More Questions On Technology

Posted by Deven Shah on Mar 29, 2014
3927 reads  
In reading Nipun's questions on technology, I started adding a few thoughts in the comments, but as I kept on writing, it turned rather long.  So here it is. :) 

Adding a few more questions I deeply care about:

-- What is the sanctity of 'friends and connections' on online social networks that thrives on human ego (Facebook) and greed (LinkedIn), and are started by corporations who care the most about valuations and maximising returns to shareholders? In a system like Facebook where one can pay money to "boost post", "buy Likes" and "pay extra to send message directly in inbox" else it will go in the "others" folder - isn't this kind of cheapening of human interactions a signal enough to convey the dangers of our increasing dependance on these networks and the accusations of invisible theft that may be happening in it's business applications?

-- Many people (including myself) who are aware about deeper pitfalls of advertising driven models in these social networks and related products, continue to use them to varying extent. Is lack of better alternatives a primary reason why we still use it, even though with caution? Can we expect the existing networks and structures to change for better, with attempts by many like Facebook to bring in a culture of compassion in their work or would they end up being superficial? Will it take a new breed of products that are built from ground up to nurture human goodness and building community based on love, led by people who are leading with inner transformation and organisations that are structurally free from the pressures of "monetizing the users" and "maximising shareholder returns"? There are some open source initiatives that propose being possible alternatives to online social networks from a technology perspective, but how do we attract the best of human talent who have both - a strong spiritual grounding and ability to create superlative design, user experience and communication for outreach. How do we attract various forms of capital to make a product that fundamentally shifts the way in which we build human relationships? What are the shifts required to ensure that the new alternatives to the commercial applications remain sustainable without losing it's sanctity? Of course, I'm biased when I say that the way in which ServiceSpace has leveraged technology, it has created value for me that is greater than what Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn has created at a personal level. Can we have the same level of purity in technology applications and networks that are used in the context of business or online social networks at large?

-- Let's also acknowledge that online social networks of today are very powerful because they give humans a simple, yet enormously powerful and creative platform to communicate and express themselves. When Zuckerberg was writing the code for 'the facebook' in his dorm room, he may not have imagined the variety of ways in which people will use it one day, including being a strong medium for democratic movements to fight against corruption and political systems across nations. So while giving the due credit to design and engineering work done by the Facebook team for creating a product that people loved to use, it is also important to note that it is the users of Facebook who took the usefulness of the product to a whole new level. And again, kudos to the FB team for constantly keeping up with product upgrades and developing new features that delighted users. So while there were many ways of online communication available before Facebook, including networks like Orkut and MySpace, we have to give credit to Facebook for building a good product. One question that crosses the mind is, when Zuckerberg started building Facebook, if he would have met a monk or a spiritual capitalist, leading to a journey of inner transformation, what kind of a different trajectory would it have taken for Facebook? I'm remembered of the parts of Steve jobs life story and his spiritual experiences. But being in business eco-system driven by greed and competition, the instinct to win and arrogance overpowered him in success as perceived by the material world. Suffering from cancer and seeing death approaching nearer, did make him more contemplative towards the end and perhaps that had a bearing on determining the gift that was given to his family and friends who came for his memorial - a gift that conveyed the importance of attaining self realization. And even when someone like Mark Benioff of Saleforce acknowledges that his close friend and mentor Steve Jobs' message of attaining actualisation is super important, how much does it change his actions in personal and professional life? What kind of changes do we need to make in the business ecosystem to accept spiritual understanding as the foundation of all that we do and not a nice topic that we occasionally speak about and get back to the routine? 

-- It is largely the investors of Facebook who drive it's business model and valuation in the direction that it is today. So is the blatant commercialisation of human interactions done by Facebook a result of the typical valuation driven model in which most funded startups are encouraged to work i.e. give away your product free to attract users (in the process 'burn cash' while you are building traction), make them addicted to it and then monetize them as much as you can once you have a critical mass to exploit? For every one financially successful startup, there are many, many failures that burn cash like there's no tomorrow, e.g. Color - Silicon valley's $ 41 million app experiment. Even the venture capital investors are questioning the model from their own perspective and feel it's not working. Is the time ripe for a more humane and sustainable (or regenerative) model for running businesses and supporting startups? 

-- Today, for entrepreneurs who want to build 'the next Google / Facebook / Linkedin / Twitter / WhatsApp...' there are tons of venture capitalists, incubators, accelerators and networks to support. Is the startup ecosystem today in a competitive race to create 100 super entrepreneurs who will startup and create large corporations worth billions of dollars serving millions of customers or would we be happier creating millions of entrepreneurs who work as a community, sharing resources in the spirit of co-creation?  Growth will happen through evolution and not a race for valuation. Some ventures by it's nature (e.g. a community farm) will serve a local community and some (e.g. an online social network that's an alternative to Facebook) will serve a global community. 

-- When we follow the model of 'search and amplify', to find a person with purity and spiritual grounding > becomes an entrepreneur leading with inner transformation >> develops projects/ventures that he/she deeply cares about >>>, then very different kind of impact will be created. How do we develop a much stronger support system for such entrepreneurs wanting to lead with inner transformation and start ventures that are rooted in the spirit of service and co-creation? When we treat financial capital as just one of the eight forms of capital, and create a support system for this community of entrepreneurs and users, what kind of ecosystem will emerge? The experiment that we did in the startup service event of using 'crowdsourcing pots' where the community offered support in various ways, was it a seed that can redefine the power of crowd-funding as we understand today?

