Tech Entrepreneur on a Mission to Get People to Unplug and Socialize
Brian Hiss is a successful, New York-based tech entrepreneur. He was the chief operating officer of eats.com, later acquired by delivery.com, and he’s currently at the helm of Dooble, his eighth startup, which offers users curated lists of fun things to do in New York City. So why is Hiss in the middle of a 12-week, 20-city tour to promote the idea of digital disengagement?
“I’m not anti-tech,” Hiss explains. “I’ve been working in tech for a long time. Every company I create gives people technology that aids their experience, not becomes their experience. I’m advocating for sustainable technology where we stop creating products that exploit people by drawing money out of them and encouraging overconsumption.”
Hiss is calling his movement Experience People, and he embarked on his “awareness tour” in a saffron-colored, 1970s VW bus with a filmmaker named Rob Loud, who is recording the trip for a documentary. The pair stopped in Detroit this week as part of the tour, which began in Los Angeles at the beginning of August. So far, the Experience People bus has stopped in San Jose, San Francisco, Denver, Chicago, and Detroit, and it will continue moving east before heading south and then west, finishing in San Diego in October.
“We picked the 20 cities because they’re great tech hubs,” Hiss says. “Detroit is up-and-coming—the VC money is flowing here, and there are great incubators and startups.”
Hiss points out that Americans spend 40 minutes per day on Facebook, but that’s not enough for Facebook’s investors, who are always looking for ways to increase user engagement. “I’m saying, cut that 40 minutes in half and start planning your own adventures—stop living vicariously. We spend our money and time poorly, and we need to embrace boredom again in this country. One thing technology can’t replace is human touch.”
Hiss has lived abroad, and he says the technology consumption habits of Americans differ “big time” from other places in the world. Our intolerance for boredom in the U.S. leads to the inability to unplug, he says: “I think technology magnifies that behavior. But it’s like a boomerang in that it always corrects itself. The world wants to be in balance, and it’s out of balance right now. People are unhappy and they know they’re spending too much time online.”
He also takes pains to say he’s not preaching that he’s better, just that he’s more self-aware. People in the tech industry know they’re perched at the edge of a bubble, he says, but nobody is quite sure what to do about it. “It just takes one crazy person to say enough is enough,” he adds.
Hiss and Loud spend two days in each city, and while in Detroit, they did the coney dog challenge made popular by Man vs. Food, and they also planned to tour the Madison Building downtown, which serves as a hub for tech startups and investors. The pair met just before the tour began, but say they share a spirit of adventure, so the trip has gone fairly smoothly so far. They are mostly sleeping in the bus—which is equipped with bunk beds—in Wal-Mart parking lots or the driveways of sympathetic strangers. The bus itself often functions as an ice-breaker as VW fans stop to chat and take pictures.
“This [tour] is an environment I can’t control, and it introduces me to people I otherwise never would have met,” Hiss says. “The nature of people is to be generous and authentic—we don’t realize that because we’re so impersonal when we have our heads buried in our phones.”
Hiss says the shoot-the-moon goal of the Experience People tour is to create a new set of industry best practices, where tech behemoths like Google, Apple, and Facebook sit down and hammer out a blueprint for sustainable technology that doesn’t exploit users in the pursuit of profit.
“There’s no way to enforce it other than supply and demand,” Hiss admits. “We need the supply of money for exploitative technology to dry up, and we need consumers to vote with their dollars.”