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Yoav Aviram: “Help the people you work with shine”

I believe in servant-leadership where your job is to help the people you work with shine by removing the obstacles in their way. I despise traditional, ego driven hierarchies and believe in pushing decision making to the place where the work is done. But I also grappled with these ideas for a while in my […]

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I believe in servant-leadership where your job is to help the people you work with shine by removing the obstacles in their way. I despise traditional, ego driven hierarchies and believe in pushing decision making to the place where the work is done. But I also grappled with these ideas for a while in my career. At times I was so obsessed with getting out of the way that I have left a leadership vacuum. I learned that if you banish formal hierarchies, informal ones will take their place, and that they can be even worse. I came around to appreciating the role of the leader as a facilitator.


As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Yoav Aviram.

Yoav has been professionally involved with technology and the Internet for the past 25 years. He has played a part in bringing about the digital revolution, initially as a software engineer, and later as the founder and CEO of startup companies, a business leader, and an advisor to startups and large enterprises.

Yoav works with innovative organizations who embrace new ways of being, thinking and working in the capacity of an advisor, helping to facilitate business-model and product innovation. He works with ethical organizations, who deliver an overall positive social impact.

Disillusioned by the notion that technological progress necessarily impacts our quality of life in a positive way, and concerned about the negative trends which are threatening our digital human rights, Yoav decided in 2018 to devote a major part of his time to Digital Activism. He co-founded Conscious Digital, a non profit organization which creates digital initiatives with the aim of advancing and promoting Digital Human Rights. One such initiative isYour Digital Rights, a free service which helps you regain control of your online privacy by instructing organizations to delete the personal information that they have collected about you.

Yoav believes that technology is most powerful as a means of facilitating social change. He is passionate about innovation and the business models that it drives, but most of all, he cares about the well-being of the people who experience it.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

Iwas fortunate to have a great childhood. I was born in London but my family relocated back to Tel-Aviv, Israel when I was at a very young age. My father, a journalist and a prolific author, was quite famous in Israel at the time. He had very poor business skills and always lived outside his means, preferring to go out for a coffee in the morning, jogging at noon time and to spend time with me and my brother in the afternoon. I remember how at primary school I marveled at the fact that he was able to provide us with a comfortable upper-middle class lifestyle while working so little in comparison to some of my friends’ dad’s. From the age of 6 we lived in a small village just outside Tel-Aviv, which was like living in an affluent suburb. We could afford for my mother not to work, which meant she was always around. Having both parents available was definitely an important factor in making my childhood a good one. It was only later in my life that I learned that the reason why my family could afford our lifestyle was by accumulating massive amounts of debt. Nevertheless, I learned both the importance of a healthy work-life balance, and of financial responsibility!

At the age of 15 the family relocated once again, this time to Denver Colorado, USA. We stayed there for two years, which were the best and the worst years of my childhood. I met some of my best friends while there, friends which I am still in touch with today. I learned to speak English, started listening to classic rock music, and wrote poetry. On the flip side I exhibited what I would now call moderate symptoms of depression, and even had some suicidal thoughts. Shortly before my 16th birthday my parents announced that they were separating. We returned to Israel shortly thereafter.

I had two years of high school left when we returned. I didn’t do much learning during this time, but did experience everything in a typical teenager’s bucket list and, again, made some lifelong friends.

As far back as I can remember I was always critical of many aspects of Israeli life and society. It was only when I left the country that I grasped the full scope of the absurdity of that environment, and the impact it had on my mental well-being. The pinnacle of this absurdity was the mandatory military service which I joined at the age of 18 and attended for 4 years. Not only does this experience mark the end of my childhood, but it — and particularly my counter reaction to it — shaped who I am today. I left Israel in my early 30s because I felt that the moral choices of the state were not aligning with my own moral campus.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Mythologies by Roland Barthers. I got this book as a gift from my uncle in my early 20s. It introduced me to critical thinking and Philosophy. It allowed me for the first time to “peek behind the curtain” of culture, power structures and ideology.

