Demoing Known on stage at Folsom Street Foundry for the first time in four years. Feels weird.
14 June 2018 | 3:23 pm

Demoing Known on stage at Folsom Street Foundry for the first time in four years. Feels weird.

Equality of opportunity vs equality of outcome
6 June 2018 | 4:25 pm

Lately I've increasingly encountered arguments for "equality of opportunity vs equality of outcome", which is usually shorthand for a bunch of nastier opinions held by people who don't think we should be aiming for a more inclusive society. As far as I can tell, this is largely due to the rising popularity of Jordan Petersen, a conservative pseudointellectual who is fast becoming the voice of unreconstructed dudes who like to complain about feminism.

A good example of a distinction made between the two goes as follows:

Equality of opportunity provides in a sense that all start the race of life at the same time. Equality of outcome attempts to ensure that everyone finishes at the same time.

Painted as such, equality of outcome is an oppressive, Harrison Bergeron idea. Everyone must be completely equal! That means we must suppress achievement! We must make everybody the same!

Of course, nobody wants that at all. It's a disingenuous argument designed to avoid talking about systemic inequalities, and to thwart efforts to correct the balance. In this fictitious world, for example, highly-qualified male software engineers are being overlooked in favor of less-qualified women engineers. And by using diversity and inclusion metrics to measure progress, we're erroneously baking in discrimination against highly-qualified straight, white men.

At best, it's a half-understanding of reality. At worst, it's a deliberate subversion of reality in order to maintain the status quo.

The reality is that women and people from underrepresented backgrounds are being discriminated against. Sometimes this is overt and intentional: open racism and sexism exist in depressingly large numbers. Beyond that, it's got a lot to do with who has traditionally had power and privilege. When 80-85% of jobs are landed through networking, the people whose networks contain more people with the ability to hire win. In venture capital, it's considered bad form to reach out to an investor cold (a practice that I believe needs to change - please do pitch me cold!); the people with more investors in their network will win.

Who is going to do better from those systems: people whose ancestors were sold into slavery, who suffered racial oppression, who were persecuted for political reasons, who fled their countries, who hid aspects of their identities in order to survive - or people whose communities have enjoyed relative privilege for generations?

"Ah," the dudes will argue. "You're talking about white male privilege. But white male privilege is a myth." And lo and behold, we see the same stats about university admission statistics, and wage differentials between young men and women. For example, we'll likely hear an argument that the 79 cents women earn for every dollar earned by me is a myth because "women choose different jobs".

Choose. Sure. Okay.

Back in reality, the racial differential statistics are hard to argue with. And the idea of women choosing different sets of jobs - perhaps that they're biologically more suited for, if you want to throw in an extra layer of bigotry (without, of course, interrogating why those jobs are less highly-valued) - is not supported by research. As Catherine Pearson notes in the Huffington Post:

Sure, many women choose to stay home or cut back their hours after having children. But many others don’t opt out. They’re forced out because they cannot afford child care, or find a full-time job that affords them any kind of flexibility. And, culturally, Americans remain ambivalent about women working outside of the home. A little more than 30 percent of Americans still believe women should stay home full-time to care for young children. These biases, which play out both in the workplace and outside of it, affect how much “choice” some women feel they actually have, and speaks to the types of judgments women face for making said choices. Plus, women face a well-known “motherhood penalty.” They’re less likely to be hired for jobs once they have children — unlike men, whose prospects improve.

Fairly or not, I find myself thinking that many of the complaints come from people who are bitter that the attention isn't on them. Maybe they feel like life is hard for them and it's unfairly portrayed as being easy. Rest assured, disgruntled dudes: the overall balance is still very much in your favor. And you're in no danger of having less than equal opportunity. But when you've enjoyed outsized privilege for so long, any reduction is going to feel like oppression. And you should know that however hard you find life, people from other backgrounds are likely to find it harder.

From my perspective as a former business owner and current investor, systemic bias presents an important opportunity. There are all these amazingly talented people who unfortunately haven't had the same opportunities. As an investor, I get to back them, and because diverse companies outperform industry norms and companies with women in leadership roles do better, I'm more likely to do well out of the deal. The same goes if I'm hiring. Your loss, bigots! As well as being the right thing to do societally, it's a great business decision. Inclusion isn't altruism - although I also think it would be okay if it was.

Over time, as more women and people from underrepresented backgrounds - who venture capital superhero Arlan Hamilton calls underestimated founders - become present at all levels of hierarchy within our networks of power, the system will become more equitous. Until then, seeking out these founders and employees and proactively providing opportunities is the right thing to do.

