Interview with Neal Gorenflo
Date: Dec 27 ’09
Region: North America
CCT Network: What prompted you to start Shareable magazine?
Neal Gorenflo: Odd as it may sound, it all started for me in the parking lot of a warehouse just outside of Brussels one Saturday afternoon in 2004. At the time, I was working for one of the largest global transportation companies in the world on a multi-billion dollar merger integration project. I was commuting between San Francisco and Brussels spending an alternating three weeks in each.
This was an immersion experience in the global economy, and an introduction to layer of culture dedicated solely to profit unmoored from concern for specific geographic communities. It was a disturbing experience – the disorientation and numbing from jet lag, the time away from friends and family, the unseemly forms of persuasion used with key customers, the high divorce rates, the lack of any purpose beyond profit, life in a rigid hierarchy, the bewildering scale and complexity of the organization I worked for, an the often pointless work.
I was well familiar with much of this beforehand, but it all came to a surprising head on a jog that Saturday afternoon. Surprising because on the surface I had a lot going for me. A high paying strategy job, relatively interesting work, a wonderful girlfriend (now wife), and great travel opportunities. Plus, I wasn’t unhappy. There was some positives about this experience. For example, working with people from all over the world broadened my horizons. And the people there were nice. The overall context disturbed me rather than the exchanges I had with individuals.
Nevertheless, I had a reckoning. I stopped in this empty warehouse parking lot on my usual jogging route and suddenly began to cry. An internal conversation began. At first it was about me. I wanted to do something else with my life. I thought I was betraying myself by doing the work I was doing. And I was terrified that I would miss out on my life.
Then something really surprising happened. I felt that I was not alone, than many millions felt the same way I did. I felt the psychic pain of the collective. Then I really began to cry. I walked to the side of the warehouse, fell to my knees, and started whaling amid the weeds, broken glass and faded bits of trash. At that point, I knew this was much more than a bad day. I connected to something larger than myself, and what I felt schooled me in a stern and powerful way. I could not ignore the tremendous pain I felt in others. There was no arguing. My nose was being rubbed in it. This was oddly cathartic and shifted the conversation to what I could do for the collective. The conversation ended with a vow to do whatever it takes to create a world where people do not feel lonely, alienated, bored, or hopeless. This was not some lame New Years resolution. I felt I had no choice. I went straight to my office, submitted a letter of resignation, booked a flight, and was home Monday.
I had a strong hunch before this experience that sharing was important, so I began consulting for Internet startups that helped people share stuff in the real world. I had no experience. I just dove in. I also began a monthly salon for social entrepreneurs interested in sharing. I consciously built a community around the idea of sharing. Through the community I built, I met the people who launched Shareable with me.
CCT Network: How did you get the funding to start this non-profit?
Neal Gorenflo: It was perhaps a more an organic process than is typical. A small family foundation contacted my friends at Free Range Graphics about the possibility of doing a follow on to their successful short movie, The Story of Stuff. The Story of Stuff is about the destructive materials economy. It’s The Inconvenient Truth for stuff. And like Al Gore’s movie, The Story of Stuff focuses on explaining a problem. The foundation wanted to do something that talked about solutions. Louis Fox, a co-founder of Free Range and a former house mate, called me in to help write a plan to for the foundation focused on sharing as a solution. When the plan was accepted, the foundation funded the project and asked me to lead it.
CCT Network: What are your long term goals for the magazine?
Neal Gorenflo: A new peer-produced economy and culture is rapidly emerging where the more you share, the more respect you get from your peers. Our goal is to get more people to organize their lives around the logic of this new world where contributing to the common good is the priority, and central to the definition of the good life.
Towards that end, Shareable looks at culture, cities, the economy, and daily life through the lens of sharing. We look for how people are sharing and we ask ourselves how the world can be made more shareable. The website is a place to learn about this new world where sharing is important and to access helpful sharing tools, tips, and how-to’s.
CCT Network: What type of participation do you hope to achieve with the magazine?
Neal Gorenflo: We’re offering Shareable as a peer-produced culture change project. We want to engage the public in accelerating a positive shift we’re making as a society that consumes to one that shares by inviting folks to write the story of this shift with us. To facilitate this, we’ll be launching a blog network early next year where people can offer their sharing know how. The blog network will reward writers based on how widely shared their posts are by recognizing them on the front page. We see our managed content as the kernel of our open source project and the blog network as the place that people can freely contribute content.
And in general, we’d like to get participation every step of the way. For instance, we’re collecting feedback on our editorial strategy. Please feel free to contribute your thoughts here: http://bit.ly/yodqN.
There’s also really easy ways to get involved, like joining our Facebook group here: http://bit.ly/172sgZ, following us on Twitter here:http://bit.ly/7LuqYW, or sharing stories from Shareable with your network.
CCT Network: How has your CCT education impacted your efforts for Shareable?
