Promoting Right Action Through Technology

I started taking a course on Coursera called the Moralities of Everyday Life – since I’ve always wondered where our moral sense comes from – is it a product of our environment or is it something more innate. This question is very important to understand, especially when thinking about the terrible atrocities that have and are currently occurring throughout the world and how to address them – genocides, famines, dictatorships, slavery, trafficking, wars, murder, torture, environmental degradation.

Unsurprisingly, there is no clean answer to this question of morality, although there seems to be some innate universal principles governing morality there is also a good amount governed by society & cultural values. However, if our goal is to reduce the bad things in the world I think it is an interesting exercise to think about what we can do to promote “right” action or goodness in the world.

Personally, some of the things on my wish list for the world is peace, a clean environment, a place where people are treated fairly with dignity & compassion. Fairness, equity, altruism, and responsibility are some of the values I profess, yet I realize my actions would say otherwise. I could do a way better job in being more green, volunteering for causes I believe in, socially responsible investing, and purchasing fair trade goods. Why does this discontinuity exist and what can I do to make sure my actions are in alignment with some of these lofty visions I have for the world?

I could think of a million reasons why my actions aren’t in alignment – habits, lack of time, selfishness, maximizing personal welfare, costs, frame of reference, free-rider problem/tragedy of the commons etc.

Part of the solution to make sure my actions support my values is just be more mindful of my values before taking action, or making more time to work on things I care about. To do this some amount of self-discipline is required.

Another interesting thing I want to start exploring is the role of technology in this discussion. In the last few years we’ve seen how Twitter & Facebook has served as a way for people to organize to produce change in the world (Arab Spring, Occupy Movement, Obama election) or used to spread awareness about important issues in the world (Global Warming, Trafficking).

We’ve developed products to promote collaboration and disseminate information throughout the world – Wikipedia, Github, Wiki’s/groups, Quora, Stack Overflow.

Products like FitBit, Strava, Lumosity, and Lift not only provide data about oneself, but are designed to motivate people to act in specific ways.

The Wisdom movement is really interesting – a forum to think about how we could use technology to promote well-being, compassion, and goodness in the world.

This all makes me think about what technological solutions we can develop to reduce some of the friction that prevents us from acting in accordance with our values?

For example, if you live in California you probably heard about the impending drought we are facing. The state actually has a site that shows the status of all the reservoirs which is awesome because these metrics drive home the point how dire the situation is. I think this is a good start but it would be really cool if this was taken one step further –
> Where people could enter their zip code and see what reservoir they get their water from and become informed about the situation
> A way for people to visualize what impact they will have by conserving x% more water each day
> A method for connecting with people in their community who are passionate about this issue and set targets/goals for their neighborhood
> Gamify or incentivize the desired action of water conservation to make it fun to conserve
People would be able to inform themselves about the problem, understand their impact, become motivated to act, and connect with other like minded individuals. Hopefully, the people that value the environment would act to make a change.

Another idea, I want to spend more time helping to end homelessness in San Francisco and trafficking throughout the world. But, when I look at how I allocate my time I spend more time going out drinking with friends than working on these issues that I say are important to me. Part of the problem is finding a community of individuals who also want to work on similar issues. Several times I’ve scoured sites like meetup.com and VolunteerMatch to find that community – but whether it was a timing conflict or some other excuse it still hasn’t happened. Why can’t we build an app similar to the dating apps – but rather than facilitating romantic connections it could facilitate connections between like minded individuals wanting to tackle similar goals/issues? Instead of people having to search for a community – they could engage in a more grassroots effort by simply saying what they want to do and the app would take care of finding and connecting these individuals.

What makes tackling big world problems like poverty, global warming, and pollution difficult is that there is this overwhelming sense of disempowerment, because the problem is so large that we feel that our own contribution to the solution is so negligible so why bother? I think there is an incredible opportunity to use technology to solve for this – whether it is providing a metrics & data driven approach to promote action (Like Strava, Lumosity, Fitbit, Lift, California Reservoir Site) or creating a sense of community/connection so that people can put an actual face to the problem (Facebook, Twitter, HandUp). With technology we can actually connect all these individuals in real time in some creative way to show what the impact would be if they all acted.

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