E-mail Pioneer Borenstein Sees Hope, Flaws in Chaotic Tech Industry

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Great Firewall. Without net neutrality, huge telecom corporations would similarly decide what we can and can’t see. “People will understand the problem when bad things start happening,” he adds. “My hope is then, we’ll be able to bring net neutrality back.”

Borenstein feels a kinship with people like Chamath Palihapitiya, the former Facebook executive who seems to be struggling with guilt over the effect his former employer has had on social discourse. Palihapitiya made waves last month as a result of remarks he delivered at a Stanford Business School event: “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth,” Palihapitiya reportedly said.

Borenstein reached out to Palihapitiya, who later walked back his remarks to some degree, and offered to help. Borenstein has yet to get a response.

“There’s a spectrum of naivete when it comes to efforts to improve things,” he notes. “I totally empathize with someone who was building something they thought was just good, only to have it destroy democracy. I used to believe the Internet was incredibly democratizing and would break down barriers, but money has been an absolutely corrupting influence—on the Internet and on me, too.”

After Project Andrew, Borenstein founded First Virtual Holdings in 1994, a company that is often credited with being the first online bank. The company was ahead of its time, unfortunately. (A quaint New York Times article from 1994 describes First Virtual Holding’s goal to “make shopping with a Visa card from a home computer as secure and convenient as using a credit card at a shopping mall.”)

First Virtual Holdings had a good run and almost made it to an IPO, he says, before it eventually started to crater in 1998.  Ecommerce giants like eBay and PayPal were still a few years from becoming household names. By 2002, the company had been split in two and acquired by VeriSign and DoubleClick.

First Virtual Holdings’ failure caused a dark night of the soul for Borenstein. He spent the early 2000s in a funk, especially when he thought about the way his early work contrasted with his latest business experience. In the old days, money was the last thing he and his colleagues had been enthusiastic about. He was ready to write the whole industry off.

“The thing that convinced me that, on balance, the Internet might be good was a virtual choir,” he says.

Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir was an online project created by a well-known composer. He invited the public to record and upload videos of themselves singing along to his music, then spliced them together into a single performance. “The one I saw, called ‘Sleep,’ tied all these people from all over the world together, making something beautiful,” Borenstein says. “Five hundred years from now, people won’t remember Jeff Bezos, but they might listen to the virtual choir songs.”

When I ask Borenstein if he has any plans for an encore career after he retires, he says if he decides to pursue one, it likely won’t involve computers or e-mail. He’s working on a book, title TBD, about how modern technologies affect the spiritual quests of human beings.

“When I look at the traditions I was raised with—these evolved over time and came to be useful to people living a certain lifestyle,” he says. “In the span of a generation, people are spending 10-plus hours every day staring at a screen, and you can’t say that doesn’t matter. My book talks about how to live a balanced spiritual life. It’s the exact opposite of cyber-bullying.”

When I ask what he would go back and change if he could, he says there is one thing he remains embarrassed about. Every MIME object has a tag informing users it’s version 1.0 of the software. When it was created, Borenstein thought there would be future versions, but that didn’t happen.

“Seventeen trillion bytes per day wasted [on the tag],” Borenstein laments.

He says if he had to do it all again, he might choose a completely different line of work. But even after all these years, it’s obvious he’s still passionate about technology and innovation—even as the industry monetizing those innovations becomes less and less recognizable to him.

In 2015, Borenstein started another venture, which is temporarily dormant. Led by “three grandfathers with day jobs,” AmplifEye Vision seeks to produce a new generation of digital color-correcting glasses, allowing color-blind people like Borenstein to perceive more shades; the glasses would also enable those without color blindness to see infrared, ultraviolet, or anything else a digital camera is capable of capturing.

It’s an ambitious undertaking, and this semester, University of Michigan students will work on bringing it to market. Borenstein says his fantasy is that one of those eager grad students will be color blind and want to “take over the whole darn thing.” After all, he’s got three grandchildren to entertain in his spare time.

“I’ve become pretty fatalistic,” he says. “I saw a lot of people who worked on the early Internet become disillusioned. I’ve gotten to the point where I’m not that surprised by anything. More and more, I think the most useful thing I do is mentor young people.”

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