Creating Technology for Social Change

Liveblogging #ODR2014: Keynote Conversation with Mitch Kapor

I’m here at the #ODR2014 conference. ODR2014 is the annual meeting of the Online Dispute Resolution Forum, an international assembly of lawyers, mediators, technologists, and others who care about technology and dispute resolution.

The livestream is here and embedded below:





Our lunch session is a conversation between Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus Development Corporation, cofounder of the EFF, and an investor in Modria, and Leah Wing, codirector of the National Center for Technology and Dispute Resolution and a Senior Lecturer at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Leah introduces Mitch to the audience. She begins by asking him about the social impact of the technologies he develops and has lately chosen to invest in.

Mitch frames his career historically. The Internet began as an oddball project for oddballs, he says. He mentions a cover story he wrote for WIRED in 1993 which offered a Jeffersonian, optimistic view of a decentralized cyberspace. The reality has become more complex because “the Internet is a giant amplifier for all human activity,” both good and bad. He supports organizations like NCTDR, and companies like Modria, because he views the amicable resolution of disputes to be a necessary condition for realizing a better future for the Internet (broadly defined).

Mitch and his wife, Freada, are primarily interested in promoting equitable access to opportunity: education, health, housing, and so on. They’ve seen a real growth in the number of entrepreneurs who come to them with ideas for helping to solve these problems. But while Silicon Valley sees itself as a meritocracy, it’s got its own iniquities and biases and blinders too; he mentions the recent “courageous admission” by Google about the lack of diversity of its workforce.

Leah asks why access and diversity are so important to him. Mitch says he doesn’t come to this approach as a “social justice person,” although his wife, a civil rights activist, did. Incrementally, he came to understand that these things are intrinsically important for humanitarian reasons, but also says they can align with the interests of companies in which he invests. He describes how African-Americans have historically struggled hailing cabs but can get an Uber (CP note: although the record on AirBnB with regards to race relations may be more mixed).

Mitch argues that no company or service can be socially neutral. If you assess the impacts, they will always be positive or negative across different communities. Mitch argues that companies ought to take these impacts into consideration when designing their models, and points to certain new corporate forms which allow companies to take things other than the maximization of profit for shareholders into account.

Leah asks about how he thinks about considering and measuring social considerations within business models. Mitch says there isn’t an answer yet, but that the important thing to do is to change the frame, because that gives people permission to think in new ways (and, in a certain sense, makes it culturally impermissible to hold more exclusionary views). He advises employees to consider company culture and values when deciding whom to work for. As an investor, he gravitates to social impact startups because he’s always found that there was an oversupply of socially minded entrepreneurs who couldn’t find funding without compromising on their social values, which means there is demand and potential to be tapped.

Leah says that this discussion is a good reminder to dispute resolution professionals to reexamine who they are including, inviting to the table, and considering as legitimate in the process of raising and adjudicating disputes. Mitch says that his team has been thinking a lot lately about equitable hiring in startups as a design problem. He says the goal is not to treat everyone the same (equally), but fairly (equitably). As a use case, he offers an example of a startup which might want to be frugal, but may exclude people who don’t have sufficient wealth to have a safety net (i.e., they have a lot of student debt and can’t move back in with their affluent parents). What if (asks Mitch) startups offered debt forgiveness as a perk for their employees? Could that help open their doors to a socioeconomically broader cross-section of the labor pool and improve their talent pool?

Mitch closes by claiming that algorithms are getting “better and better, [but] the better the algorithms get, the better we need to get as people to at doing the things that algorithms can’t do,” like being creative and fair and compassionate.

An audience member asks if companies should consider the labor side of the equation when designing their social entrepreneurship. Mitch says absolutely, and that he encourages and prefers companies which allow both their employees and contractors to develop professionally and progress personally as opposed to being treated as interchangeable and disposal parts.

An audience member asks about collaborative economy companies avoiding taxes and undermining government services which they are then well-positioned to replace. Mitch says that these companies should not get a free pass from taxation and believes that, like Amazon, they will eventually be brought to heel. He believes that many of these companies are “literally” immature, and gives as an example a company which (briefly) enabled people to resell public parking spaces, which is indicative that “standards [are] too low” in the startup world in some respects. He distinguishes investment thesis and values as against his peers who are “buying offshore oil rigs and starting countries.”

An audience member asks how collaborative economy companies can extend internationally. Mitch says he doesn’t know enough about development economics to say, but says he does believe that market solutions can’t fix all social problems.

An audience member asks whether companies believe Mitch when he tells them that more diversity would make them better businesses. He says it can be hard to make the argument because lots of non-diverse businesses have done well economically. With that said, he’s found social impact companies which employ members of the community to whom they hope to sell products and servicesl, their lived experience of issues and problems are likely to be a source of comparative advantage. “So when we see three white guys from Stanford pitching an ed-tech problem for urban schools, well, do they really understand those problems?” The best social impact companies, he argues, will have deep social and cultural roots in diverse communities.