone. As Steve notes, “The reality is that technology is not value-neutral. If we don’t understand something, it’s pretty obvious it shouldn’t be connected to the internet.”

As you’re building, thinking, developing, and prototyping solutions, try to keep in mind the unintended consequences of whatever it is you’re building in tech. So often we focus on distribution rather than access – and these are two very different things, especially when you’re trying to build something good in the world.

If we can change this assumption that tech-based solutions are the best simply because they’re built on tech, we’ll get better tech products – ones that actually solve problems for good, rather than creating new problems that require even more expensive or onerous solutions.

The other thing this approach might do is shift the way we think about funding entrepreneurship: you should be able to access entrepreneurship funds whether or not your product is built in tech.

Right now, of all VC money in the US, half goes to internet and software companies. Less than 4% goes to industry and less than 1% each goes to agriculture and energy. These sectors are suffering from a lack of innovation, technological advancement and opportunity – simply because VCs aren’t interested.

If we can find a better way to direct all these entrepreneurs and all this venture capital to sectors that actually need it – and then build products that solve real problems – we’ll see exponential growth in the goodtech sector. And that will benefit both founders and people, for a long, long time.

🥑 Holy guacamole, that might actually work

Cool ideas for new ways of doing things

Zebras, not unicorns: A team of four women founders wrote an article back in 2017 about how zebras fix what unicorns break – and the absurd culture around founders that was keeping people out of a system that could do all kinds of good.

Long story short, it went viral, they wrote a second article, and then a whole publication, and then they started a community.

If you’re working in the startup space and you’re not getting what you need from communities of people that don’t look like you, it’s a good one to check out:

From the start, [startup culture] has excluded countless capable founders and ignored the important products and services they’re passionate about bringing to the world… These founders don’t align with the scene, the values, the culture, the business models, and the economic imbalance it perpetuates. When a system is corrupted, why endorse it by joining it? Instead of fighting to change this existing reality, why not design a new one of our own?

💜 Speed Dating

Public meets private, sometimes with disastrous consequences

🚀 Moonshot

One big idea, every week

Dan Wang has a great proposal for all of this Build Back Better funding that’s coming down the pipeline (if you need a great news read that isn’t a mainstream outlet to catch you up on this, I highly recommend Michael Jones’ The Supercreator).

Dan argues it’s time to ‘put the silicon back in Silicon Valley’ – and he’s probably right. From his editorial in Future:

America should not be content with being a country that invents new things but lets others actually make them.

(Thanks to Kevin Rapp – whose newsletter you should check out – for the link to this!)

🥂 Upcoming Events

New and improved: goodtech salon & coworking | feb 2022 🚀Our first goodtech salon of 2022 is here! Based on your feedback, we’re trying something new – an earlier lunchtime meetup that accommodates our friends in other time zones. We’ll do half an hour of intros and catchups and have an hour for remote coworking together. You can jump in a breakout room with anyone who’s got a solution to a problem you’re stuck on, or you can get some deep work done with the good vibes of everyone you’ve just met backing you up.

We’ll be online from 12-1:30 p.m. EST on Friday, Feb 4. Reply to this email and I’ll add you to the invite!

📚 I’m on a curiosity voyage, I need my paddles

Books, podcasts, articles and more to feed your brain

Happy new year to you all. I hope you are taking care of yourself, letting go of what no longer serves you, resting whenever and wherever you can, and doing as little as possible.

No, really. Give yourself a break.

Until next time,