Building Mission-Driven Technology

Many stories of technology ignore the better angels of our nature. We read reports of killer drones, job-destroying automation and algorithmic manipulation of human emotions and it reinforces our stories of golems, Frankenstein monsters, and terminators.

jessica-rabbitTechnology is a neutral container though; it holds the very best — and the very worst — of human intentions. There is nothing inherently bad or evil about it; it’s just what we make it. We choose the ends to which we develop and apply technology, which means that there is nothing stopping us from creating noble tools, nothing stopping us from building “mission-driven technology.”

Technology of Insight

One-Year-of-MeditatingThe other day, I completed my 365th straight day of meditating. What’s interesting about this milestone is how technology helped me get there.

Insight Timer is an great little mobile app: it times my meditation, offers background music and sounds as well as excellent guided meditations. More importantly, the app’s built-in social network and “gamification” techniques motivate me to use it every day. Its “consecutive days” metric brutally resets to zero if you miss just one day – which apparently was just the incentive I needed to stick to my routine.

To be clear, this isn’t just a story about technology. Meditating every day for more than a year took real effort on my part. But this tool really did help strengthen my discipline in pursuing my meditation practice. It’s technology that has made a real difference to me.

Welcome to The Machine

Welcome-to-the-MachineOver the last few centuries, we have built a powerful archetype — let’s call it “The Machine” — which we have infused with an unnerving soullessness, a receptacle for the human ego’s greed and drive for power and control. What our own imaginations lacked, our storytellers supplemented with nightmarish visions of our creations rising up to destroy their creators. We have imagined The Machine archetype as something to be feared.

When we fail to see the intrinsic neutrality of machines, we do more than perpetuate this dark mythos of The Machine archetype; we create a self-fulfilling prophecy. By accepting technology as a container for our power and greed, we doom ourselves to programming and perpetuating these goals. When we expect greed, we program greed, and ultimately, we create greed.

I occasionally run into people working in the field of social change who view technology with deep suspicion, almost as though using it will somehow taint their work, or worse, infect it with the very thing they are trying to stop. While I am sympathetic to these sentiments, it is this wrong-headed thinking that effectively cedes the power of technology to the forces of greed and control rather than harnessing it to help heal the world.

I used to run a mission-driven consultancy that developed technology to help environmental organizations engage people in social change. So I know from firsthand experience just how difficult it is to run the kinds of mission-driven organizations that build mission-driven technology. Developing these unusual business models takes a great deal of creativity and managing their operations is an endless balance between earning money and achieving mission impact. It’s messy work, but when done right, it can build a wonderful work culture for creating mission-driven technologies that heal the world.

And in some cases, those technologies just might even help someone achieve inner peace.

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