Neal Gorenflo: CCT has had a profound impact on my life and work. It’s given me a powerful interdisciplinary framework to analyze society. It has helped me see the underlying assumptions that shape our world. When you understand that reality is deliberately constructed by specific actors for specific purposes, it invites you to engage in this construction process yourself. This is what Shareable is all about. The stories we tell about human nature and our future have different assumptions than what’s found in mainstream media. Our stories show that we are by nature generous, that everyone has something to offer, that the purpose of life is to serve, that we thrive by sharing, and that we can overcome the crises we face by working together.
CCT Network: What tips do you have for CCT students and alumni who have an idea they would like to launch and make a reality?
Neal Gorenflo: There’s tons of good technical advice about how to do a startup. I have nothing new to add to that. What is needed need, as Joseph Campbell suggested, are coordinated souls. Whatever strength I have comes being connected to my dreams and visions. It’s felt, not thought. My advice is tap into that. It will tell you what to do. But you have to really listen to your dreams, and act on them. The key starting place is to find the right thing to do in the world, the thing that must be done, the thing that only you can do, and that you must do to be fully alive.
If you don’t know what to work on, then explore. Chase down what interests you – read new things, meet new people, and volunteer around your interests. When you feel you’re onto something, then build community and create work around it. You can start small. The important thing is that you act on your dreams.
Now imagine a world made of people like that. Bill Drayton of The Ashoka Foundation calls this an everyone a changemaker world. He believes we’re approaching a tipping point toward such a world. I think he’s onto something. Nearly 10% of the US workforce is employed by nonprofits. Donations to US nonprofits have doubled in the last 12 years to around $300 billion. There are over 200,000 open source software projects with a commercial value of around $400 billion. People share more video on YouTube in six months than was broadcast by the big three US TV networks in 60 years. More people are sharing, they’re sharing more, they’re sharing in more diverse ways, so it seems to me that we’re approaching a tipping point where sharing is an everyday part of life.
However, we’re near a tipping point to salvation and disaster. Sharing is essential to avoid disaster as a civilization, and perhaps thrive as never before. Now is the time to jump in and tip the scales to the world you want.
CCT Network: Do you think that sharing will be more common practice as the Internet further develops – for example in developing countries?
Neal Gorenflo: Yes, sharing will be more of a common practice in the future, but if anything we have more to learn about sharing from developing countries than they have to learn from us. For instance, in the typical African farming village, land and water is managed as a commons by elders. The commons is the economic foundation of the community. Most folks in the developed world have little experience with an economic system based on sharing.
However, the Internet is changing this because it is a commons where sharing is the norm. Dr. B.J. Fogg of Stanford says that the Internet is the ultimate persuasive technology. It teaching the developed world to share. And individuals and institutions are increasingly applying the norms and practices found online to the offline world. As Kevin Kelly has said, “online culture is the culture.”
In addition, innovators around the global are using open source models to reorganize nearly every sector of society including government, media, business, education, philanthropy, law, and business. David Bollier wrote a book about this called Viral Spiral. The viral spiral started with open source software, then there was the Creative Commons, now there’s open government, open access journals, open education, open innovation, etc., the list keeps growing.
On top of this is a whole generation, 80 million strong in the US alone, that grew up on the Internet. As noted strategist Gary Hamel has observed, the social context of the web is Gen Y’s social context. They expect the world to work the way the web does. And if it doesn’t, they’ll build another one that does and obsolete the status quo in the process. It’s already happening.
So we’re at a unique moment in history. We have the tools, models, human capital, and motivation needed to transform our society into one that shares and is sustainable. But governments around the world are seemingly locked into a system that threatens our survival. The thing is we don’t have to wait for our governments to get it together. They likely won’t. We have the means to begin making the world we want ourselves today.
CCT Network: What trends do you see impacting the Internet and how will it impact your non-profit??
Neal Gorenflo: The most important trend is the use online technologies to make the change we need in the offline world. The mass collaboration innovators in the movie Us Now are great examples. Also, the Obama campaign’s skillful blending of cutting edge online organizing with old school community organizing.
The web can help the scattered majority balance the power of special interests, which are extremely organized and focused on their narrow interests. In a recent speech, political scientist Thomas Homer Dixon said this is the most important thing we can do to stave off disaster. To address the large and complex problems we face like global warming, we need the ability to coordinate large and complex stakeholder groups. Web 2.0 can help, but we need channel the cacophony of web 2.0 into something useful – take it from endless conversation to effective common action. Dixon believes the key to this is the right architecture. If we do not move down this path, then web 2.0 will just be yet another way, as Neil Postman would say, to amuse ourselves to death. Our disempowerment will be peer produced rather than our liberation.
So long term, we’re interested in blending online organizing with traditional organizing strategies to create new or empower existing sharing communities. Stay tuned.