“The cultural work done in the past by gods and epic sagas is now done by laundry-detergent commercials and comic-strip character” ― Roland Barthes, Mythologies

Reading this book started a chain reaction which culminated with my decision to study Philosophy in university. I find philosophy to be utterly fascinating yet incredibly under appreciated and often misunderstood. I often hear remarks about how impractical this field of study is. On the contrary, I find it the most useful subject one can study. I use it every day and in almost everything that I do.

One important area we deal with as a nonprofit organization focused on Digital Human Rights is the question of trust in the information age. How does one evaluate which source of information or theory is trustworthy, and to what degree. I see many people who are overwhelmed by the ever-increasing flow of information online. They often resort to using simple heuristics in order to decide which piece of information is trustworthy, and I think that it’s because they lack a framework with which to approach this dilemma. This is why misinformation (ie. fake news), and the emotional stress resulting from information overload are such big problems today. Even more worrying is the fact that we are just getting started, these problems are about to get worse

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

“Man is an impostor. He is not the naive scientist he passes for. Instead, he is a slobbering sentimentalist. He pretends to square his view of the world to new facts and experiences. But what he really does is pry the facts into whatever self-delusion is popular. Like a person trying on a new pair of jeans a size too small, he forces the flesh into the space fashion allows and holds his breath to make it fit.” — Mobs, Messiahs, and Markets

I have slightly modified this quote as I find the original a bit distasteful. Nevertheless, it captures several important ideas. We think that we live in the age of reason and rationality. We think we make choices based on facts. The truth is that most of the time we make emotional decisions and rationalize them after the fact there’s plenty of scientific evidence to back this up, if you are not convinced I recommend the book The Righteous Mind. What I find fascinating is that we have a choice in how we deal with this state of affairs. If we recognize that rationality is not in control then we can turn to our intuition, train it and learn to trust it. If we insist on pretending that we make rational decisions we open ourselves to easy manipulation by others.

The quote talks about popular self delusions and fashion. I would add algorithms to the list. Many nations and almost every company with a marketing budget is taking advantage of our tendency to overlook the role our emotions play in our decision making in order to influence us. This is how online advertising works. Facebook algorithms select which content to show us based on our past behavior online, They then measure our reaction, did we click the story? did we click the adjacent ads? If our reaction did not match what the algorithm intended then a slightly different content is shown. Rinse and repeat a few dozen times and eventually the algorithm gets it right and we perform the desired action. We think we’ve made a rational decision but really we’ve been influenced. This is how the last US elections were subverted, and again these are early days for influence campaigns. It’s about to get worse.

Intuition is an amazingly powerful tool which many of us have forgotten about. I make an effort to try and live my life more intuitively. I’ve learned that justifying a decision by saying that that’s what I feel like rather than attempting to provide a rational explanation is liberating, and prevents me from holding on to justifications I don’t really believe in. When I manage to do this the effects on my well-being are noticeable.

OK, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently leading a social impact organization. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?

Conscious Digital is a nonprofit organization whose purpose it is to promote and advance Digital Human Rights by launching innovative digital initiatives.

Let me try to unpack that.

For a variety of historical, political and economical reasons we have ended up with an internet in which our Human Rights, such as the right to privacy and self expression, are constantly under attack. There are several alarming trends that we are very concerned about — the loss of privacy, rampant surveillance capitalism, micro-targeting and misinformation and the addictive nature of digital services.

The current situation is bad because we have crossed or are about to cross several points of no return, in the sense that once we cross them it will be too costly to go back. In the course of human history there were several times where we adopted a new technology in a way which resulted in a worse off quality of life for the majority of human beings, but turning back was not an option. One example is the agricultural revolution. We exchanged a hunter-gatherer lifestyle which was diverse, emotionally satisfying and healthy for a farmer lifestyle which is monotonous, labor intensive and overall less healthy. The new lifestyle produced greater crop yields, which in turn supported a greater population. Once this was the case turning back to a hunter gatherer lifestyle meant starving a large portion of the population. This is why we almost never see any civilization going back to what was a better lifestyle. I believe that today we are in a similar place to that of the first generation farmers who were unaware of the implication the new lifestyle they adopted will have down the road, except the time it takes for change to materialise today is so much faster.

