06 January 2013
Mumbai, Chhatrapati Shivaji Airport (BOM), International Terminal
On last night’s flight from Atlanta to Amsterdam, along the way to Kathmandu via Mumbai, I found myself sitting next to a woman who works with the Aspen Institute. She’s a former Fellow of the institute who continues to participate in their activities by serving as an occasional organizer and mentor. Impulsively, I asked what the Aspen Institute thinks of B Corps. She informed me that B Corps were actually created by an Aspen Institute fellow, a friend of hers, who worked on creating the B-Corp structure as part of his fellowship. How exciting! We spoke briefly about it but she seemed tired and not particularly excited about the prospect of spending a transatlantic flight getting her brain picked by a strangely enthusiastic hacker who wants to talk about about corporate structures.
Etiquette constrained what I could say, and how much of her attention I could presume to demand. She was, after all, trapped in her seat between me and the airplane chassis. She was at a disadvantage; basic manners dictated that I should not commandeer her headspace. What I really wanted to tell her was that I was sitting on that plane right then, escaping to a monastery in Nepal, because I’ve had a crisis of orientation & resolve. Fundamentally, I believe that the only way to make life meaningful is to cherish benefit for others and to bend one’s life and opportunities towards creating that benefit. How does one translate this conviction into action? For nearly a decade my path has been to explore what it takes to build technologies and companies that create benefit through dissemination of information, preservation of human knowledge, and celebration of craft. I intend to continue that work because many things about it ring true but, in part, I’m reeling from a lack of camaraderie because, more broadly, I find myself grappling with unsolved, contentious questions about the structure, function, and limitations of the modern capitalist economy.
I think that corporate culture and startup culture are biased against thinking seriously about social benefit because we all believe, to some extent, that capitalism is fundamentally cold, selfish and skewed in favor of exploiting the poor while rewarding those who are already well off. Part and parcel with that belief is the assumption that the primary ways of explicitly achieving benefit are through charity and/or government welfare rather than commerce. However, when I look at my personal experiences in business while scrutinizing the mechanisms of suffering, injustice & welfare and considering the past 40 years of research into topics like game theory & behavioral economics, I see a remarkable amount of graceful skill in the patterns of modern capitalism. I find myself suspecting that free market advocates might be right -that capitalism itself can and does serve as a great tool for achieving benefit, and the things that make capitalism harmful are mistakes of distortion. This is only a suspicion; I remain skeptical while intrigued. If my goal was to merely achieve benefit for myself while telling a good story about why my actions are actually beneficial for everyone, I could glean convenient satisfaction from the existing free market argument. Alas, my goal is the opposite; my goal is to act for the benefit of everyone while telling a good story about why that’s even possible. This leaves me inclined to proceed with caution.
I’ve personally witnessed how embarrassingly easy it is for a bright individual to raise giant sums of money in order to build technologies and companies whose focus is relentless financial profit. More importantly, with that money comes brilliant, skillful, well informed guidance from mentors who know how technologies work and how companies grow. In contrast, it’s remarkably difficult to find shrewd guidance, funding, or even encouragement when attempting to create technologies and companies whose primary purpose is benefit rather than profit. In that domain, there is very little support infrastructure that a person like myself can readily access, and there’s even less community. I’m not saying that this support infrastructure and community are nonexistent, rather that they are difficult to access and insufficiently prominent in the flow of civil discourse. Organizations like the Aspen Institute are out there drumming up discussions, but we need to see a lot more of it. For example, If you were to toss around cocktails at almost any bar in San Francisco you would be able to find a chorus of silicon valley devotees proffering intense, opinionated, well informed conversation about topics like profit models for tech startups or equity strategies for stakeholders. Some of those devotees will be schmucks, but others will turn out to be genuinely talented and insightful individuals who are ready and willing to act as sounding boards for new ideas and new perspectives, as long as your ideas fit within the established paradigm of software startup culture. Where can I find that same kind of sounding board when I need to have a serious, pragmatic conversation about finding the balance between idealistic vision and sustainability? Where do I turn when I need to discern between a shrewd business decision and a good one? Why does it feel like I lose connection with the people asking these types of questions when I assert that market forces and modest profit models are preferable to relying on government funding, charitable organizations and grant cycles?
Venture Capitalists like the Founders Fund challenge us to be strident and visionary — they complain that “We wanted flying cars. Instead we got 140 characters.”. They have a great point, but they call for a bland, technocratic type of visionary thinking. What about asking whether flying cars will do any meaningful good in a culture that lacks compassion, and what about acknowledging that in the pursuit of flying cars we will run a high risk of inventing new forms of weapons while potentially giving rise to new flavors of coercion, conflict, environmental ailment and strife? Progress is a deceptive thing, and the relationship between technology & happiness is fraught with complexities.
I am a strident technologist, inventor, creator and futuristic dreamer, but I have no interest in merely pushing technology (or art) forward. That type of so-called forward motion is a thinly veiled illusion.
I know that I’m not alone in harboring these sentiments, and I’m hopeful that the world is secretly bedazzled with a network of pragmatic dreamers who get it. I see their sentiments reverberating in the ideas of those around me, but these ideas are beseiged by skepticism and they grind against the presumption that kindness, generosity and concern for human happiness are incompatible with successful business.
Where is the chorus of benefit-driven ventures? Why isn’t it the dominant voice in our culture and economy? How can I participate in that chorus? Who will help me steer true? Where are you?
It’s thoughts like these that are driving me to Pullahari. I have built plenty of momentum in my work, but that is not enough to ensure it will be benefitial to others. On a fundamental level, I’m convinced that the adjustment I need to make is mental. After all, our mental habits and views dictate our actions. Our actions, in turn, create our world. Hence, a sabbatical on a mountaintop in Nepal, spent translating & meditating on Shantideva‘s Bodhicaryāvatāra, is exactly what I need right now.
I guess the other reason why I held my tongue with my fellow airline passenger from the Aspen Institute is that I don’t have much to offer in the way of solutions or innovations yet. I don’t even have a coherent critique of what I see as the current state of things. All I have are open-ended questions, some experience, a bit of lonely frustration, and a strange long-shot hunch that my next steps have something to do with storytelling. We will see where this goes.