It’s been about 2 years since I transitioned from the World Bank to my current position at Humanity United. It was not easy for me to take a break from fields I remain passionate about (international development, transparency, data, etc), but I have enjoyed learning and the deep dive into new issues (forced labor, migration, supply chains) and new regions (South Asia & the Middle East) while continuing to hone my tech chops through practical and meaningful ways.
That said, I find myself reflecting more on civic technology in 2017 than in most recent years. In part, it is a growing unease with political tides and discourse in the US. Part of this can be addressed by keeping the mentality that Joe Goldman of the Democracy Fund proposes- 9 Resolutions for Democracy in 2017. Well before the last election cycle, I have also struggled with what the next phase for civic technology should be. How would we make good on our promises to change the world? I saw the good. I saw the bad. I was equally parts of both. My friend Josh Tauberer captures many of these sentiments here: Civic Tech’s Act III is beginning. Now more than ever, Act III looms large.
Many of us who were born in the late 70s or early 80s have had a very different experience with technology. With it comes a very different set of expectations for technology. We’re old enough to remember what life was like before our current connected state but also young enough to appreciate pushing those boundaries onward- a unique place indeed.
So what does all of this mean for those of us working in civic technology?
- Civic > Tech: The civic in civic technology has always been important, but the civic piece has always been the key. Our calling cards may have been technology, but without a deeper investment in understanding and appreciation for the power dynamics underlying social issues, we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes again and again. When it comes to the specific issues we are committed to, there is no such thing as being a generalist.
- Full Hearts + Clear Eyes: The danger of elevating the civic in civic tech is that we may compromise our ability to see and act rationally. But if we periodically regulate this passion with reason, amazing things are possible. In terms of our hearts, while they may be concealed, our actions should always be open to scrutiny.
- Impact Before Scale: We often convince ourselves that impact doesn’t come until our tech scales, but for social issues, we can and should fight and claw for every inch of impact from the initial pilot stage. When it comes to fighting for impact, let us be impatient. No doubt making this happen is extremely difficult and will largely depend on good ‘ol time inefficient manual work and effort- but all for a worthy goal. You know what builds confidence in a moonshot more than anything else? Bringing back a little piece of the moon…
Now comes the fun part for me. Putting all of this into practice.
As always, open to your thoughts and comments.
As a child, I used to lament that I was born in an era when much of the world had already been “discovered.” All the continents had been mapped. There were no foreign lands to set foot on for the first time.
As an adult, I have found that it is taking the curious approach of an amateur that leads to new discoveries; and that expertise at best is a temporary snapshot in time- at its worst a fallacy.
It is in this spirit that I plan to continue my journey into 2017. In 2016, I ran every single day. According to FitBit, this distance was the same as trekking across the Sahara Desert (2983 miles). I will again run every single day in 2017, but I have a few other personal goals. They are:
- Be more present at home (both quality and quantity of time)
- Drink less
- Write more
Cheers and watch this space!
“Opportunity does not knock. It presents itself when you beat down the door.” – Eric Taylor
My friends know that I do not half-ass things. And just as well, because what really gets done in life if we don’t “whole-ass” things? I love what I love, and I invest in it deeply. In the game of life, “all-in” is the only move I know- to a flaw.
But I am not completely naive. My passions run deep, but I realize we cannot live off of principle. It is increasingly hard to eat over time. And each time it is not enough, I learn something from that experience.
The story of Mike Merrill (aka IPO Man) continues to intrigue me in 2015. Whether we are traded on the open market or not, we are constantly on sale- bought, held, or sold. Perception, while it may not be reality, is very much a real thing. Like stocks, I know personal capital ebbs and flows with circumstance. To those that continue to stick with me, I can only offer my deepest gratitude and commitment to uphold and reward that trust. You never have to doubt that my legs will be pumping, striving to move and fall forward. If I flame-out, it will at least be entertaining.
Our lenses are so small. Case in point, I sometimes struggle with my two boys. Even a trip to the market can be an ordeal. Recently, it dawned on me that my grandmother had to trek across a war-torn country with three children. That really helps put things in perspective.
Perspective is an oddly therapeutic and sobering thing. My father at 35, with two kids in tow, decided to leave his home and immigrate to the United States. I was on the tail-end of that decision, but only now that I am 35 with two kids do I fully appreciate that decision. No matter what the motivations were, I can at the very least appreciate just how disruptive and exciting that choice may have been.
On that note, the dawn of a new year offers a much needed opportunity to reset. And I shall embrace it.
So what exactly am I doing here? What do I hope to accomplish with this site and newly re-minted digital presence?
There is something about this venture that reminds me of my very first experiences of the web- namely, the fun of setting up my own personal site (Geocities, baby!) back in 1995. Even in those early days, it was really hard to land prime web real estate or monikers with a common name like “Sam Lee.” But yet, the experience still felt rather unique- akin to imprinting your hand on the sands of a digital beach for the first time. Wild explorations of blinking lights, crazy fonts, and cheesy designs aside- that feeling of discovery and exploration of new space was intoxicating. Not to keep waxing poetic, but those of us on the web at that stage were pioneers. There were no true rules or conventions to follow- just space.
To put things in perspective, the concept of a blog wasn’t even all that cemented back during my first go-round with web development. I remember having to hack solutions for the most basic functions (i.e. cobbling together a discussion board for comments, setting up a chat room, etc). Beyond the technical, many of my friends also ribbed and mocked me for posting my thoughts online and inviting discussion. These types of activities would of course become more socially acceptable over time, and online community tools and sites (like IRC, ICQ, AOL, AsianAvenue, Friendster, Xanga, etc) shortly followed.
Each community and platform was unique; while many did not last, the interactions they fostered were real. And no matter how many online communities rise and shutter their walls, I will continue to try and embrace them all. Why? Each experience shapes the way I interact with other digital citizens and the world- and dare I say, influences my life.
But sometime in 2003 I just completely lost the desire to maintain my own site; over the last ten years, I have merely sprinkled digital content all over the place (blogs, social networks, etc). Through it all, I just didn’t feel the urge to create and maintain a personal site again- until now… why?
Above all, this site still represents a digital frontier. Much of the physical world had already been discovered by the time I was born, so the web represents the most open and boundless space to build, experiment, and connect. While web development itself is far more refined and accessible today, that feeling of discovery and exploration of new space is still intoxicating. I am convinced that the digital world is not flat, and eager to set sail…
So nearing my 20th web anniversary, I find myself here again- searching for that magic and looking to turn a new page in my life.