A longtime investor and supporter of entrepreneurs argues that our entire approach to developing technology has to change. Tech can no longer just hack the world.
The following transcript has been lightly edited and condensed for ease of reading.
John Borthwick: … It really leads up to, I think, a lot of issues to do with how we set up tech companies, how we grow them, the culture we build around them. Because a lot of the behavioral stuff that we’re talking about, even when you go down to like apps and think about how kids are using apps or the YouTube algorithm and problems you were alluding to earlier. I think that it’s about incentives, it’s about culture, it’s about transparency, and it’s about sort of media literacy which Sarah touched on a bit. You know, that we need to understand what this stuff is doing to our brains.
David Kirkpatrick: How do we make progress with all that, John?
Borthwick: … I think we need to establish some reasonable boundaries around tech. We need to start to prioritize human beings; Andrew, at the very end of his, like, I think his fifth or sixth point there was about driving: using technology to drive humans forward. I think we need to squarely place humans at the center, our species, we need to bias our species at the center of the creation, the design, what we’re doing here. And we need to figure out some methods, rules, shorthands, tricks, to be able to do all of this. Because—I really enjoyed Sarah’s presentation but I’m just on the other side of the fence to her, which is, I have three kids, and they’re now beyond teens but I did not let them have screens until fairly late. Why? Because I can’t control my screen behavior and so trying to expect a child, a preschooler to moderate their behavior I think is just—if I can’t do it, I’m not going to place that expectation on them.
And so I think we’ve got to like figure out some—there needs to be some guardrails around this and that’s in terms of individuals, you, the users; It’s in terms of developers, in terms of government, and we need guardrails and some accountability. And we need to be able to talk about stuff like this at things like this.
Kirkpatrick: Well, we certainly seem to be.
Borthwick: We definitely are today.
Kirkpatrick: Well, we did yesterday too. Talk about how you have shifted Betaworks, just what is it now?
Borthwick: Yes, so I started Betaworks off about 10 years ago and we were very early in the consumer tech wave here in New York.
Kirkpatrick: As an incubator really.
Borthwick: We really started as an incubator, right. We started very much as a foundry incubator; we were building stuff. But I always used Betaworks as a sort of magnet to convene people who were creating. And I also viewed that, you know, at the end of your chat with Karin, she mentioned the power of cities and I think part of the power of New York and what accelerates and distinguishes the tech community in New York is our sort of intersectional ability to cut across industries. Whether it be design, the arts, fashion, media, even fintech, right? We have a multitude of really strong industries in New York and as tech is transforming all those industries, we have to learn how to walk and talk across those industries. And so I viewed Betaworks to be a hub for that. And then fast-forward to today, you know, we’ve gone so far as last year we opened up a club, which is a clubhouse for— basically, a clubhouse for nerds because we wanted to have a place, a physical place, where we could convene people to have conversations about building companies and then some of these harder conversations about tech.
Kirkpatrick: Is that partly because you share a lot of the thinking of our mutual friend, Scott Heiferman, who I know you’ve worked closely with over many years. That really tech needs in large part to push us more towards real world experiencing, is that your way of doing your own kind of Meetup kind of approach?
Borthwick: Yeah, I mean, Scott is an old friend and I’ve been tremendously inspired by him over the years. He’s also an investor in Betaworks and I was an investor in some of his stuff so we sort of—we work together in a lot of different ways. But—
Kirkpatrick: You ran one of his companies, didn’t you?
Borthwick: I did run one.
Kirkpatrick: Okay, keep going.
Borthwick: One of the companies he started, Fotolog. So I think that Scott was—had the early foresight and the importance of IRL.
Kirkpatrick: In real life.
Borthwick: In real life, right. And so the relationship between sort of the web and the virtual and the physical and the real, I think has now become indistinguishable and yet we have to—the physically connecting people in real life still matters a lot. And my sense is that, my tribe, the people who are building stuff in tech, are desperately in need of a place to connect with one another and so you know, Karin talked about the future of work and the future of—you know, part of what we’ve seen is this massive dispersion, new places to work, new ways of working, new ways of—new waves of working 24/7, 7 days a week, you’re always working, you’re always connected, you’ve got all these amazing tools but you’re not really connected. And actually talking to people matters. It’s helpful.
Kirkpatrick: Speaking of being connected, you are a very connected person in tech, you know so many of the leaders of tech and you know many of them well. And you have this fairly strong set of views about things having gone off the rails. How much do you see that becoming a widely held opinion? In other words, do you see a sort of phase shift happening or is this still something we have to really work super hard to make happen?
Borthwick: I mean, I think it’s both. I think that we are at a point right now we’re at the power of the incumbents. You know, since my early days in technology when I—you know, Microsoft dominated all the platforms, we now have a set of platforms that dominate the majority of our experiences. So we have a set of incumbents who have an incredible amount of power, incredible amount of data capital. They’re very smart people, they also know how to innovate, right? Because 5 years ago, 10 years ago, most incumbents did not know how to innovate so they looked to the early stage sort of startup ecosystem as a source of innovation. A lot of cases they’re now just copying that. And so I think we’re in a phase where the incumbents have all this tremendous amount of power, yet these conversations are starting, they’re really bubbling up. I mean, Chris Hughes posting last week I think was a big deal.