We are slowly being coerced into a digital lifestyle which is not in our best interest. More and more services we use have no analog alternatives and no real option to opt-out. What’s worse is that in many cases the value we get from these services is not the main reason why they exist, it’s just the bait. The term surveillance capitalism refers to the real purpose many of these services exist — to collect massive amounts of personal information about us so that it can be packaged and sold. We now live in a world where personal information is one of the most valuable commodities, more valuable than oil. This information is then used to influence us in order to change our behaviour, either to make us buy stuff, for political purposes, or for entirely other reasons.

Personally, the worst bit for me about the situation we are in is that while we technically still have some choice about which services we use, which devices we have, how we interact with each other, and we still have some common sense about what source of information we trust, our children will not. That is, unless we do something about it.

The good news is that there’s a lot that we can do, and that is being done in order to create a more level playing field. What makes many of the negative trends that I described above possible is the widespread collection and trading of personal information. One way of addressing this problem is government regulation. The European union, the state of California, Canada and Brazil have already legislated strong data protection laws which give individuals some rights regarding their data, and many other countries are considering similar laws.

Legislation is an important step, but in 2018, when the European General Data Protection Regulation (or GDPR for short) came out we realized that there is a big gap between having the right laws in place and people actually making use of these laws. This is how our first digital initiative was born. YourDigitalRights.org is a free service which helps you regain control of your online privacy by getting organizations to delete the personal information that they have collected about you. We do this by automating the process of sending data erasure (also called right to be forgotten) requests. The service has 3 main benefits:

  1. It allows individuals to reclaim ownership of their personal data, and regain their online privacy
  2. It lowers the overall benefit personal data collection has for organizations by forcing them to pay for the cost of handling erasure requests, which is not trivial since the process of handling these requests is hard to automat on their side
  3. It sends organizations a clear message that people care about their online privacy

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. We just don’t get up and do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

I was born in the late 70’s. A few years ago the group of people roughly my age were identified by anthropologists as a distinct micro-generation which they called Xennials, on the cusp of the Generation X and Millennials. What makes this age group interesting, the anthropologists argued, is that we had an analog childhood but are first class citizens of the digital age. I’m not a big fan of labels but the definition definitely does a good job of describing me. I remember what the world was like before software invaded every aspect of our being. I remember life without a mobile phone, where anonymity was the default, and when social interactions were unmediated by technology.

My 6 years old daughter on the other hand, lacks any such frame of reference. She has no expectation or understanding of privacy. For her a mobile phone is pure magic because it can do anything, and because all the grown ups around her use it all the time. Yet at the same time she takes this magical device for granted, and with it she will have the option, at least in principle, to never experience boredom or loneliness. It is a radically different world than the one I grew up in, and I feel responsible for helping make it this way.

Experiencing life through the eyes of a child gave me a fresh and naive perspective. Every morning at my job I would immerse myself in innovative new technologies, and help craft new digital products and services. Every evening I would play with my children and meditate on the world they would grow up in. I could not reconcile the two.

At the time when my daughter was born I was an owner / director of a London based digital agency. We built software products for fortune 500 companies, global brands and large UK based businesses. Even though London was kind to us, my wife and I did not see it as a supportive environment for our children to grow up in. We craved a simpler life where playing in nature replaces digital experiences and hyper-consumerism. A place without air and noise pollution and where social interactions are plentiful and unmediated. We searched for some time, and In 2018 moved to the countryside of Tuscany, Italy.

