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A Step Ahead: Dex Torricke-Barton
Hi everyone, Kish Rajan, Chief Evangelist at CALinnovates and welcome to this edition of A Step Ahead.
This time we’re talking to Dex Torricke-Barton. Really, a fascinating guy and a fascinating story. Someone who is a communications professional that’s worked both in the United Nations early in his career, and then with major technology companies in the Silicon Valley, but then decided to move on from that and get more involved in an effort that’s about trying to bring people together in a more constructive way around politics and policy. A really fascinating conversation that we had about someone who was trying to bring his enormous talent and background to bear on innovating the way communities come together in politics. It was a great chat and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
All right, Dex Torricke-Barton. Thank you so much for joining us today. We really appreciate you being on A Step Ahead.
Dex Torricke-Barton: It’s great to be here.
Well listen, your story has gotten a lot of attention and we certainly are captivated by it and I’d love to jump right in. I saw a quote from you that said that you were motivated to take a big action in your life because, in your words, I believe you said you see the world as “under threat”. I’d love to know what you mean by that.
Yeah, absolutely. The last couple of years of just seeing communities in the United States and Europe, particularly, moving in a direction that I think is less open, less compassionate and really as someone who is an immigrant to the United States, nearly nine years ago, and as someone whose dad was a refugee, all the things that we’ve seen with the global response or lack of response, to the refugee crisis, Brexit in the UK, the rise of the far-right in Europe, and then finally the election of Donald Trump, convinces me that the world is not on a good path for somebody who cares about a common humanity and the possibilities and the challenges that we need to solve in order to serve that population. So for me, it was something that has been concerning me for a long time and the election results this month have just been one more step along this increasingly dark path.
Yeah, no kidding. You’ve had such an interesting journey, career wise, working early with the United Nations at one level but then, of course, famously going into technology. We at CALinnovates, of course, are very focused on the impact of technology.
We’re based in Northern California in the Silicon Valley, which is this melting pot of multiculturalism. It really celebrates this alchemy that’s been created. It’s produced so many wonderful things, and yet those political events that you’ve just described appear to be a rejection of that. I’m interested in your perspective. How you see that and what you see as the danger in that.
Right, well I think in many ways Silicon Valley has always sort of been a bubble. A lot of people who work in the Valley talk about the bubble with a sort of wry smile on their faces. But the fact is, Silicon Valley and California and the communities that are dedicated to innovation really do not represent most of the world. Having worked at both Facebook and the UN, two organizations that closely engage with topics around global connectivity, I’ve really seen first hand just how ignorant, in many ways, people are about communities beyond our borders. Most of the world is not online and a lot of people think, “Oh, everybody’s using my app, my service, my product.” The fact is, the vast majority of humanity has never ever used the internet, ever.
And even close to home, I think people often exaggerate the extent to which Silicon Valley attitudes or values or interests have penetrated the United States. The fact is, most people don’t feel that connected to Silicon Valley and vice versa, I would say.
Yeah, it’s a really interesting point. One thing…we certainly look at that as well and I’d love to explore this notion of a bubble for a minute.
In California and the Silicon Valley, we love to celebrate our uniqueness, our specialness, the amazing innovations and applications and gadgets that emanate from this part of the world, but it can often be quite detached. And I think when you look at political events like Brexit or perhaps the election of Donald Trump, it in some ways is being described as a backlash against attitudes that seem elitist, ivory tower, and perhaps in a way that’s unacceptably disconnected from the lives of everyday people.
Absolutely, and I’m not saying that I think that’s necessarily a fair characterization, but the fact is technology is only truly useful when it serves social ends. It’s not good enough to just build a shiny new product or an app if you’re not actually solving something fundamental in people’s lives. A lot of the time, I think the technologies and innovations coming from Silicon Valley really are serving truly transformative ends and creating economic and social value in communities all over the world, but the folks who build these things don’t always think about the right way to communicate these things. They don’t think about the right way to illustrate what that value truly looks like.
One of the first and most obvious signs of that, when I arrived in the Valley back in 2011, was how people were so fond of the word “disruption.” “Disruption” means something very specific and positive in Silicon Valley. It’s about changing old industries and building new forms of growth and new ways to communicate, new ways to collaborate. But to the world, the word “disruption” is a scary one that implies the things that you have grown up with, and cherished, and which you rely on may well be disappearing, and when disruption happens, that is both opportunity but also just a massive everyday challenge for people who are living through that. And Silicon Valley has not always been good at explaining and mitigating the affects of that disruption and especially the unintended effects of that disruption.