Kirkpatrick: That was a big deal.
Borthwick: And it’s not only a Facebook founder, it’s not anyone with a strong voice, but Chris went into so much detail about, you know, why this is a problem and, you know, he talked obviously about break up which got, I think, all the headlines, I think the agency idea that he also promoted that other people have talked to, a sort of federal data agency, some form of permanent federal body to understand data and privacy, an important point.
So the conversations are starting but we need to accelerate them.
Kirkpatrick: Okay, could we see if anybody wants to join into this conversation besides me because I certainly have more things. Okay, yes.
O’Driscoll: A big things that’s popped—
Kirkpatrick: Identify yourself.
O’Driscoll: Oh, Tony O’Driscoll from Duke, a big thing that’s popped up is this notion of community and cooperatives and ground up and that technology could somehow enable that and another one is privacy. Harriet Pearson who was the CTO at IBM said, “Privacy is not binary.” Our ability to reveal something about ourselves can become important contextually. So how do you think tech can be applied in that way to kind of build the ground up community, while honoring privacy but still allowing the kind of community growth rather than capitalistic growth?
Kirkpatrick: What a nice question.
Borthwick: Yes, so there’s many layers in that. So I mean, I agree that privacy is not binary but I also think privacy is a choice. And that we have to give people the ability to make those choices which, more often than not, we don’t in technology or with technology… Doug talked about sort of the growth imperative and one of the big overlays that we have on top of this entire system is this massive growth imperative. And I think we have to have that discussion full on, because as VCs, you know, at Betaworks we have a venture fund, we do early stage investing wherein the way VC funds are incentivized. And we have to, VCs need to, everybody needs to participate in figuring out what are our actual goals because growth is not a goal, I think Doug made that point clearly. Do we want to enhance human species? Do we want to build autonomous humans? I’ve got a pretty good autonomous human that’s sitting right here right now and I would like it to remain autonomous. And so that’s a choice that we need to make and I think that small-scale communities are ways to distribute and start making those choices.
Kirkpatrick: Who else has one quick question, we’ve got time for one more. We’re moving fast here. But, you know, the thing I just want to note, we did not necessarily populate this program with people who thought the kind of thing you just said. We populated this program with people who we thought were really smart and we liked that we wanted to hear from. It is to me indicative of a zeitgeist shift that there is such consistency coming from this stage in these two days on these issues, that something has gone wrong, that the human element has to be reinserted. I mean, maybe there’s a little reason we did sort of maybe manipulate that, only a little, but it is real.
Borthwick: But this coming from the man who wrote the book on Facebook.
Kirkpatrick: Well, I was an optimist. I did have questionary statements.
Borthwick: You and I argued about this like eight years ago.
Kirkpatrick: Well, I was right that they were going to get really big, you were skeptical.
But I was wrong to think that—
Borthwick: I was hopeful.
Kirkpatrick: You were a big Twitter guy, you’ve always been a big Twitter guy. But I guess I’m just saying I see—
Borthwick: Yes, there was a shift.
Kirkpatrick: But it’s a New York thing, I don’t think—we would not be having this discussion in Silicon Valley with a group of entirely Silicon Valley people. Although, many of them are here saying the same thing. There’s still a resistance, don’t you think? I mean, certainly at Facebook and Google, there’s still a resistance.
Borthwick: Well, they’re the incumbents now, right? So for 15 years, 20 years, the mantra against New York media was, “You don’t f*cking get it. You don’t get that this technology is changing everything.” Now it’s—that is the mantra that’s being screamed at the Valley now.
Kirkpatrick: At them.
Borthwick: Yes, “You don’t get it.”
Kirkpatrick: Well and quite universally.
Kirkpatrick: I mean, by New Yorkers, by government leaders, by the EU, by Singapore, India, Japan.
Borthwick: My mom, yes.
Kirkpatrick: Yes, even Mark saying he wants regulations. So okay.
Dawn: What David and John—
Kirkpatrick: Okay, Dawn, you’re a tech Meetup, real quick.
Dawn: Wouldn’t you say that it’s at odds with capitalism and how we are—
Kirkpatrick: What is at odds with capitalism?
Dawn: You know, tending towards and caring about the more humane parts.
Kirkpatrick: Well, that’s the debate.
Borthwick: Dawn, I do not agree. I think it’s at odds with—it’s the market mechanism and markets have, I think, throughout our history as the United States, throughout the history of this country, we swung back and forth between sort of an extremely—if you look at the early industrial years, an extremely pure sort of market centered, markets will solve everything. And then the nation, the people, actually demand something more, they demand public schools, they demand infrastructure, they demand healthcare, they demand things. And so now we’re just seeing that swing back and that is part of what makes this country so great.
Kirkpatrick: Speaking as someone whose accent suggests you didn’t start out here.
Borthwick: I didn’t start out here.
Kirkpatrick: Okay. Well, thank you, John. Don’t forget your phone.
Borthwick: Yes, yes.
Kirkpatrick: Really good. So I’m just going to introduce my Techonomy colleague Steve Gray who is going to take us to our next session—