Check Yourself, Tech. Let’s Pop the “Bubble Of Tone-Deaf Arrogance”

My sister is mentally retarded.

She very likely wasn’t born that way. What she was almost certainly born with was epilepsy. Her first grand mal was misdiagnosed. Kristen UnderwoodHer second would cause her to stop breathing for 10 minutes. Had a doctor not lived nearby, she’d have died.

The experience of growing up with my sister changed every part of me. Kids would pick on my sister, and by extension me, at school. It destroyed my parents marriage. It made be too comfortable in hospitals. When I was young, my family would be kicked out of stores because cashiers and store owners were afraid of my sister. You don’t forget that. It gave me an edginess, an urgency. It causes me to think a lot – too much perhaps – about privilege, entitlement, advantage, and fairness. It also gave me some degree of empathy. My sister’s life experience made mine.

It is with this memory that I look with horror upon the way in which parts of the tech community – my community – are behaving right now. Business Insider writes “Silicon Valley Is Living Inside A Bubble Of Tone-Deaf Arrogance”. I concur.

The article cites comments by Greg Gopman. I know Greg from NYTechResponds. Rather than offer “no apparent utility or value to our planet”, he was quite helpful. He provided advice on how to structure our hackathon. With support from Greg, The Alley NYC shared their co-working space with us and a pre-scheduled sanitation hackathon (focused on addressing sewage and clean water issues in the developing world).

There is no excusing Greg’s comments – ridiculous is the kindest thing one might say – but he appears contrite and unless we all choose to live in a glass house, it seems like forgiveness is a path forward.

What is alarming is that the attitude reflected in Greg’s comments appear endemic in the tech sector. The BI article cites numerous other examples. And while BI calls out Silicon Valley, I don’t think the NYC tech community – my home community – gets a pass either. Nor do Boston, Seattle, Austin, Portland (OR), Boulder, etc.

While many in the tech community came from humble backgrounds, working their way through school, achieving a measure of success in the tech community, there are also just as many, maybe more, who had nearly every advantage in life. I know plenty of people in the tech world who went to top schools, had plush internships. I know more than a few who started their careers with significant trust funds at their disposal to fund into their ideas. They were – no, they are – blessed.

NYTechResponds, to which Greg contributed, came to be in the day after Sandy because of posts such as the one by Tony Bacigalupo. Tony wrote “In the face of tremendous challenges in the days and weeks and months ahead, we have an opportunity to contribute our unique capabilities to help those who need assistance with their technology needs”. Tony cited a post of mine, in which I wrote that same day “We, the NY tech community, now must step up to help lead and drive the recovery. NYC has given us much, we now must give back.”

What unified the people mobilizing tech to help respond to Sandy in those early days was a sense that tech had an absolute obligation to help. It was not optional. Tech is now the 3rd biggest sector in NYC (and by some counts the 2nd) – we can’t simply ignore our responsibilities.

You can have a beautiful home in the Rockaways one day. And it can be washed away the next. You can have a healthy, beautiful girl Wednesday, and an epileptic, mentally retarded child that will need a life time of care Thursday. Shit happens. And it can happen to you.

So if you’ve been lucky, had a good run, and are living high on the tech horse now, I ask you to sympathize with those who have not had the same breaks. If you’ve had to overcome difficulties and challenges, be empathetic to those battling long odds. If you know someone like my sister, or a family dealing with a similar situation, or a single mom who has lost her job, or an illegal immigrant trying feed his family, perhaps you can find it in yourself to remember how blessed you are, and how essential it is to give back. If you don’t know anyone like this – anyone who is struggling – then step out of the bubble.

We are not better. We are not above. We are not smarter. We did not accomplish what we have despite our nation, its government, and its people. We have accomplished things because of them. Nos esse quasi nanos, gigantium humeris insidentes.

My maternal grandfather worked on the Enigma machine and then got blown up in France, winning a Purple Heart in the process. My paternal grandfather navigated bombing runs over Burma by the stars. I spend my day in a warm cube in the Flatiron talking with smart people and designing a platform. I bet you have a similar history and current situation.

We need to change. Here are some concrete suggestions I’d offer up for the tech community:

  • Going forward, before you decide to comment on politics, society, and economics, get familiar with the issues. Read. Research. Know the history. In NYC a good way to get to know what’s going on – and get involved – is to attend a local community board meeting. There are similar structures elsewhere.
  • Think before you post. While you might be speaking for yourself and to your friends, on social media your thoughts spread far and if you have a measure of influence you may be seen as a spokesperson for our sector.
  • If you want to be a “member” of your local tech ecosystem, it should be sine qua non that you volunteer and give-back to the wider community in a concrete way. Everyone should be expected to give back at least 10 hours a month, 120 hours a year; moreover everyone should be asked to give 1% of their gross income to charity, with a target of 5%. If you don’t think you can find that time in your schedule, start looking at all the networking cocktail events you attend. They are your “low hanging fruit” — you may find the money to donate there too. Get your ass to a soup kitchen. Teach coding at a school. Volunteer at a home for seniors. I don’t know if there are ways to enforce this, but certainly we can design tools to track volunteer work and match that with MeetUp registrations. (Note: Attending a hackathon != Volunteering).
  • Leaders in our community – CEOs, successful founders, influential VCs, well-read columnists/bloggers – must all stand up to demand change. We need you to speak out against the “tone-deaf bubble of arrogance”. We need you to use your influence to demand a minimum commitment to community give-back.
  • We need “How are you giving back?” to be a question founders ask of co-founders, VCs ask of portfolio companies, limited partners ask of general partners, employees of managers, board members of CEOs.
  • We’ve also had our share of issues involving tech sexism (among other “isms”) which we must address. Year end – a time of reflection, taking account, making amends, and starting anew – is a good time to start dealing with those issues.
  • Let’s adopt a “no assholes allowed” rule.

This has gone on long enough. The party’s over. The bar is closed. Grow up. Pay it forward. Open your heart and care.

Check Yourself, Tech.