Startups

2018 May Bring The Rise Of The Anti-Tech Portfolio

Digital technology is roughly in the same state as 1970s cooking. Yes, we’ve made it convenient, easy on the palate, and affordable to the masses. Yet much like TV dinners and Twinkies, there’s something about the modern state of smartphone addiction, Facebook scrolling, and Netflix binging that makes us feel there’s a cost to convenience.

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And that cost could lead to some putting their dollars into companies that run against the very trends and patterns that fueled the prominence of today’s biggest social companies.

Just as the processed food glory days of the 1970s and 80s bequeathed us Whole Foods and $4 organic mangoes, today’s digital habits are leading to a push for a healthier alternatives.

So what’s driving this backlash, and what form could “anti-tech” investment take in 2018?

Back In The Day

Journalists have been quick to churn out highly clickable stories about a growing consumer backlash against big tech, with prominent startup investors among those lamenting the scourge of addictive and manipulative algorithm-driven content.

Many of the entrepreneurs, angels and VCs responsible for Facebook and its ilk taking over our daily lives are warning of the dangers of our screen-addicted ways. Yes, this isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. Even Steve Jobs used to keep his kids away from iPads, one of a number of tech industry leaders known to take a low-tech approach to parenting.

But the anti-social-media drumbeat is getting more intense, and closer to home. This month, even Facebook’s company news site featured a post titled “Is Spending Time on Social Media Bad for Us?”

The authors considered whether most people connect in meaningful ways online or whether they “are simply consuming trivial updates and polarizing memes at the expense of time with loved ones.” Though it wasn’t exactly a forum for Facebook-bashing, the authors did cite some negative effects that result from too much time spent passively scrolling posts, including a worsened mood.

Early Facebook executives sound more critical. Chamath Palihapitiya, former VP for user growth at Facebook executive and founder of VC firm Social Capital, recently blamed social media for “ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.” Sean Parker, Facebook’s founding president and the founder of early aughts music phenomenon Napster, says the social networking site was built to be addictive and exploit vulnerabilities in human psychology.

But there are apps that are trying to break the cycle as we head into 2018.

Reclaiming Focus

One niche is meditation and mindfulness-focused startups, which employ digital technology in an effort to make us more centered and happy. This category saw a surge in funding this past year. Since much of this is seed and early-stage, there’s plenty of room for follow-on investment.

Even digital media moguls are joining the bandwagon. Arianna Huffington, who helped fuel the clickbait-driven rise of Huffington Post, is now scaling up Thrive Global, a year-old startup that aims to “end the stress and burnout epidemic.” A few weeks ago, the company closed a $30 million Series B round.

More broadly, the anti-tech investment theme looks for ways to reclaim our attention from those who would fritter it away on addictive and damaging time-wasters.

Borrowing from the $4 mango concept, we could see apps and tools emerge that do much perform many of the same activities as attention grabbing apps we use today, but with higher prices and without the pitfalls. We’ve seen that people who can afford to are pretty willing to pay for ad-free streaming media, fair trade coffee, and organic wheat grass juice. So why not marketing-free social media?

Income inequality also plays into the ant-tech investment theme. With wealth increasingly concentrated into fewer hands, businesses are catering to those with the most surplus cash. And one thing these people want—if enrollment of tech executive’s children at a Silicon Valley private school that uses no technology is any indication—is a healthier relationship with technology.

What form could other investments along these lines take? Many will probably take approaches we hadn’t thought of here.  Maybe apps to monitor our digital habits and work toward healthier goals? Tools to better monitor and restrict children’s use of technology, and steer toward better uses of time? Or perhaps neurotech, a booming startup sector, has something to offer.

One could argue, of course, that there are also low-tech solutions. Putting down your smartphone, for example.

But what would be the fun in that?

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