Developing Good Intentions

It’s been a while since I last updated this blog. This is due to a combination of reasons – I’ve been particularly busy, both personally and professionally; I’ve had multiple ideas competing for real estate to discuss next, but needed to think them through to avoid diluting them; and perhaps most significantly, I’ve struggled with the inherent normalcy of writing a blog post given the growing concerns around COVID-19 sweeping across the world.

On the one hand, this is a blog about a tech entrepreneur who knows nothing about epidemiology, logistics, or public health policy. I have no business writing about the coronavirus when there are so many better places to find reliable information.

On the other hand, to not mention the coronavirus felt almost insensitive or naive. This virus has upended life for millions if not billions of individuals and thrown global systems into disarray. How could I simply ignore it when it’s one of the most important things happening worldwide?

Modulate’s mission statement involves making it safer, freer, and easier for everyone to socialize online. There’s a fairly easy argument I could construct that the current circumstances – which make it more difficult for people to interact in person – have actually increased the value of our technology. But in light of a growing pandemic, it seems insensitive and unfair to try to turn the discussion into an opportunity to praise ourselves. The product we make is important, yes. And it might even be more important in light of current events. But I think it’s important to distinguish this – which is almost coincidental – from the kind of work being done by many which focuses singularly on the COVID-19 crisis itself.

So the simple fact that our technology has new value doesn’t give me license to claim “Modulate is helping deal with the COVID-19 pandemic,” because those kinds of claims should be reserved for those who are truly on the front lines. But, while we acknowledge that limitation, there’s a reason that the first pillar of Modulate’s culture you see here is “Impact”. We can’t claim something as general as “Modulate is the solution to all the world’s most important problems”, but we can claim that we’re trying our damnedest to consider the potential impact on the world of every one of our actions, and choose actions likely to bring as much value to society as possible. We can claim that we’re leveraging our talents, our resources, and our knowledge the best way we can, to deliver not just a maximal amount of value, but specifically the greatest amount of new value which wouldn’t exist without us. And we can claim that we’re doing everything we can not just to provide value through these positive externalities, but to actually develop an intentional understanding of the specific new problems this crisis has created, and to leverage all our abilities to help.

But in order to do that, we need to start by recognizing the problems society is facing, rather than starting with our product and concocting claims for why it is surely perfect to solve those problems.

The current need for social distancing has made online socialization more valuable, for sure. And I do truly believe that Modulate can have a positive effect in making that socialization more powerful and available for everyone. But the problem we originally aimed to solve was how to enable more people to have better experiences online, as opposed to how to replace all physical interaction with online interaction. So before we can make any claims about our impact on these current circumstances, we need to assess exactly what need physical interactions fulfills, and where current virtual interactions come up short – and only then honestly ask whether our technology fills in those specific gaps.

I hope to write about the thinking I, and, to the intent they are comfortable with me sharing, the team, have done about this topic, but given the length of this post I’ll save that for the future. What I really want to end with here is simply to say that Modulate is by no means the only company doing this kind of thinking. Many companies, especially in the tech industry, have already transitioned to fully remote workplaces in the past few weeks. This was not a profit-maximizing decision, but rather a decision made by asking what society needed first, and then taking a specific action focused on solving that problem. (And yes, I recognize that not all organizations have the freedom to become remote so quickly – but this doesn’t reduce the value provided by those who can, actually doing so!) While there’s certainly so much more that could be done, I’ve frankly been uplifted by seeing so many in private industry leap to take these kinds of actions in the past few weeks.

Both intentional decisions, like transitioning to working from home, and positive externalities, like the fact that Modulate’s mission happens to also provide new value during these tough circumstances, can lead to positive outcomes, and we shouldn’t malign what works. But I think it’s important to be able to distinguish between the two, and save the most powerful praise for those who not only provide value, but did so intentionally and often at great individual or organizational cost. And I hope, for my own sake and Modulate’s, that we can continue on the trajectory towards gaining the resources, insight, and flexibility to make that kind of positive impact ourselves.

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