I’m not really sure I’ve got any place to be writing this. I didn’t know Aaron very well at all—we’d met a couple times at the Berkman Center way back, and at Personal Democracy Forum last summer—so who am I to try and write some sort of remembrance?
So I’ll just say why his work inspires me: he was a participant. He’s most well-known for being a “hacker” whatever that means these days, but he wasn’t cynical like some on the techno-left are. He didn’t heckle from the sidelines, he put his money where his mouth was. And that didn’t just mean downloading content and making it freely available online. It also meant wanting to work for the Obama campaign even while he was under investigation by the Justice Department; to him, the system wasn’t beyond repair. It meant using his tech credentials and skills to raise awareness about issues beyond those that directly affected him. He’s exactly the opposite of the self-absorbed Silicon Valley technologists I described in a post a few weeks ago. As the kids would say, he was legit. He lived his beliefs and he was always trying to leave the world better than he found it.
In truth, I found Aaron difficult. I am probably one of those people who made him feel like banging his head against the wall when we talked. But his work is the most honest, and earnest, work anyone in this civic tech world ever did. When I heard the charges against him for breaking into that storage closet at MIT and downloading those journal articles, I rolled my eyes. Turns out it wasn’t a stunt, he was living his beliefs. So as people who know Aaron much better than I did reflect on his life, his passing has made me think about what it means to actually be who you say you want to be and have your life’s work reflect that. I hope I’ll be a little more honest in my work because of him.
I posted something on Twitter the other day that got a bunch of attention, and I realized I wanted to clarify what I meant. Here’s what I wrote:
“Silicon Valley’s problem in a nutshell: crazed about Instagram’s ToS, not a peep about FISA reauthorization.”
I meant to capture something I’ve been thinking about a lot since I moved to the Bay Area in February: the tension between Silicon Valley’s impact on democracy and its utter lack of interest in or understanding of the institutions and systems of government its companies do business in. Silicon Valley isn’t on a bubble, it’s in a bubble.
But as I tried to make that point in my tweet, I realize I conflated both the Silicon Valley-based tech industry folk and the population of Internet-savvy semi-celebrities who have the ability to—for better or worse—push stories and memes onto everyone else’s agenda. For the purposes of this blog post, I’m going to separate the two groups because my critique is actually different depending on who “Silicon Valley” refers to.
Let’s start with the Bay Area tech community. In addition to living in San Francisco for most of 2012, I’ve gotten to know the tech start-up communities in Chicago and New York, and to a lesser extent Boston’s, and the attitude towards the communities in which Chicago/NYC/Boston companies operate is different from the attitude Bay Area companies have. Maybe because tech is not the dominant industry in those cities like it is in the Bay, but start-ups in those other cities seem much more well integrated into the civic fabric; The founders and employees are living lives that aren’t circumscribed by technology in the same way it is in San Francisco. As much as city officials will deny it, San Francisco is very close to becoming a company town; the Valley itself is already far beyond that status. There are a couple consequences of this:
First, Silicon Valley, including San Francisco, becomes a much less interesting place for world-changing ideas. The well-documented lack of diversity in the Valley would be comical if it wasn’t so harmful. It feels like, and often is, a bunch of Stanford guys making tools to fix their own problems. Sometimes they stumble into a groundbreaking new app that has a more far-reaching impact (see: Twitter) and sometimes they try and shoehorn a social good mission into their business plan (see: a thousand other companies). Barely any of them start from an entrenched social problem and work backwards from there. Very few of them are really fundamentally improving society. They’re making widgets or iterating on things that already exist. Their goal is to make themselves as appealing—or threatening—to a big player as possible so they can get bought out for a few hundred million dollars and then devote the rest of their lives to a) building Burning Man installations, b) investing in other people’s widgets, or c) both. They really don’t care that much about making the world a better place, mostly because they feel like they don’t have to live in it.
This isolation has also deluded them into thinking that they are in fact making the world a better place, simply by building their products and platforms. The Silicon Valley rich are famously stingy philanthropists and a defense I’ve heard more than once is that the tools they spend their time building are inherently good. “Why donate money when people can just download my app and instantly have a better life?”
