I have a confession. I went to Tech Crunch Disrupt this week, and it didn't suck nearly as much as I thought it would.
I'm as surprised as you are. I'm an unabashed, on-the-record tech cynic. I fully expected to come away from one of the industry's oldest and highest-profile conferences with little more than a handful of bitchy tweets, a slightly more acute sense of class outrage, and possibly some kind of eyeroll-induced repetitive stress injury. But lo, something very strange happened: About halfway through the conference, I started feeling genuinely, involuntarily optimistic about tech—its capacity for self-reflection, its interest in doing good. It was a weird feeling!
To be clear: Disrupt—and tech in general—is not without its (very deep) flaws or its moments of sheer, head-smacking stupidity and self-delusion. The world does not, empirically speaking, need an app that makes it easier to buy expensive art, or expensive clothes, or expensive booze. There's something bone-deeply unsettling about the fact that the great minds of my generation are using their nimble fingers and supposedly giant brains to do things like "gamify food photos" and make "playable" mobile ads and say "human-computer interface solution" eith a straight face and listen to horrible dubstep. Titstare was, obviously, utterly, embarrassingly reprehensible, and I did in fact see a couple of booth babes on ah, display.
But. For all the companies that purport to solve problems that are really only problems if you're a 25-year-old dude with way too much money—witness Tuesday presenter Brandid, which boasts the charming slogan, "Shop like a man (get someone else to do it for you)," or Monsieur, whose founders are earnestly trying to put an end to the indignity of sub-par bottle service—there were several presenters whose products were out there to solve problems that are, you know, real. There was Reaglii, which aims to make sending remittances overseas easier and more secure. There was TRAIL, a female-founded local startup that tackles internet illiteracy. There was Driblet, which is focused on water conservation, and Braket, which streamlines iPad grading for teachers.
It's worth noting that for all the (rightful) attention the Titstare mini-scandal has gotten, the same day it happened, the awesome organization Black Girls Code presented, and a nine-year-old girl took the stage to show off her very own hack. During the startups battlefield—essentially a battle of the bands for startups—companies were genuinely grilled about their utility to the world, and the most patently absurd ones generally did not advance to the final rounds. There were black founders, and female founders, and even a few people over the age of say, fifty. Nearly every panel had at least one woman on it; whether this was Titstare-prompted tokenism or not, as a woman, it was nice to see.
And there was what appeared to be a concerted effort to tackle one of the most vexing and trenchant issues facing tech right now—that is, the industry's complicity with the recent NSA scandal and, more broadly, its relationship with government—and to do it in a way that went beyond lip service. Whatever you may think of Michael Arrington, he asked nearly every CEO he spoke to about PRISM and actually got some good answers. It was one of the few moments I've seen tech honestly wrestle with its impact on the world, and, try as I might, it was hard to feel anything about hopeful about it.
Now, maybe everyone was on their best behavior after Titstaregate, and, in general, the horrible rap tech has gotten from people like me. Maybe I missed something. Maybe VCs and conference organizers and various other tech elites were just acting in self-interest—after all, inclusivity makes for good PR, and from a sales perspective, more people in the world need help sending remittances than finding someone to shop for them. Or maybe I was just witness to an industry that is, ever so slowly, growing up.