Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.
tl;dr - I’ve joined a new not-for-profit educational technology startup called Empatico as CTO. I’m looking for folks to work with me.
For the last few years I’ve been talking about my struggles with how the tech industry builds product: both what’s being built, and how it’s being done. Too many products feel like they’re only useful to a small elite, designed to knock the rough edges off affluence for people who live within a square mile of SoMa. This struggle was one of the reasons I spent the last couple years at Kickstarter.
I’ve also been disturbed by the seemingly increased polarization in the world, both in the U.S. and abroad. This is especially evidenced by events like Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and the continued use of refugees as a political tool in Australia. I personally find these events disturbing — and their mechanics represent what seems to be a movement away from empathy in our communities, presenting what could be a bleak outlook for the growth of civic virtue.
Two things struck me most about these recent events. The first is the struggle people have reasoning with, and having empathy for, others — especially if those others have different views or come from different backgrounds. The second is the widespread inability of people to make critical judgments about the information presented to them.
In particular, watching the 2016 election campaign in the United States, I was reminded of the opening of a sermon by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., titled “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart”:
A French philosopher said, “No man is strong unless he bears within his character antitheses strongly marked.” The strong man holds in a living blend strongly marked opposites. Not ordinarily do men achieve this balance of opposites. The idealists are not usually realistic, and the realists are not usually idealistic. The militant are not generally known to be passive, nor the passive to be militant. Seldom are the humble self-assertive, or the self-assertive humble. But life at its best is a creative synthesis of opposites in fruitful harmony. The philosopher Hegel said that truth is found neither in the thesis nor the antithesis, but in an emergent synthesis that reconciles the two.
King was describing the sort of people he envisaged were needed in order to build a better, more equitable and empathetic society. Citizens who were “tough minded”; who were thoughtful, astute, and had good judgement; who were discerning enough to break “through the crust of legends and myths and [sift] the true from the false.”
The tough-minded person:
… always examines the facts before he reaches conclusions; in short, he postjudges. The tender-minded person reaches a conclusion before he has examined the first fact; in short, he prejudges and is prejudiced.
Dr. King believed, however, that being tough minded alone was not sufficient. A tough mind also required a tender heart.
Tough mindedness without tenderheartedness is cold and detached, leaving one’s life in a perpetual winter devoid of the warmth of spring and the gentle heat of summer.
We could not be an island because we were part of a greater whole, a greater politic. We had to understand the others with whom we share our world. To truly become these more virtuous citizens, Dr. King believed we needed this combination of tough-minded, good judgement and tender-hearted compassion and empathy for others.
It was a laudable ambition and one that is still relevant — if not even more relevant now than it was then. It’s an ambition I’m keen to see realized.
Recently I’ve been lucky enough to meet some folks who share that ambition and have resources and a plan to deliver on it. To this end, we’re building a new not-for-profit educational technology startup called Empatico as CTO. Our tagline is pretty simple:
Empatico is built on the belief that all humans, regardless of race, gender, socioeconomic status, opinions, ideas, or perspectives, share a common humanity.
Our mission is to help students, primarily 8–10 year olds, develop skills like listening, collaboration, empathy, and good critical judgement. We believe that the best way for those students to develop these skills is collaboratively — especially with those from different cultures, communities, and geographies. It’s what we call “better together.”
We have two streams of work to achieve this mission.
First, we’re developing curriculum on topics, like weather or the animal world, that educates and appeals to the 8–10 year-old age group. Importantly, this curriculum is designed to be as universal as possible, to bridge cultural, political, and socioeconomic divides. The curriculum contains activities students can do in their own classrooms, as well as activities that require collaboration with students in another, remote classroom. These shared activities require students to work together across their two classrooms to produce the best possible outcome: “better together.”
Our second stream of work, and where the team I am building comes in, is a platform to deliver our curriculum and to enable the collaborative activities between classrooms. It’s a big challenge. The platform needs to be engaging yet incredibly easy to use. The audience is a diverse community of students and teachers — we need to cater for different languages, cultures, and variances in teaching approaches. The platform will also need to cater for differences in access to technology, technical skills, and connectivity. Our maxim here is “degrade gracefully with maximum usability.”
Want to help?
To help with building this platform, and delivering on our mission, we’re looking for people. We’re looking for folks with design, back end, and front end skills to join the team, in New York City or remotely. If you’re interested or just want to know more, please reach out to me via email or Twitter.
I’m incredibly excited by our mission and look forward to sharing the results of our efforts with you all.