Second, the lack of forced interaction with different constituencies and the political influence that the tech industry has over local government here means that these companies—and founders—don’t need to reckon with the role of government or governance. Couple this with the libertarian streak of the Valley and you come out with an utter disregard for policymaking and regulatory environments. They should know by now that this is dangerous thinking. Put aside the moral obligation I think they have to be good citizens, they don’t fully understand the impact government has on their ability to do business and they desperately lack the political and organizing skills necessary to help governments come around.
But even if they were politically savvy, the issues the technology industry would be pushing are a different set of interests than consumers (and by that I mean citizens) are concerned with. Which brings me to the second part of what I meant: those who have outsized power and influence through network technology to make their voices heard often put it to use in the most inane and self-centered ways. There was lots of talk after the Internet beat back SOPA and PIPA about the potential for networked models of citizen participation that actually WORKED. The so-far failed opportunity to realize that potential has been starkly revealed in the last few weeks: the tech-savvy in an uproar over Instagram’s terms of service while at the same time sitting idly by as FISA gets reauthorized, and staring helplessly from the sidelines as Congress bungles the fiscal cliff.
What if these two groups—the tech industry and the denizens of the Net—put its economic, political and media clout behind fixing our broken system so it works for everyone? What if, instead of imploring people to vote on Facebook’s privacy policies, we were pushing Florida lawmakers into fixing the state’s broken voting system? What if prison reform advocates could speak as loudly as the anti-SOPA activists? Why can’t we, the tech community, figure out how to harness our talent and influence to fundamentally change the way our democracy works—not just for us, when it suits our interests, but for everyone?
So that’s what I meant: too much focus from the tech community on issues that only matter to us and not enough on issues that affect everyone and that we have the power to address. Before people complain that I’m being way too broad in my characterizations, I’d like to make clear that what I’m describing is the overall culture of what I’m calling Silicon Valley and I don’t mean it to describe every single person who falls into these categories. Despite my criticism, there’s a reason I’m making my home in the Bay Area and it has a lot to do with a really vibrant and inspiring social innovation sector that’s taking root here.
I also realize I’m not offering any solutions. But I really can’t think of a better place than right here to start working on some. More to come soon on what shape that actually takes.
In many ways the Obama campaign’s Tech Field Office, which I launched and ran with Angus Durocher from February-October 2012, was not a leap of the imagination even if it was the first of its kind. Since 2007, one of the defining characteristics of the Obama organization was the extent to which it devolved authority down the chain empowering volunteers and field organizers to be the drivers of activity. Heavy dependence on and integration of network technology was also a major feature of the campaign, which makes sense when you realize that the structure of our grassroots organization (relatively flat, and decentralized) very closely matches the structure of the Internet itself.
The logical extension of these two defining factors coming together was the establishment of a satellite office focused solely on recruiting technologists who wanted to volunteer their skills to help build the campaign’s suite of tools. My understanding is that the genesis of the idea (which predates my arrival on the campaign) came when Michael Slaby (CIIO) and Harper Reed (CTO) traveled to the Bay Area just after the campaign launched to engage tech supporters and recruit engineers to move to Chicago. At some point it occurred: why not bring the campaign to them?
We started talking about a San Francisco office even before I formally started on the campaign in June 2011, but other things in Chicago took precedence at that early stage. I spent the first eight months on the campaign doing product management at headquarters (not a role I was at all qualified for, given that I had very close to zero experience working on software development projects, talk about baptism by fire). Near the end of 2011 as the technology team, and the campaign as a whole, started moving from planning to execution a decision was made that we would go ahead and open the Obama Tech Field Office in San Francisco.
I was to be the non-technical lead and Angus Durocher, a grizzled veteran of the San Francisco start-up scene (he was early at Blogger and served as the first web developer at YouTube) would lead on all the engineering and technical aspects. Angus was one of the very very few members of the Obama 2012 tech team that had any campaign experience. He grew up in New Hampshire working on campaigns and, in 2008, he took five weeks off from working at YouTube to volunteer full time doing digital work in New Mexico for the Obama campaign. In many ways, opening and running this office was a fulfillment of a long-time wish of his—to offer the opportunity for people with tech skills to contribute something they’re good at to an effort they believe in. He likes to tell a story about offering his services to the Kerry campaign in 2004 and being told to head to a phone bank instead.
