Who Let The Conch Out?

One of the great stories of our time is the multiple “Arab Springs” that networked-devices and social media enable in big and small forms. One way to think about that shift is: Distributing computing power across citizenries can create a stronger force than concentrated authorities. As centralized authorities lose power with tech distributing among citizens, we may also expect a less orderly transition to what is next — the next order. That “less orderly transition” will be a test for how we all collectively behave when no one is watching yet everyone is watching.

Over four years ago, before I even worked at a real web/mobile tech startup, I wrote a guest column on TechCrunch titled, “The Next Mass Consumer Social Wave: Political Expression.” It’s worth re-reading today as so much has happened since then (click here for link). I wrote this a few weeks after the Arab Spring protests in Egypt. That was a crazy time. As a student of history, I couldn’t believe what was happening in real-time. The future arrived very quickly. I am still in shock this is only four years ago, especially when I see lines like this:

Most citizens in the Middle East do not have these luxuries we take for granted. For them, nations like GMail, Facebook, and Twitter provide that place, a common platform which helps them tap, refine, and express an assortment of pent-up desires, and as we have seen, generate tremendous kinetic energy most levees cannot withstand.

In the old days, centralized or local (or surveillance) teams would gather footage, but then decide editorially whether or not to broadcast that information; today, with ubiquitous data and pocket-based computing, with broadcast television powers in our pockets via Periscope and Meerkat, with social networks like Facebook and Twitter to host and route information, we see a lot more of our world. Capturing, uploading, and sharing 1st-hand citizen accounts is the new voting.

Are we decaying as a society, or just seeing more of what had always been happening under our noses? There’s so much to say, but I wanted to keep this apolitical and brief. I’ll close with two (2) thoughts:

One, so much of today’s discourse reminds me of Golding’s “Lord Of The Flies.” Who has The Conch? We can’t talk about (dis)order without revisiting the symbolism of The Conch. It used to be central authorities or networks — now the conch is distributed, so things sound noisier, and things feel disorderly. because we have to listen to 1,000 conches — not just one. Things may get worst before they get better.

Two, in an optimistic sense, I try to draw personal inspiration from this change, however bumpy and unsavory it is. Back in high school, my focus and ambition was to enter the world of politics in some way. That evolved and refined over time. I wanted to have an international life, to be a diplomat, to serve in foreign areas. I was dealt a setback in the college admissions process, and then turned to (almost) studying law as a means to exercise that desire. Luckily, a former boss stopped me from going to law school. Yet, the dream of international diplomacy still pulled at me, taking me to graduate school and a course of study focused on this — yet again. And, again, I was passed over, repeatedly. The worst experience was having an official from a not-to-be-named central authority request an interview, only to have the civil service employee arrive late, unprepared, and in sweat pants.

I couldn’t have imagined a career investing in technology. I do not know much about investing or technology. But, it is the path I’m on, and the best part is that some of the change I hoped to be a part of via diplomacy may not just also happen via technology, I may in fact be in a stronger position to advocate for it. Specifically, that could mean studying and investing in technologies that (1) increase and democratize web/app access for more and more people; (2) provide alternative, ad-hoc, and mesh networks for people and machines to communicate within; (3) foster new payment mechanisms which lower costs, provide different types proof (time, payment, justice, etc.), and empower the powerless; (4) create new employment opportunities that increase both take-home wages and flexibility around scheduling; and (5) change and improve how we live, work, and get around our physical environments.

An LP I know well pulled me aside recently to point out that investors who raise funds also, like entrepreneurs, have to go through a test — Who are you? What do you believe in? What do you stand for? Not too different from how The Joker described himself in The Dark Knight, sometimes in the pace of work, some investors can just revert to “dogs chasing cars.” I have felt that, for sure. But, after a while, that’s not good enough, according to that LP — and I think he’s right. Being able to invest, even small amounts like I do, is a sort of “Conch.” Diplomacy and statecraft are also Conches, in their own way. Now, everyone has one, and more people are using it — some of the sound encounters deconstructive interference, killing the signal; some, if we’re lucky, will eventually and constructively break through the noise to create bigger and louder waves.

Haystack is written by Semil Shah, and is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Copyright © 2018 Semil Shah.

“I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.”— Epicurus