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The startupification of tech

Over the last decade or two tech has become dominated by the startup: a small, new business that rapidly reinvents itself in an iterative process. Once upon a time, the aim of that process was - or at least, seemed like it was - to be as useful as possible to a well-defined target group of users. These days it feels like the aim is mostly to gain as high a valuation as possible by moving from venture capital funding round to funding round, eventually making bank through an exit event.

That startupification has had an interesting effect on tech communities. I’m from the utopian era of the web, when we all thought we could build something to connect that world, and by doing so that we would make it more peaceful. These days, it seems like people are mostly in it to make millions of dollars - which feels like an emptier, less exciting goal, to say the least. The possibilities for social change used to seem endless; now the conversation is mostly about funding rounds or financial yield. In itself, it’s boring, but it also changes who is attracted to the space: we’ve gone from a loose group of weird social idealists to being overwhelmed by a bolus of the most boring possible people. The tech workforce is becoming Wall Street in hoodies, far more concerned with the performance of their RSUs than the impact they’re having in the world.

Of course, there are still idealists: people who believe in making the world more equal and democratic, and that technology has a part to play in making it happen. The indieweb movement remains one great example of this; there are also plenty of people working on tech for good, or mission-driven endeavors where the social impact comes first. Even in companies that are a part of this financialization of tech, there are people doing great work on inclusivity, unionization, and advocacy for social responsibility. Nonetheless, at this point, these groups are in the minority.

I find that personally demotivating - it’s not why I got into the space, or why I’m excited about it - but it’s also kind of counterproductive. If you’re laser focused on helping a defined group of people, you’re more likely to build a valuable company, because you’re literally generating value. Conversely, if you’re focused on making money as a goal rather than a means to an end, you’re more likely to make shallower decisions that undermine your value. Being focused on helping your user means you’re aligned with them; being primarily focused on your financial goals means you’re primarily aligned with yourself. To put it another way, if the aim is to raise a round or make a bunch of money personally, you’re more likely to make decisions that screw your users and undermine that goal to begin with. It’s also just a selfish, stupid way to look at the world.

Remember this Apple campaign?

Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.

It doesn’t say here’s to the stockbrokers, is all I’m saying. Tech could use a little more crazy, a little more outside thinking, a little more equity-mindedness, and a little less greed. That’s how the world gets changed: by focusing on people, not on dollar bills.


Photo by Israel Andrade on Unsplash