Obviously, there is huge diversity within every broadly-defined demographic group. But people are discriminated against based on the superficial labels they carry, whether we like it or not. Measuring progress against those labels is one way to determine whether we're bucking trends when it comes to discrimination. That doesn't absolve us from thinking hard about intersectional issues. For example, neurodiversity is still not spoken about enough, but is an important part of inclusion. And I strongly believe that if I only invest in people who grew up wealthy, I've failed.

People often complain that "SJWs" ("social justice warriors", as if there's anything inherently wrong with wanting social justice) are loud and angry. Sure. They should be, and there's a long history of this. During the civil rights movement, people described activists then in similar terms. When your voice hasn't traditionally been heard, you need to raise it. And one way to help is to amplify those underheard voices.

So, back to equality of outcome. While we're not trying to create that Harrison Bergeron universe, outcomes do matter, and are logically inseparable from opportunities. Because we're talking about network effects and a society heavily based on who you know, the more diverse the networks, the better the opportunities for diverse individuals. And because we're talking about generational inequalities, the outcomes in one generation will affect opportunities in the next.

But outcomes also matter for another, even more fundamental reason. I strongly believe we should care about disadvantaged people in society. It's not enough to say that the market will take care of it when people are living on the street, or when the people of one nation are oppressed by the army of another to meet capitalist needs. Compassion for others is a core part of basic human decency.

As Matthew Yglesias wrote in Slate:

The question of what happens to the person at the bottom genuinely matters. Whether you want to phrase that in terms of the gap between the bottom and the top—inequality, as such—or simply look at the absolute condition of the people at the bottom, you can’t escape the conclusion that outcomes matter, and not just in terms of procedural fairness. Today, even poor people are able to take advantage of things like electricity and antibiotics that were rare or nonexistent 100 years ago. That’s the kind of opportunity that matters—the opportunity for everyone to enjoy a better life.

If you're against that - well, then, I don't know if there's anything we can talk about.

Pattern matching decentralized apps
5 June 2018 | 7:12 pm

When we're conducting interviews at Matter, we start every day by reminding ourselves of common biases to avoid. One of those is pattern matching: using what amounts to stereotyping, rather than data and insights on the specific founder you're evaluating, to make decisions. For example, investing in a founder because they remind you of Mark Zuckerberg is pattern matching.

Similarly, evaluating one company based on another's performance - rather than the characteristics of the business on its own merits - is harmful. Just because one company failed, that doesn't necessarily mean that another, superficially similar company will too. It might, but the devil is in the detail. There could have been a hundred reasons, like market timing or team dynamics, that led to the startup's failure.

Which is something I'm struggling with as I think about the emerging marketplace for decentralized apps.

For most of my career, before I became an investor, I was concerned with overcentralization of the internet. It seemed harmful to me - and a community of others - that most of our private information and highly personal communications were being stored and processed by a very small number of for-profit corporations. It also seemed counter to the vision of the web as a platform that nobody owned and anybody could contribute to.

In 2004, this was not a mainstream opinion to hold. So while I signed the Bill of Rights for the Social Web, built an open source social networking platform that could be self-hosted, and advocated for user-centered development for years, my efforts were met with questions like, "why wouldn't I use Facebook?" and comments like, "I've got nothing to hide." Impressive decentralized efforts like the DiSo Project and StatusNet never quite found a solid footing, although both led to advances in the space that are still being used today.

This ongoing community continues to meet, including at the upcoming Decentralized Web Summit, but it's uncanny to see the same arguments being used by a new generation of decentralized developers - and investors. Take this statement by Joel Monegro at Union Square Ventures:

The combination of shared open data with an incentive system that prevents “winner-take-all” markets changes the game at the application layer and creates an entire new category of companies with fundamentally different business models at the protocol layer. Many of the established rules about building businesses and investing in innovation don't apply to this new model and today we probably have more questions than answers.

Not only is this kind of institutional, utopian talk about decentralization a departure from the conversations we'd seen for the previous decade, it flies in the face of how many people think about venture capital, which has been tightly associated with "winner-take-all" markets.

The language and arguments are so similar that I have to fight to disassociate them with earlier attempts at decentralization. The real questions are: What makes blockchain different? Why is now a better time than ten years ago? What will these new technologies enable? And who are they for?

Today's decentralization has to be evaluated on its own merits, and not through the lens of the things that were built and tried previously. Hypertext existed before HTML, but the web was the thing that made it mainstream. I'm doing my best to drop my cynicism and better understand what the potential for these new technologies are - and as I do so, and squint beyond the greedy coin speculation and the ugly Libertarian ideals, the more I see to like. The web is a good analogy, because the utopian ideals that built that platform are present here too. And while web business models defaulted to monopoly, we're seeing something very different emerge here.

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