I realized that much like in the case of the environment, we are in a unique place because we are the last generation which can do something in order to avoid a catastrophe. When our children are all grown up it will be too late. I want to be able to look them in the eyes and say that I had tried to do something about these issues. I felt powerless to make a difference about the environment, but I knew I can make a difference in terms of our digital human rights. That was my “Aha” moment. I subsequently decided to devote the majority of my time to digital activism.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

I have a very peculiar relationship with the people who benefit from our work. Every month thousands of people use YourDigitalRights.org to get companies to delete the personal information that the company has collected about them. Because we do not track them and do not collect any personal information I know very little about their stories. Every once in a while a thank you email lands in my inbox which makes me feel like this is all worth my while.

Recently a person whom I will call Kirkegard wrote to thank us for helping him remove his contact details from a People Finder website. These sites collect personal information from public sources or buy them from other data brokers. Anyone can search these websites to find your home address, email and phone number. Kirkegard had some very good reasons for wishing to remain anonymous. The problem is that getting your information removed from one of these sites is notoriously difficult. There’s no opt-out form, no contact details, not even a company name listed anywhere on the website. Over the past two years we have built an extensive database of contact details for thousands of organizations, including many data brokers such as this one. Much of the information in our database was gathered by our community. Kirkegard used YourDigitalRights.org to send a legally binding data erasure request and the people finder website complied.

Are there three things that the community can do to help you in your great work?

Yes! Use our service at YourDigitalRights.org to get organizations to delete the personal data that they have collected about you. If you are not sure where to start, try the Data Brokers link on our website. Date brokers are companies which collect and sell your personal data, typically without your knowledge or consent. Because they don’t provide any services to you there really is no reason you would want them to have your data.

After you use our service please tell your friends all about it so they can benefit from it too.

If you are passionate about online privacy and digital human rights or know someone who is, we’d love to hear from you. We’re always looking for volunteers.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

In a nutshell, I believe leadership is about setting a vision and then getting out of the way.

I believe in servant-leadership where your job is to help the people you work with shine by removing the obstacles in their way. I despise traditional, ego driven hierarchies and believe in pushing decision making to the place where the work is done. But I also grappled with these ideas for a while in my career. At times I was so obsessed with getting out of the way that I have left a leadership vacuum. I learned that if you banish formal hierarchies, informal ones will take their place, and that they can be even worse. I came around to appreciating the role of the leader as a facilitator. As a curator of an environment which is humane, and conducive to whatever it is you are trying to achieve.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

The difference between entrepreneurs who succeed and those who don’t is that the former stuck around while the latter gave up. The media loves sensational stories about young entrepreneurs fresh out of college who are changing the world. I’ve done some research on this and it turns out that when we first hear about a new startup company, the founders have, on average, been working on the idea for about 4 years. They have also most likely have worked on one or more other ideas which failed before attempting this one. Entrepreneurship is a marathon and not a sprint, be patient.

Be humane. Treat your employees, clients, colleges, business partners and competitors like human beings. Treat them like you would like to be treated. I’ve worked with fortune 500 companies and global brands and honestly, the corporate culture in many of these companies is toxic and outright unethical. I’ve seen people work in basements without windows. I’ve seen people work such long hours that their productivity drops to zero and they are still being made to feel guilty for not working hard enough. I’ve seen people bursting into tears because they feel bad about taking a toilet break. I’ve seen companies spy on their employees and on their customers without their consent. Be mindful of your choice of words, they create realities; I cringe every time I hear the terms “human resources”, “my employees” or “users”. These terms make it easy to forget that we are dealing with people.

Choose the lifestyle you want before making a career decision. Too many people do this the other way around and feel trapped because they can’t get the lifestyle they want to fit with their career choices. I’ve seen startup founders raise VC funding because it was available only to later discover that the kind of returns VCs are looking for meant they have to dedicate the next 10 years of their life to building a huge business which will reflect none of their values. Whatever skills you have, there’s usually an intersection between that skillset and the lifestyle of your choice. Compromises may be necessary but if the starting point is the lifestyle of your choice then you are more likely to get there eventually.