We secured office space (leasing desks at StackMob’s offices in SOMA) and opened for business on February 15, 2012. We had a list of initial projects we needed to get built, but we needed some volunteers. My main responsibility those first few weeks was balancing volunteer recruitment with making sure the products were sufficiently well specked out to allow for volunteers (people who mostly had day jobs and would be doing their work remotely/on the weekends) to be productive.
My biggest worry at the start was that we wouldn’t be able to get enough people on board. That worry was quickly assuaged. We were pleasantly surprised at the level of interest. Even in famously libertarian Silicon Valley, we got hundreds of sign-ups and conducted scores of interviews with engineers and other tech professionals who were excited to help out. When we asked them why they were interested almost all of them gave some version of the same answer: “I’ve always wanted to help out but making phone calls and knocking doors wasn’t my thing (not to mention I live in California where this thing is in the bag) and I saw an opportunity to lend my skills to re-elect a president I believe in.” Only a handful of them had ever volunteered for a campaign before. We got to see, in person, what Nate Silver described in a recent post as the benefit Obama got from his support in Silicon Valley. Let’s just say the GOP didn’t have a tech field office in the neighborhood.
We had some stressful weeks at the beginning, scared we’d fail, scared this experiment would be a waste of campaign resources, unsure even what success would look like. But when we launched our first tool and pushed through the frustrating final tweaks to make things deployable I had a sense that we were doing something that would really have an impact. We certainly didn’t do everything right and I’m not even sure the office itself is something that other campaigns or organizations should try and replicate. For one thing we’d added more lanes to the campaign’s development highway without really expanding the capacity of the DevOps team in Chicago to deploy more tools (I’m pretty sure they hated us by the end of it). And campaign’s are, in Angus’ sage words, “interrupt-driven” organizations. The person that’s in your face or the fire that’s currently burning the brightest is the thing that gets the most attention. Since we were safely tucked away in San Francisco we didn’t have the luxury (such as it was) of going over and tapping someone on the shoulder to make sure our particular issue got addressed. And then there was the frustrating amount of volunteer flakiness. It’s something every campaign worker in the field has to deal with, but when your volunteer is doing something like writing code it’s a particular pain in the ass when you can’t get a hold of them for days.
By October, when we were done building tools for the national campaign and turned our attention to the battleground states, we had recruited well over 100 volunteers who built over a dozen tools (not all of which are public, but I’ve linked to some examples below). We experienced the fifty-fifty rule of volunteer organizing: fifty percent of the volunteers we signed up actually did some work, and about fifty percent of them were solid, reliable contributors. Another dozen or so were absolute rock stars, a few of whom put their lives on hold for the last weeks of the campaign to travel to battleground states to support our data and digital teams. Kevin Gates, a former Google data whiz, went to Las Vegas to help the data director there. Johnvey Hwang, another start-up vet who built out later versions of Trip Planner essentially full time, went to Florida to build some reporting tools. Lior Abraham took all of his vacation days for the year from his job at Facebook to come to Chicago for five weeks to build voter protection apps. Matt Douglass, who built a really cool donation app that we ran out of time to launch, ended up in one of our small business videos because of his involvement in the tech office.
Angus led a very successful late-summer volunteer recruitment effort to send techies directly to states. The ask he sent out got thousands of responses which were matched up with states who needed on-the-ground tech help in the last weeks of the campaign. If I were smarter and more organized, I’d follow up with all of them on their experience. I really think that model—of sending tech volunteers into the field to support data and analytics teams on the ground—is a much more sustainable model of tech volunteer engagement for the long term and for smaller campaigns.
