Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Technology for All: From Gandhi to TED - Part 2

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 richest 10 percent of people who can most afford it.

You can read Part 1, here.

It all started with the TED’s opening session, “Progress Enigma.” The session posed the questions: “What is the future of work?” and “Is the innovation growth accelerating?”

In his TED talk, Northwestern University economist Robert Gordon replied to these questions with the argument that innovation isn’t likely to get us out of the global economic stagnation and that economic growth itself – contrary to the assumption that has become nearly universal since the 1950s – might not be a continuous process that will persist forever.

MIT economist Erik Brynjolfsson then countered this view with a talk that advanced the exact opposite argument: Income may be falling, but creative productivity and innovation are as strong as ever. The benefits of technology take longer to root than we expect and we have a bias against the future: we simply can’t foresee the things we haven’t invented yet.

TED curator Chris Anderson then engaged the two economists in a debate. Gordon asked Brynjolfsson about the value of some of the innovations he mentioned in his talk, from highly intelligent machines like IBM’s Watson to free streamed music. These technologies, Gordon pointed out, make money for their inventors and owners but put multitudes of people out of employment. At this point, I couldn’t help but think about my conversation with Sen. Wofford—I could hear Gandhi’s voice!

Robert Gordon, Chris Anderson and Erik Brynjolfsson at TED2013

Gordon also asked Brynjolfsson: What good is a world where we have machine intelligence and free music but no gainful employment and a broken education system? Brynjolfsson countered with some poignant answers, but he, too, acknowledged that optimism has its limits. At the end, these two very different-thinking economists seemed to converge on one point: We are witnessing a great decoupling of productivity from employment and wealth from work.

Technology is racing ahead, but leaving 99 percent of society behind.

It’s true that difficult challenges lie ahead of us. And yet, I believe that the “new machine age” that Brynjolfsson describes holds tremendous promise. I believe it can help catalyze much-needed systemic change and forever remove the most persistent barriers that prevent people from living a full life. We need that kind of change—for the good of all humanity!

Both my conversation with Sen. Wofford and the conversation I witnessed between these two economists at TED reminded me of how this is such an exciting time for social enterprises—and especially for us at Benetech. We’re operating at the nexus of multiple high-change and high-impact industries, from the mission-driven technology development sector to the social sector users who utilize that technology to “be the change they wish to see.”

Technology has redefined what’s possible for our society and each week brings news of organizations doing great things with it for the social good. In addition, now more than ever, those who have benefited greatly from technology are giving back. For example, the Giving Pledge campaign that began with efforts by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett is encouraging the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to commit to giving the majority of their wealth to philanthropy. It’s a powerful example of this “brave new world” we live in, where private resources are deployed to create and sustain public goods.

So, yes, I do feel optimistic. I believe there’s a growing recognition that the world has become a global village and it’s our responsibility to see to it that all “villagers” can improve their lives. Here, too, as I learned from Sen. Wofford, Gandhi’s philosophy is at the heart of the matter. Gandhi firmly believed that economic justice is key to non-violent independence. Creating a just economy, he proposed, meant abolishing the conflict between capital and labor – exactly the source of our problem today (as both Gordon and Brynjolfsson agree). Gandhi therefore called on society’s wealthy individuals to act as trustees, that is, owners of riches not in their own right, but on behalf of the poor (on Gandhi’s theory of trusteeship see, for example, A.K. Dasgupta, Gandhi’s Economic Thought, Routledge, 1996, Chapter 6, esp. pp. 118-23).

As social entrepreneurship moves from niche to mainstream, and the social enterprise economy grows, Benetech looks forward to growing our impact. There are many social needs that continue to go unmet and we have both a passion and a solid track record of successfully meeting those needs for the benefit of all of humanity.

And, I hope more and more of the people behind our terrific technological advances heed Gandhi’s call, to see all of humanity benefits from our incredible technological innovations.

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