M-Theory: Charting tech’s path forward for 2018 Melanie Baker January 3, 2018 Communitech, Featured, M-Theory I spent a lot of 2017 alternating between being angry and tired, which I say as someone with privilege out the wazoo. So when a coworker sent me this Wired piece, The Other Tech Bubble, picking apart tech’s ongoing issues, foibles, and cluenessless, I was all ready to put my snark on blast. Snark is fun, but it’s content junk food, and 2018 is supposed to be our year of action. (Don’t worry, there will be future opportunities for snark.) So instead: some critical and (hopefully) constructive analysis. We already know that diversity makes for better businesses, that harassment and –isms are wrong, and working yourself to death isn’t “crushing it.” Nevertheless, these persist. Better paths have never been clearer and we as techies and citizens have never been more connected and more globalized. How are so many people still so clueless and toxic and resistant to change when change would benefit everyone? “Human nature?” Yeah, that’s a cop out. Recently I was listening to a rebroadcast of this Freakonomics podcast about social and interpersonal trust. A lot of light bulbs went off in my head, especially regarding that Wired piece. The podcast suggests that in some European countries, and Australia, among others, social trust is increasing, while in Canada it’s on the decline, along with similar countries like the U.S. and UK. (The podcast references a lot of research so I’m not technically extrapolating from one data point …) To oversimplify things, in places where social trust is low, there’s little sense of community. You don’t trust others’ motivations or actions, so your own are driven by self-interest, not the collective good. This tends to encourage a cycle of ever more anti-social behaviour. In an industry like tech, where, as the podcast notes, “… deals need lawyers instead of handshakes,” that’s a very influential, insular, and ultimately damaging cultural driver. Related are the concepts of bonding and bridging social capital, which refer to attitudes and actions based on our immediate relationships (bonding capital), and with those in our broader sphere (bridging capital) who tend to be different from us, in gender, race, religion, education, socio-economic class, etc. Experiments tend to show that when people have smaller personal networks and a decreased sense of community, it’s tied to lower social trust and bonding social capital. This isn’t surprising. Further, this decrease in social capital (shrinking networks, etc.) also results in less bridging social capital. If we don’t have many of “our people,” we’re not inclined to trust those who aren’t, or try and build relationships to make them so. We’re left increasingly isolated, with smaller personal networks and social resources to draw on. We’re guided by a few, often skewed, sources of information and social influence, which likely agree with what we already think or want to be true. It’s not a big leap to the rarified hot mess of Silicon Valley, bro culture, lack of racial and gender diversity in tech, etc. But it gets worse. We’re not only less likely to trust those with whom we haven’t established bridging social capital, we’re more likely to actually cheat them (at least in business/financial dealings). Per the results of an experiment outlined in the Freakonomics podcast, how fairly we treat people depends a lot on how much they look like us (or not). I don’t know you and you don’t look like me? That translates to the least amount of bridging social capital and likelihood of cheating. Hey ladies and people of colour: want to try and build your startup in that environment? In more hopeful news, though, it’s not necessarily a permanent state. It is possible to expand our networks, make more people “our” people, get comfortable with different groups, and build both bonding and bridging social capital. It is not, however, easy. Lack of social trust makes us not only resist change, but it makes us do so more aggressively. Compounding that is the idea of: “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” No one wants to give up first place. When I trained in Krav Maga (a self-defence system adopted by the Israel Defense Forces), most trainees gravitated to people similar to themselves when we had to pair up for drills or sparring: Men with men, women with women; similar fitness and perceived skill levels together, or just your buddy, etc. This is a terrible way to train. You’re only learning how to fight one type of person (or one actual person), who very likely will not be who you need to defend yourself against one day. To prevent that habit, the instructor needed to explicitly instruct people regularly to find a new partner, ideally a new partner. Didn’t happen nearly often enough. Tech industry: stop sparring with your friends. It would be awesome if we could just mandate development of beneficial habits starting in school. But for already formed (calcified?) minds, it’s less straightforward. And entrepreneurs tend to be folks who aren’t real fond of being told what to do. Another problem? Increasing, diversity seems to correlate to lowering social capital. Sigh. Fortunately, that’s only in the short term. Things get bumpy, but they can change. They’re going to have to. Diversity — ethnic and otherwise — is increasing, in Canada and elsewhere. Societal growing pains are cyclical. This isn’t new. Few of us have any interest in maintaining the “good ol’ days.” Exposé after exposé has revealed what happens in industries that rot from the inside. Collapse becomes inevitable. Sure, tech has some responsibility for some social issues, especially around isolation and making it too easy to opt out of challenging or even just shared social experiences. But in other ways it works to increase social trust. We may not hitchhike much anymore out of fear of being murdered, but as Dubner comments in the podcast, we have Uber, a multi-billion-dollar company centered on “using technology to lure a complete stranger into your car.” Or, while there are certain safeguards in place, a measure of social trust is still needed to use Kijiji or eBay or accept consumer reviews on Amazon or TripAdvisor. Tech is amoral. We can direct it to any point on our moral compass. We can learn social trust while using tech, and we can use tech to build social trust. Consider little experimental things, like the app that Max Hawkins is building to break himself (and others) out of social bubbles, and using randomness to create social capital. Or at the very least new experiences to make us do some real thinking. We can do it; we’re already chipping away at tech’s big issues. And honestly, do you really want another year like 2017? So, year of action. Let’s go. M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached @melle or firstname.lastname@example.org.