When I was in Colorado for the last weeks of GOTV it was stark what a disconnect there seemed to be between the tech team and the people who were using the tools. Centralizing the software development in HQ in part to avoid creation of rogue tools in the states, which is completely understandable, might have killed an important ecosystem for bubbling up innovation. You certainly can’t run a campaign where each state has their own show technologically, but there’s got to be a way to distribute authority at least a little bit down the chain. Much was made about our pod structure: each region had “desks” they reported up to, which had all the main departments of the campaign represented—Digital, Ops, Press, Field, Data, Analytics—but no engineers. Why not add Tech to the pods and then have volunteer technologists on the ground working directly with that regional lead? Putting engineers directly in touch with staff in the states would have gone a long way towards bridging the divide between tech and field.
Now that it’s over, my lasting impressions are all about how amazing our volunteers were. I mentioned a few earlier but Roger Hu, Marc Love, Brandon Liu, Eliza Wee, Carrie Crespo, Gunthar Hartwig, Pete Warden, Deron Aucoin, Shannon Chin, Patrick Cullen and a bunch of others I’m forgetting were total champs. I’m immensely proud that I got to be the one to pull them into the campaign, and I can’t wait to see what they do now that they’ve caught the political technology bug.
Edit: Here are those tools I mentioned:
Caveat: this post is stream of consciousness, 36 hours after we won the election. There’s high likelihood it won’t make any sense at all. It is also 100% my personal reaction; I don’t claim to speak for anyone else, and others’ reactions are likely wildly different from mine.
Whoa, winning an election feels really awesome. It’s like I leveled up on life. Everything is just better up here. The coffee tastes better on this level. The sleep is better. Pretty sure that most of the consequences for what just happened have not come close to sinking in yet. But damn, the coffee tastes so good.
Today is the 513th day after I joined the campaign. In that time, I got to do some very awesome things with some very awesome people. I’m immensely proud of the work Angus Durocher and I did with some amazing volunteers (I’ll probably write something more about how awesome they are at some point) at the tech field office in San Francisco. I’m so happy to have gotten to work with Jim Green and Rusty Rueff on Tech4Obama. And working in the campaign headquarters of the President of the United States is something I don’t think I’ll ever top, even if that place did resemble a refugee camp most of the time. Thank you so much, Harper, for giving me the chance.
Maybe because it’s so fresh in my mind, but I have a feeling the most lasting thing I’ll take from this campaign was the time I got to spend in Colorado these last two weeks working in the field. I’ve spent most of the last ~15 years of my life tucked away in reliably liberal/cosmopolitan/intellectual corners of the country, which I found seriously warped my understanding of the US. Walking neighborhoods, knocking on doors, and talking to voters in the exurbs was a pretty humbling experience. I’m also humbled by the breathtaking talent and skill of the organizers I met and worked with. You’re going to read a lot of stories over the next months about how good our ground game was. Whatever you read, multiply by a factor of three. The kicked ass and they deserve even more credit than they will get.
I’m really looking forward to what’s next, in all kinds of ways. First, and most importantly, I’m absolutely giddy about what the President is going to do with the next four years and two months. I predict big things.
Second, I’m in awe of the talent we’re about to unleash on the world. There are some superstars coming off this campaign, and I can’t wait to see what they do. Aside from the organizers I mentioned, there are some kick-ass engineers and other technologists who are going to change the way we think about democracy. It maybe wasn’t as perfect as all these articles that are getting written make it out to seem, but there are now a lot more techies who understand organizing and a lot more organizers who understand tech. I’m looking forward to them coming up with some awesome ideas to improve civic engagement.
Third, I get my own life back. Crazy. Lots of travel over the coming months, and I start a new job pretty soon (more on that to come, but I’m beyond excited about it and hope it’s a place where that organizing-meets-tech thing can play out). The plan, such as it is, is to settle in San Francisco in early 2013. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to catching up with friends in Chicago, Michigan, the east coast, and Paris. And I’m taking suggestions for amazing/relaxing New Years destinations.
Last thing: I want to thank everyone who sent some form of congratulations over the last couple days. Most of this great feeling I’m experiencing right now comes from the love I’ve been receiving from all kinds of awesome people in my life. It really made it all worth it. I imagine this is what it must feel like when people get married. There’s just so much good. I want it to last forever.