Listen to your customers. I’m sure you’ve heard this one before, don’t build the product you think people need, speak to them at every step along the way to validate your direction. Sounds trivial but it gets complicated quickly. The problem is that people are nice. They usually like you, and want to be helpful. They will not tell you if your idea is no good. They will happily lie and say that they will use it, and even pay for it even though in reality they will not. These early parts of the entrepreneurial journey are often called customer discovery and customer validation, and there’s an art to how to go about them. The best tactic I found is to interview potential customers and have them speak about how they deal with the problem you are trying to solve today, by asking open ended questions. Don’t tell them about your product, and stay away from direct questions such as “how much will you pay for this?”. You will get a different type of information out of these interviews then what you would get from direct questions, but it will be of a higher quality and will allow you to validate if they understand the problem you are going after, the language they use to describe it, how they go about solving it today, and how valuable a potential new solution may be to them. If you are interested in this topic I recommend the book “The Mom Test”. It’s short, readable and full of practical advice.

All journeys are ultimately internal ones. We are used to thinking about entrepreneurial journeys in terms of influence, wealth, impact, and maybe even fame. At the end of the day the most important journey is within. It’s always back to the old question, how can you be a better version of yourself. This is particularly important for social entrepreneurs because we tend to measure ourselves in terms of our impact on the world, and we often fight an uphill battle. “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” ― Mahatma Gandhi.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

We are in a unique point in history where we can still save the environment, and our personal freedom. I don’t know what the future holds but I know that there’s a possible future where on either one of these fronts we have failed to act and that possible future is both scary and likely. Make a conscious choice to be a part of the solution, not part of the problem. Don’t settle for being neutral either, that is not enough. You don’t necessarily need to change the world, being on the right side of the equation is enough because if enough people make this choice then the change we are looking for will come. Nature wants to heal, people want to be free. You can still make a nice livelihood, no matter what your skills are, in a job which has a net positive effect on this world. This is the calling of our generation, don’t delay, the time to act is now.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Man is an imposter. He is not the naive scientist he passes for. Instead, he is a slobbering sentimentalist. He pretends to square his view of the world to new facts and experiences. But what he really does is pry the facts into whatever self-delusion is popular. Like a person trying on a new pair of jeans a size too small, he forces the flesh into the space fashion allows and holds his breath to make it fit.” — Mobs, Messiahs, and Markets

I have slightly modified this quote as I find the original a bit distasteful. Nevertheless, it captures several important ideas. We think that we live in the age of reason and rationality. We think we make choices based on facts. The truth is that most of the time we make emotional decisions and rationalize them after the fact (there’s plenty of scientific evidence to back this up, if you are not convinced I recommend the book The Righteous Mind). What I find fascinating is that we have a choice in how we deal with this state of affairs. If we recognize that rationality is not in control then we can turn to our intuition, train it and learn to trust it. If we insist on pretending that we make rational decisions we open ourselves to easy manipulation by others.

The quote talks about popular self delusions and fashion. I would add algorithms to the list. Many nations and almost every company with a marketing budget is taking advantage of our tendency to overlook the role our emotions play in our decision making in order to influence us. This is how online advertising works. Facebook algorithms select which content to show us based on our past behavior online, They then measure our reaction, did we click the story? did we click the adjacent ads? If our reaction did not match what the algorithm intended then a slightly different content is shown. Rinse and repeat a few dozen times and eventually the algorithm gets it right and we perform the desired action. We think we’ve made a rational decision but really we’ve been influenced. This is how the last US elections were subverted, and again these are early days for influence campaigns. It’s about to get worse.

Intuition is an amazingly powerful tool which many of us have forgotten about. I make an effort to try and live my life more intuitively. I’ve learned that justifying a decision by saying that that’s what I feel like (rather than attempting to provide a rational explanation) is liberating, and prevents me from holding on to justifications I don’t really believe in. When I manage to do this the effects on my well-being are noticeable.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I’d love to have breakfast or lunch with the philosopher Slavoy Zizek (@Slavojiek). He’s style is quite controversial but I find him incredibly insightful.

How can our readers follow you online?

Follow me on twitter @yobo.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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