Sacrificing Today for a World Tomorrow


Last week I was at the Monktoberfest event after Cheryl McKinnon, and others, insisted that I HAD to attend. Any conference that focuses on developers, community, craft beer, and social was already appealing. When you factor in the large numbers of recommendations, I had to attend.

Monktoberfest soared above my expectations.

It was really a three events into one, and kudos to RedMonk and Steve O’Grady for putting the event together. It was a place to meet and converse with smart people in and adjacent to the Open Source ecosystem, to try some great new beers, and to hear about how technology can, and should, change the world.

One such talk, given by Alex Payne, brought up an extremely interesting topic that spurred a lot of discussions. [Note: Reconsidering Startups is now available for watching.] He questions the setup of the Silicon Valley “startup” ecosystem and how it seems that it was more of a model of disruption to help capitalists and not the world.

This raised the question, what is our ethical responsibility as “innovators”?

Who Do We Disrupt?

I have commented a few times about Silicon Valley’s obsession with Disrupt All The Things. Alex asked us if this was a good thing. Uber is putting some cab drivers out of business. Meetup.com is putting massive pressures on industry associations.

Look at most disruptions and there are people that are losing, or have lost, their jobs. Robotics is reducing manufacturing jobs and completely changing the nature of the ones that remain. Online banking is reducing the need for tellers and bank branches, as the ATM did previously.

Even in Content Management I am costing jobs. If I implement a system that successfully streamlines a process by 30-50%, that means that 30-50% of the staff isn’t going to be needed anymore.

We do all this for efficiency, but the beneficiary appears to be corporations, not individuals. We are displacing people and making things harder on our economies. The larger the disruption, the larger the impact.

The Future Balance

Our planet has finite resources. If we don’t reduce our resource consumption, we will run the planet into the ground. All these disruptions COULD be argued to be ways to conserve those resources.

If I can bank online or swing by the ATM at the grocery store, don’t I save gas? That bank branch that doesn’t have to be built can become a park or some other net-gain in land use.

If Uber succeeds in serving more people with less cars, isn’t that better for the environment? Doesn’t that help the planet?

Consider the cloud in all its mystical hype. If we are able to consolidate data storage and processing to larger, more efficient, data centers on a scale that individual organizations cannot achieve, doesn’t that conserve energy?

These benefits are not the purpose behind most disruptions. Most entrepreneurs focus on the bottom line, especially after they go public and they have to maintain steady quarterly growth. Stockholders want quarterly growth, not messages about helping the planet.

Regardless of motivation, a lot of disruptive technology can stretch and help conserve resources.

A Wake of Destruction

Let’s agree on the following, disruption is necessary if we are going to solve the problems of the planet. As we make these changes, what are our obligations to those we innovate/disrupt out of a job?

Most companies say that it isn’t their problem. I would argue that it is very much their problem. Large numbers of unemployed people that have lost hope in recovering can pose problems.

Remember the Occupy Wall Street movement? That is exactly what happened. I’d argue that the main reason that the protests lost steam was that the economy was recovering.

What about next time?

Douglas Adams captures this mindset perfectly in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

Lots of people became extremely rich. But this was perfectly natural and nothing to get upset about, as no one was really poor – at least, no one worth mentioning.

That list of people not worth mentioning is getting longer with each disruption.

What if we save the world but the human race is so angry and divided that we can’t enjoy it? Should we save the planet, and billions of people, at the expense of hundreds of millions? At what point does the damage from that sacrifice out-weigh the benefits?

These are questions that organizations seeking to disrupt things need to think about today. Obviously we should shoot ourselves in the proverbial foot to save the planet. That means that we need to think about helping the disrupted now.

Even if they were disrupted a decade ago.

Are you one of the disruptors? How are you going to help? Is it a band-aid or something that will make a real difference in people’s lives?

What do YOU think? What are the ethical responsibilities of the disruptors?

3 thoughts on “Sacrificing Today for a World Tomorrow

  1. Laurence, from my perspective the problem is not with the entrepreneurs, while clearly every person on this planet is responsible to some extent for his own future. The short term perspective comes from the stock market. But where does the stock market come from …

    The problem is a political and we do have the governments that we deserve. Governments need the financial system the way it works because it is a hidden way to finance inept governments who continue to spend more than they receive in taxes. The financial system on the stock markets represents an alternative way to print ‘money’ in the form of tradeable instruments. The 2008 crash was just the peak of the iceberg.

    So it is not the entrpreneurs and investors, and not even the banks and the large enterprises who are at fault. It is the governments who are supposed to govern the financial markets as free market environments. With the huge banks and companies that are too big to fail and who can buy and dominate any market segment there are no free markets.

    They use their stock market financed power to fulfill the short term goals of buyers. They ‘invest’ and ‘divest’ businesses to hide the fact that they are inept no end.

    Large structures, be it countries or companies are extremely hard to manage due to the issues of complex adaptive systems. Politicians and executives are mostly silly control freaks who have no clue how nature and the world works. They have no long term perspective. The next quarter, the next executive contract, the next election, and that is it.

    When I go out to promote to companies that they should not use BPM (or any other software) to cut costs by reducing manpower, I am told that I can’t prove the ROI of my solution. I tell them to focus on improving customer service quality but all they are interested in is Big Data to cut service to least possible level before customers jump ship.

    The complete outsourcing scheme whether to Asia or not is a ridiculous short-sighted number game that MBAs and CFOs use to prove how good they are. It kills business flexibility and innovation for years.

    Hence, I find it somewhat misplaced to put the blame on software entrepreneurs and startups. Let’s put the blame where it really should go and that is at our own door because we are voting for the wrong governments. Government employees and retirees vote for politicians who spend money on them and with people getting older and older that means we will continue this process until the big crash. People are really silly … you didn’t know?

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    • Max, been thinking about your response and I’ve decided that you are taking the easy way out.

      It is obvious that the government is INCAPABLE of helping itself, much less helping the country. The country can’t even agree, or at least get their representatives to understand, on the things that we, as a society, need to advance.

      Your approach is fine WHEN GOVERNMENT WORKS. The disruptors can look at their taxes, look at the things being done by the government, and feel good.

      The INSTANT that the needs of the disrupted are not being met, then the disruptors need to help out. Ethically, shouldn’t they make sure that sure that people are being helped, and step in when they aren’t. This is well within the means of the companies in question as Silicon Valley rakes in billions. Sure, many fail, but they haven’t disrupted anyone out of their life.

      Even if the government was fully functional, no single organization can help everyone. There are gaps. Also, the larger the organization, the slower they are to respond. This needs to be proactive. Simply saying that it is someone else is going to solve it doesn’t relieve the burden. You have to follow-through.

      We can blame government all we want. That just removes any excuse for not doing anything because it is clear that we KNOW the government won’t do it.

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