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
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?