“Just got a push notification that the bully who broke my nose in the 7th grade is turning 40 today, so the Internet is working as designed.”
That’s just one of many tweets that give Anil Dash the air of someone you’d like to hang out and drink coffee with. Trouble is, he doesn’t drink coffee—or have a lot of free time. The former CTYer-turned tech pioneer is CEO of ThinkUp, an app that helps subscribers mindfully manage their presence on social media, and partner at a consulting firm. He’s also a husband, father, and prolific blogger and social-media user with more than half a million followers on Twitter. Dash recently took a break from it all to share his thoughts on the passing of Prince and making technology more humane.
Were you heavily into pop culture as a kid?
I was always a huge fan of pop culture because, as the son of immigrants, it was my connection to learning what it was to be American.
You were 9 years old when Prince released the movie and soundtrack album “Purple Rain.” Were you an instant fan?
As a kid, I definitely remember hearing Prince's 1999 playing through the door of my older sister's room (I probably wasn't allowed to hear some of it!) but then when Purple Rain came out, everybody was listening.
I just loved that this guy who was supposed to be the epitome of cool and (back then) really naughty was also just a guy in the Midwest who worked really hard and was clearly kind of a geek about computers and doing everything himself. He ran Paisley Park more like a contemporary tech startup than like a recording studio.
Photo credit: Scott Beale / Laughing Squid
Since Prince’s death, the scope of his charity work—most of which was focused on children and education—has come to light. Why do you think Prince directed his resources in this way?
There's no doubt Prince cared deeply about education, especially arts education. Part of it had to be pragmatic—his own experience started with music teachers who let him rehearse constantly in school, and included classes (in public school, no less) on the music business.
That early generosity paid off in his career; he and his band The Revolution played a charity fundraiser for a local dance company and the live recordings of that show make up several of the songs on the album Purple Rain, including the title track.
You came to CTY the summer before eighth grade. Can you share any memories?
I took a propositional calculus and logic CTY course at Franklin & Marshall College that was really great. Perhaps just as valuable to me was meeting other kids with such varied interests. That helped me learn a lot about everything from comic books to music to different cultures—all things I'd never really explored.
How old were you when your family first got a computer?
We got our first computer, a Commodore Vic-20, when I was 5 years old. I would play games and almost immediately started doing simple programming in the BASIC computer language that was built in. I probably spent 10,000 hours on it in just that first summer we had it!
You often introduce yourself online as “an activist and entrepreneur focused on making technology and the tech industry more humane and ethical.” Can you explain?
I worked for years in tech as a regular coder and programmer, and later joined a startup that was very successful for a little while, though it faded away later. But along the way, I got to learn a lot about the bigger patterns in the tech industry, and to make an enormous number of connections to some of the most talented and influential minds in tech.
What I found was that, despite having so many smart, thoughtful people, our industry was not reflective or self-critical enough. We had all grown up so used to thinking of nerds as the underdogs that we didn't really change our behavior once we became the most wealthy and powerful industry in the world.
So what I'd like to do now is help to fix that oversight, and undo some of the negative impact that these technologies have caused, though of course I still get extremely excited about all the innovative and beneficial things tech can do.