Well, it really is an interesting question. I think that because of the different impacts that technology had, certainly on the US election, and I’d love to take a few minutes to look at these, but on the point that you’ve just made, one worry is that the tremendous growth of the innovation and technology economy, it’s astounding, the valuation of companies and the wealth that’s being created, but the worry is how narrow the band is of people who are actually benefiting from that economic explosion. And to your point, I think the question is, not only how do we actually make those economic gains broader, how do we expand that bandwidth, but how do we communicate to people that that indeed is a laudable and important pursuit of what comes out of places like the Silicon Valley?
Absolutely. In terms of communicating that value, I think there is a huge need for us to get better sources of data and ways to measure the impact of the knowledge economy. Right now, we still think about economic progress in terms of GDP and a lot of the metrics that were developed specifically to measure an industrial model of the economy. How do you quantify the economic value of the gains in productivity and the ability to collaborate much more closely, which come from, for example, social networks? Those are things which don’t necessarily get reflected in that value. But certainly, I think there is a need, as well, for us to build tools that are serving the needs of folks who don’t live in the Bay Area, don’t live in New York, don’t live in the major urban centers, and to begin by thinking, “How can we solve challenges in those communities first?”
Products like faster grocery delivery, the ability to carry out chores in your local community, better ways to access restaurant reviews or recommendations through an app, these things often start by benefiting folks who really live in very small, urban, prosperous communities. They aren’t necessarily the kinds of things that would work in rural communities where there aren’t these surpluses of services, and Silicon Valley should be playing a part in thinking, “How do we actually begin developing the overall ecosystem for growth there?” Not just solving the needs of places which already have well built-up infrastructure and ecosystems.
It’s a great point. I want to ask one last sort of political question that I’d love to tie to the work that you are doing, that you have moved to.
We are still just in the aftermath of the election and one of the things that folks have pointed to is the rise of social media having such a huge impact on political activity now. That is to say, it seems to be a central way that people are getting information and sharing information, but the challenge is that because the nature of these applications are so self-affirming, there’s a worry that social media is just contributing to our tribalization. To getting us into our own camps and keeping us there. I’m wondering if you agree that that’s a challenge that needs to be addressed.
I think it’s something that we should pay close attention to and I have yet to see any good research that has been done in any recent time which actually tries to quantify whether the filter bubble exists and is real. I have, on the other hand, seen great research in the last few years which suggests that the filter bubble, at least on Facebook, is something that is exaggerated. And on Facebook everyday, people are really exposed to a lot more diversity of content and perspectives than they might sometimes even think themselves.
I think part of the recent backlash against Facebook after the election is driven by the fact that people right now really are just stunned by the results. They are casting around furiously, trying to find simplistic answers to what are pretty complex questions. Why did people ultimately vote for Trump and why did people, in many cases, seem to vote against their own self-interests? And it would be really great if we could blame all of our troubles on something as simple as an algorithm.
The fact is, what this election has communicated so strongly, is that there are deep-seated social and economic problems in many communities which have been overlooked by successive governments, and that unless we actually get to work on solving them and tackling the root cause of polarization, we will continue to see this drift away from a more open world. And that is not a thing that can be solved simply by tweaking an algorithm or by making changes to a product. That would be the absolute worst misinterpretation of what happened and we really would reaffirm that Silicon Valley is disconnected from the rest of the country.
Yeah. We really do have to think about cause and effect, right? And I think that it’s a good time to reflect upon that.
Well, listen, let me turn to then, you did famously leave your role in corporate America. You’ve moved on and have founded a new organization, Onwards. I would love for you to tell us, what is that and what do you hope to accomplish?
Absolutely. Onwards is a non-partisan effort to try and tackle the root social and economic causes of polarization in communities in the United States. And I want to stress that this is something that is very different than the vast and rapidly proliferating set of grassroots organizations that are working specifically to fight back against Trump-ism through the Democratic Party machinery.
This is not an effort that is tied to one party, and frankly, Onwards is something that I’m working on with both Republicans, Democrats, and folks who voted for neither party to develop. And I think, here’s the challenge, communities across the United States are increasingly polarized and we are seeing the effects of polarization in the fact that people no longer feel capable of having debates about the sensitive social, economic, and political topics that are most divisive.
