Fellow geeks: enough already with the baubles

Fellow innovators and geeks, our lives are in danger of being wasted filling the world with useless stuff. Even worse we are running the risk of impoverishing the lives of everyone else around us – sometimes directly and sometimes due to side-effects. By all means let’s innovate – we badly need innovation! But in the name of all that is good and holy, we must ask ourselves: what innovations, and what ventures, are worthwhile?

It is horrifying to witness the talent wasted in absurdly over-leveraged internet platforms that are using relatively minor and inevitable innovations to make land grabs in big markets. Why is the talent wasted? Because the two most significant outcomes in the world of these practices is to accelarate the concentration of wealth and to steal value from nature and people.

Just to avoid any misunderstanding, some of the technical innovations involved have potential utility. I am myself an innovation enthusiast and I find many of the technologies and business concepts ingenious and fascinating. But that does not mean that they are all worthwhile pursuing. It certainly does not mean that the way they are being created and exploited is of genuine benefit to us all.

So how do we know what’s worthwhile? There’s no way to avoid the complexity of answering this question. We have to be prepared to engage in discussion of ethics, genuine value, the aspects that impact social cohesion, etc. But a good starting point is, as always, to ask the right questions: Firstly, does your innovation remove an inequity? Does it move value to the disenfranchised? Secondly, does the entire process that delivers your product create real value overall – that means to nature, to people now and to future generations? Or is it just shifting value to allow extraction of wealth?

In my experience, most of us startup folks avoid even thinking about the problem at all. We’ll say, ah but we are just solving a particular problem, making a business process more efficient or delivering a specific type of benefit to users. Or we’ll assume, as many implicitly do, that merely because we innovate means we are “on the right side of history”. Therefore, we’ll argue, we don’t need to consider these types of questions.

Well, we do need to look at the ethics of what we undertake. We have already reached the impasse. As we introduce more baubles and more innovations we are at the same time driving three huge engines of destruction: increasing inequality, stealing benefit from nature and people, and decreasing social cohesion.

If our innovations are not actively solving the big problems we face, then we can quite rightly be considered, at best, as passive participants playing with our toys while the world burns, or at worst, as parasites.

We have the best tools that have ever existed and the best networks of people and expertise. We need to set our expectations higher!

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