-- India has about 4 million registered non-profit organisations in India, that's an average of one non-profit entity for every 300 of the 1.2 billion population. Hundreds of Crores are donated in charity year after year, yetphilanthropists themselves argue on the limitations of positive impact made. Even for "social entrepreneurs" who intend to make a social change through business, the support system in India is largely driven by impact investors who offer a relatively "patient capital", but financial returns and exit strategy is still an important part of the expectations, with some of them even lusting for an IPO and a listing on the capital markets. I hope that the impact investing community evolves with time and space it is asking for, though I am certain that the leaders will need to lead with inner transformation to make a meaningful difference. Some of the leading social entrepreneurs in India have confessed to me in a personal discussion that the pressure of scaling fast and delivering higher financial returns to investors is the biggest reason for them chasing numbers and metrics that aren't aligned to their core purpose, which in turn dilutes the overall effectiveness of their work. Is too much emphasis on external impact without giving importance to inner transformation the root cause of all this? Can we build an ecosystem that attracts the best of the talent to build products and services with love and compassion?

-- At The Economics of Happiness gathering and conference that I attended last week, it was quite an enlightening experience to interact with change-makers from diverse fields ranging from business and politics to activists and spiritualists. While different people were following different ways and means, the common part was that all were working towards doing something good for the humanity at large. So while many of the questions I'm asking are larger issues and I'm committed to find answers and contribute my bit towards creating solutions, the route for me is how can I ground myself in reality, stay connected to my inner self and be the change I want to see in the world.

After reading Nipun's questions, felt like sharing mine with you. Thanks for listening. :) 

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Comments (2)

  • Nisha Srinivasan wrote ...

    Good thoughts Deven. I feel that any platform that has a mass appeal can be tuned for alignment with your values, if the design of your connections and interactions is conscious.
    I get plenty of shared wisdom about homeschooling, gardening and inspiration from these streams because the feeds are set up that way. And after a while, it is easy to filter out look-at-me sharing from real sharing.
    Yes I know of people who spend many unproductive hours on social networks as well. But can we find fault with the platform for that? Finally, it all comes back to me.

  • Deven Shah wrote ...

    @Nisha, thanks for sharing your perspective. And as you know, not only do I use Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin etc. extensively myself, I've also been conducting workshops on getting people more and more people to use online social media, effectively. And I completely agree that finally "it all comes back to me". Since I now have a better understanding about some of the inner secrets about the way in which these online social networks work and their business compulsions, there are some disturbing signals I can already see and some worrisome trends that I foresee. Let's take an example of the unsolicited advertisements and 'sponsored stories' that now appear on your Facebook feed can have pictures of your 'Friends' in a way that indicates they are endorsing some commercial products, which [...] See full comment.
    @Nisha, thanks for sharing your perspective. And as you know, not only do I use Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin etc. extensively myself, I've also been conducting workshops on getting people more and more people to use online social media, effectively. And I completely agree that finally "it all comes back to me". Since I now have a better understanding about some of the inner secrets about the way in which these online social networks work and their business compulsions, there are some disturbing signals I can already see and some worrisome trends that I foresee.

    Let's take an example of the unsolicited advertisements and 'sponsored stories' that now appear on your Facebook feed can have pictures of your 'Friends' in a way that indicates they are endorsing some commercial products, which may be happening without the explicit permission or awareness of that 'Friend'. Most people don't read the implicit permissions we give Facebook when we click on the "I agree" button of the privacy policy. So your own photo can be used in an advertisement or a sponsored story just because you 'Liked' some post or an image or page at some point, like it happened to this teenager: [View Link]

    And this is just the tip of the iceberg. You may today feel that "any platform that has a mass appeal can be tuned for alignment with your values, if the design of your connections and interactions is conscious." But if the conscience of people running these platforms with mass appeal allow them to monetize on your emotions and your personal data that you may think is private. What if they dominate the online world to become what "Monsanto is today for GMO crops" where the common man is not even aware of what goes behind the food they are eating? What these online social networks can manipulate is very subtle, mental behaviour and hence the damage can be invisible to a large extent. Some insights are there in this video on the "Innovation of Loneliness": [View Link]

    Also want to clarify that my observations are not against any one product i.e. Facebook, which I am just taking as an example. Even Twitter has started increasing the "Sponsored Tweets" shown in the timeline, increased the frequency of emails I get on "what's trending", "tweets you may like to read", "suggestions" etc. which have implicit and explicit paid advertisements, and all of this is considered as accepted norm today. Hence the larger question is where can the "Silicon Valley meets Wall Street" model take us when the core motivation of these online social networks is to keep increasing their valuation which leads to monetization models that subtly but consistently change your usage patterns to make profits for the corporations at costs that can be devastating.

    And I'm not a cynic :) I continue to use technology and these social networks extensively. In fact, I'm a madly positive person who feels technology and these social networks are going to play a key role in the positive transformation. Asking these questions is part of the process to create wholesome solutions that promote "well-being for all". Hide full comment.