This whole election, if you’ve ever had a debate during this electoral cycle with somebody who disagrees with you, that experience can be incredibly fraught. You wonder if a disagreement over politics is going to become an existential threat to your relationship. I think if we want to make progress as a country, if we want to start finding practical solutions to the problems ahead, we need to learn how to talk to each other again, and to talk to people we don’t necessarily agree with. And so the first set of programs I’m working on are designed, really, to give people the tools to have conversations in their own lives and their own communities with their friends, their families, their coworkers, through town hall meetings, however they’re engaging with the political process, and to actually begin working to find common ground with people that they may disagree with vehemently.
Are these tools … sorry-
-really quickly, are these digital tools, are they online, are they in the context of online or social communication, or are these just plain old getting people to be able to understand and talk with one another tools?
I think that it’s a combination of both and communications and conversations are taking place both online and offline. We need to have tools and programs that can help people communicate in both ways. It will probably rely on both a combination of online training and facilitated conversations in person, in communities. Small group sessions, listening sessions, and town halls.
And really, these are based on the proven set of models that have been developed in societies everywhere from Northern Ireland to post-apartheid South Africa, where folks have developed expertise on how to bring people together around a table who may feel that they have nothing in common with each other. And I think that’s really something that hasn’t been tried, or at least done at a large-scale way in the United States and I think there’s a huge utility which will come from that.
Wow, fascinating. So you really are drawing upon your time at the United Nations.
You’re talking about the types of extremely difficult, seemingly almost intractable, cultural, political difference in places around the world where organizations, NGO organizations and others, had intervened to try to bring about dialogue and conversation. You’re really talking about that scale.
Absolutely. And you know what? For the last decade we’ve heard politicians talk about how we should try to create a less-partisan form of politics, and then they’ve gone about doing exactly the same old stuff, the same old way, and made absolutely no effort to actually try and change that. I think there are actually practical things that we can do, which will shift the conversation, and we need to do them and I think this is something that is long overdue.
It’s not the only thing though, and so the other set of activities is really around, “How can we engage with the jobs problem?” And I think unless we can get to the root cause of the economic factors leading to polarization, then it will just be a lot of talking.
The other part of the challenge will be, “How can we work with folks in Silicon Valley and beyond to equip more people with the skills to find jobs, to get the skills they need to apply for jobs which don’t require a college degree, and to get the support to create businesses as well?” And these are things that all can draw on the huge wealth of resources, but also the existing tools that are available online and through internet services to really build something new. The ability to create a business today is easier than ever, but a lot of folks still struggle with that and it really is something that’s tremendously difficult if you’re starting out down that path-
-and having support and giving people the tools to set that up and put them on the right path of success, I think will be really really important for creating the next waves of jobs and growth in communities where traditional industries and manufacturing have declined.
Well, as we wind up, I wish we had more time and I’d love to continue this conversation perhaps down the road, but I guess my last question is, what do you think is the inclination of people in the Silicon Valley to engage in this kind of work? A lot of what you’re saying feels like it would need to be governmental or at least NGO-type of activity. It isn’t traditionally the obligation or even the inclination of private businesses to engage in the type of work you’re talking about and yet, you seem to be optimistic that people will plug into this effort.
I am optimistic and part of that is just the enormous number of folks I’ve had conversations with over the last few weeks coming from companies all over the Valley, entrepreneurs from all types of backgrounds, who are really concerned about the future.
Somebody asked me the other day, “Do you think the Trump administration will be hurtful to innovation?” And I said, “Well, look. If the world goes to war, that’s going to be bad for everyone. If the world ends, that tends to take everyone with it.” We are in a situation now where we’re far from the end of the world, but we are in a situation where the social and economic challenges are rising to the water’s edge. And if we don’t work to address those challenges now when we have been given such a loud and increasing set of warnings, then those challenges will imperil all of the progress in society which innovators depend on.
Openness is a set of conditions that is not just whether I can get access to funding or whether I have access to academics at local universities. Openness is something that absolutely depends on having a national and a global framework for peace and prosperity, and those are things which should deeply concern Silicon Valley innovators who want to serve humanity. I think the good news is that a lot of folks who come to Silicon Valley really do honestly care about serving humanity and they do see technology as something that is inherently connected to social ends. I think we will continue to see folks speaking up and standing up for communities that are imperiled and to deal with the challenges ahead.
Well, it’s an enormously inspiring message, and clearly amongst all those folks that have come to the Silicon Valley to pursue amazing ends and tremendous achievements, clearly you, Dex Torricke-Barton, are one of those people and we’re grateful you’re bringing your talents and capabilities to Onwards, something that seems incredibly worthwhile that we’ll continue to watch. We appreciate you sharing part of your day with us on A Step Ahead.
Absolutely a pleasure, thanks for having me.