Category Archives: Ideas

You’re More Powerful as a Customer than as a Citizen (and that’s bad)

If you’re an early adopter, you likely sign up for a wide range of new products and services. A number of these startups inevitably fold, and then you receive their closing-shop emails. The correspondence making up this genre tends to be fairly upbeat and concise, painting over what are surely far more lurid tales of unrealized dreams and blown investments. The email I received announcing the demise of Moxy Vote broke with this pattern and offered an unusually candid, clear explanation of how and why they failed. And their failure points to a strategic problem today’s would-be social changemakers face.

If you’re frustrated by the state of our country and the world, and have been thinking about the need to operate a wider range society’s levers to create social change, Moxy Vote was for you. It was one of those ideas so brilliant, you end up evangelizing it despite having no ties whatsoever to the effort. Something like a third of all publicly traded shares are owned by your average retail (armchair) investors. Because each of our 401ks represents such a small percentage of a major corporation, we ignore our shareholder voting privileges even more than we ignore our citizen voting privileges. Moxy Vote was based on the premise that if we were to get together in any meaningful numbers, we could begin to have real sway with the powerful corporations that we are, at the end of the day, investing our earnings in. They sought to allow retail shareholders to vote online, and even automatically vote in support of positions taken by personally trusted nonprofit groups (e.g. environmental organizations). This shareholder organizing successfully pressured a number of corporations to make decisions that were better for board diversity, division of power, animal rights, and the environment, among other victories.

Shareholder rights is an avenue of activism that has received significant attention because of the disastrous Citizens United decision that opened the floodgates for corporate spending in our elections. If our voice as a citizen is completely drowned out by SuperPACs, the thought goes, perhaps our voice as a consumer can still resonate. Fittingly enough, Moxy Vote’s tagline was “Let your voice be heard.” Today, fulfilling that promise requires stock ownership.

We’re seeing this strategy play out on a number of fronts. Corporate lobbyists have successfully filed down the teeth of most government regulations, but many consumer-facing companies are still quite sensitive to their brand reputation. In today’s world, we’re more likely to convince a company to do the right thing with our Twitter accounts than with our federal government. Advocacy groups like Greenpeace have realized this twist of fate and adjusted accordingly, shifting their attention to consumer-driven brand campaigns, from Apple to Barbie to Shell. Change.org, for its part, enables a long tail of citizen-driven public pressure campaigns and regularly helps petitioners adjust their sights towards still-sensitive targets (think movie studio press offices rather than congressional committee chairs).

The institutions we trust to run our society are broken (See: SEC oversight, congressional inaction, etc.). We’ve adjusted by shifting our energy from our increasingly symbolic civic powers to our still relevant consumer powers. Campaigns like Bank Transfer Day focus on specific, concrete financial actions that consumers can take to create impact with or without the permission of co-opted public offices. Billions of dollars were transferred to local credit unions as part of Bank Transfer Day. Nearly 200,000 people signed up for the (admittedly wonky) Moxy Vote service.

Yet Moxy Vote’s demise highlights the limits of this approach to activism. First, our agency as citizens in a democracy should outweigh our capabilities as customers in a market. But more immediately, the significant changes we need still require going through our slow and probably corrupted public institutions. Moxy Vote was a brilliant idea to allow us to create change through our capitalist identities rather than our democratic selves, but at the end of the day, they ran into the same bank-controlled quagmire that controls the rest of our economy:

1. Individual shareholders have no legal grounds to compel their brokers to deliver ballots electronically to internet voting platforms. And, unfortunately, many brokerage firms have stated clearly to us that they will send them only when required to do so by regulators.
2. Proxy distribution/collection agents are presently charging significant fees to internet voting platforms for vote collection – a fee that should be paid by public companies and one that proves substantially more burdensome to individual voters than institutional voters.

In the face of institutional inaction, we naturally pivot into the areas where we still wield some power. While these efforts are exciting and lately, the only approach that seems to work, this cannot be our ultimate strategy.

Let Us See Under the Hood

Our machines can do amazing things. Our mapping and travel tools can span numerous transit agencies and modes of transport to conveniently navigate us across the land. They still mess up, which is acceptable. But when they fail, we don’t even know that they have errored, or how, and this is less OK.

On an intermediary leg of a marathon journey from Washington, DC to Nairobi that included a DC Metrobus, a ZipCar, a BoltBus, a commuter train, an airtram, two 6+ hour flights, I needed to simply get from Penn Station to JFK Airport. I already knew that the Long Island Railroad was the best combination of price and speed for my needs, and HopStop’s website confirmed it. Unfortunately my BoltBus ran an hour late, and I found myself recalculating the trip from my phone using HopStop’s mobile app. For whatever reason, whether an errant filter or another limitation of the mobile app, HopStop no longer showed me any LIRR options. In this case, I knew I wasn’t seeing the results I needed. I just couldn’t do anything about it.

Eli Pariser talks about the societal implications of opaque social algorithms in The Filter Bubble, where we don’t know what we don’t know, and couldn’t see it if we did. The ability to understand what we aren’t seeing is also a simple usability affordance. A few apps break the general trend in this department:

Hipmunk hides duplicate flights

Hipmunk intelligently sorts the best flights available by eliminating the obviously bad choices (70% of possible results, according to cofounder Steve Huffman in this Forbes piece extolling Hipmunk’s many virtues). But the site also wisely allows the user to re-expose similar flights, and dive into the larger world of possibilities when your price or time is severely constrained.

Gmail's Priority Inbox explains why messages are promoted

Gmail’s Priority Inbox attempts to order your email based on your rules and habits. In my experience, it’s not quite there yet, but by hovering over the Priority icons, you can at least see why the feature sorted your email as it did, and correct for future cases.

If you’re not going to share the secret sauce of how decisions are made, you should at least let users circumnavigate when the decisions are poorly made. An admittedly small group of users care about this sort of thing. And maybe the apps we build will get smarter and smarter and smarter and the exposure of results the machine guesses are wrong will be considered an in-between technology as the machine’s guesses become more perfect. But I think it’s more likely that we’ll still want a grayer, more complicated version of what the machine tells us is possible, even as the machine’s computational abilities exceed our continuously evolving definition of magic. Let us see.

Use your energy

This is an idea I had a while ago, but clearly did nothing about, so it’s great to see someone else working on it.

Why not harness the kinetic motion of workout machines to power the gym? You already have hundreds of human hamsters bounding up stair machines, do you really need a coal plant miles away to power the TVs?

A gym in Hong Kong is on it, and while the technology is still pretty primitive (essentially a car battery) and costly ($15,000 investment to save $183 on the power bill), it’s an exciting thing to keep your eye on.

Those machines already contained small motion-powered generators used to light up their display screens. But the generators were producing significantly more electricity than was needed to power the screen, and the excess energy was being thrown off as heat.

The article also mentions generators embedded in shoes (so soldiers can stop carrying heavy batteries) and in the entrances to busy subway tunnels.

Wall St. Journal, via That’sFit