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#26 Effective Utility, Not Effective Altruism
It may sound boring, but utility should be the driver of technology and innovation.
If you follow general business news, you may be aware of the recent dramatic collapse of the crypto exchange FTX and the alleged fraud by founder and former CEO Sam Bankman-Fried (also known as SBF). It has been a train wreck that I cannot take my eyes off of. Here is a young, 30-year-old, (and by many credible accounts) a really smart and talented individual who built and led a $25 billion business, but is now struggling to explain how he lost track of $8 billion of user funds. More than a million people may have lost their money. More than a million people.
[And since my writing of this post, he was arrested in the Bahamas and charged by SDNY for defrauding FTX investors. The drama and intrigue continues!]
How is this possible? Many people who are actual experts will be untangling this nightmare for years to come. I won’t pretend to have an explanation here. But this story of FTX and SBF is the capstone to the ever-growing body of evidence that technology without utility breeds feckless greed and wealth.
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If you read these headlines about FTX, SBF, and crypto exchanges and you feel incredibly removed from it all, this is a perfectly normal and intelligent response. For me, I will admit that I count myself as “crypto curious”; I have watched the rise of this industry with interest (it peaked at a valuation of nearly $3 trillion!), and even read up on a lot of the main industry players. But even after a investing a good amount of research into it all, the whole thing continued to feel quite distant and beyond grasp. At first, I thought I simply wasn’t “getting” it. But pretty soon I realized that it feels like speculative gambling because it is. It is an industry and product without proven or prospective utility in our everyday lives. It gained recent mainstream status by engaging celebrities to run Super Bowl ads, not by meaningfully improving lives.
You may be wondering why I’m discussing crypto on my newsletter, which normally sits at the intersection of life, work, and motherhood. And the answer is this: As caregivers, as women, as people of color, or heck, as anyone who has been told that they are outside the center of gravity in this economy… we constantly question whether our voices and lived experiences matter in shaping our world and our economy. But they do. And they deserve to carry more weight and importance in shaping our collective future — not just in the obvious spaces that have direct application to our everyday lives, but also in sectors that may feel more remote, like technology and innovation.
The Utility of Utility
They say that if you want to become an empathetic leader, you should have a turn at working in the service industry. There’s nothing like waiting on tables to get a glimpse into the best and worst of humanity. It makes you internalize the credo that good people can have bad days, and it teaches you how to connect with people from different walks of life.
I similarly believe that if you want to build technology or a business that has real-life value and utility, there is no better way to hone your bullshit filter than the experience of caring for someone else — to be responsible for the care, survival, and well-being of another human being. Whether it’s caring for an elder, being a parent, working in a daycare or nursing home, or caring for the disabled, it’s the type of experience that helps you discern the points of friction that could use a technological solution, from the points of friction that simply make life worth living. You see and experience the problems worthy of solving.
Caregivers have intimate proximity to reality and utility. Caregiving tethers you to the daily grind of living and navigating this world. If we want to innovate and build technology, not just based on what increases short-term financial gains for investors, but based on what we actually want and need as a society… we need people with caregiving experience to access these fields and help shape the future.
Building the Present Future
I understand that SBF’s criminal fraud and embezzlement are separate and distinct issues from crypto’s speculative utility in our lives. But the fall of FTX and the rightful resetting of crypto’s valuation is coinciding with a moment in our current economy where we are holding our collective breath to see where, when, and how the dust settles. And that, to me, is an opportunity to recenter technology and innovation around utility, or at least nudge it a couple of degrees in that direction.
Whether it’s crypto, the metaverse, or AI, the so-called future is immediately in front of us today. (Another big piece of tech news this week was the launch of the latest version of ChatGPT, the AI-driven chatbot that has tremendous application and import right now.) And it’s no surprise that the decision makers shaping our collective future are largely male, with life experience similar to that of someone like… SBF, for example. This is rather concerning.
I do see pockets of change and meaningful discourse that is challenging the status quo. For example, technologist Aviv Ovadya is advocating for “platform democracy” as a means of governing technological platforms more democratically. But it strikes me that everyday people, especially caregivers, need to feel more agency and ownership in shaping future technologies.
To that end, if you’re interested in some of the podcasts and articles that I have found informative (and nuanced), see below:
Ezra Klein Show
McKinsey Report: Even in the metaverse, women remain locked out of leadership roles