Friday, May 10, 2013

Technology for All: From Gandhi to TED - Part 1

Technology has the potential to improve the lives of millions across the world. Unfortunately, most companies won’t pursue projects without the promise of big profits and the people who need tech tools the most often can’t afford them. In this two-part series I explore the concept of “Technology for All” and Benetech’s commitment to both ensuring that the technology required to meet a social need is developed and that it reaches far beyond the 10 percent of people who can afford it.
                                                                                         

Gandhi, Technology and Economic Justice

I often travel to Washington, D.C. to raise awareness and advocate for the work we’re doing here at Benetech. On a recent trip to Washington, I had the pleasure of meeting with retired Senator Harris Wofford (D-PA). It was an incredibly memorable meeting—one I took much away from.

Jim Fruchterman meeting with Sen. Harris Wofford
Sen. Wofford is remarkable, having performed so many exemplary deeds of service for our nation. He volunteered for the Army Air Corps in World War II and was a friend and adviser to Martin Luther King, Jr. He was President of two colleges and Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Labor and Industry. He served as a U.S. Senator, helped launch the Peace Corps and led the Corporation for National and Community Service. Last February, Sen. Wofford received the 2012 Presidential Citizens Medal from President Obama for his seven decades of public service.

After visiting India in 1949, Wofford became a lifelong advocate of Gandhian nonviolence. He even co-wrote a book with his late wife Clare, India Afire (1951), which urged the civil rights movement in America to adopt Gandhi’s strategy of nonviolent action (see this correspondence between Wofford and King). In fact, Wofford reminisces that “the little claim to fame in those days” that he enjoyed most was that King joked occasionally that he was “the only lawyer volunteering to help him go to jail instead of using all the tricks of the trade to keep him out” (for example, see p. 4 in the proceedings of this program on “Civil Rights, Politics and the Law” by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars).

During my conversation with him, Sen. Wofford immediately connected with Benetech’s vision of a world in which technology benefits all of humanity, remarking that Gandhi would have appreciated our work! I was surprised to hear that, because as far as I knew, Gandhi was famous for his criticism of technology (though he didn’t use the word “technology” – he spoke about machinery and the process of mechanization). Sen. Wofford explained how Gandhi had elaborated on his criticism of machinery, relating it to his doctrine of nonviolence. His point was that technology should benefit all of society. It wasn’t technology per se that Gandhi rejected; it was the fact that technology tended to concentrate the production of wealth in the hands of a few.

Gandhi distinguished between machinery used for mass production and machinery used for production for the masses. The former under free enterprise, Gandhi observed, often made the rich richer and the poor poorer. What Gandhi favored was technology aimed at eradication of poverty and creation of employment. He said:
“What I object to is the craze for machinery, not machinery as such. The craze is for what they call labor-saving machinery. Men go on ‘saving labor’ till thousands are without work and thrown on the open streets to die of starvation. I want to save time and labor, not for a fraction of mankind, but for all. I want the concentration of wealth, not in the hands of a few, but in the hands of all. Today, machinery merely helps a few to ride on the backs of millions. The impetus behind it all is not the philanthropy to save labor, but greed. It is against this constitution of things that I am fighting with all my might” (as quoted in S. Radhakrishnan, Mahatma Gandhi: Essays and Reflections, Sangam Books, 1998: p. 348).
As a pragmatic idealist, I find this message so uplifting and relevant to the work we do at Benetech. We believe in the potential of technology to improve – or even transform – the lives of all people around the world. And we also believe that it shouldn’t be just the privileged few who can afford that beneficial technology. That’s why we develop tools purely focused on the social good and, more broadly, have helped catalyze a movement of social entrepreneurs.

After all, what good is a world where we have snazzy gadgets, but glaring social needs that continue to go unaddressed?

A few days after my meeting with the Senator I arrived at Long Beach for the start of the TED Conference. To my amazement, TED’s kickoff debate about the future of progress had a major connection to my conversation with Sen. Wofford, to Gandhi and to the debate around technology’s effect on our society and our economy.

Check back for Part 2 of this series, where I explore the conversation at TED.

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