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Techonomy NYC: Down on Tech, but Upbeat About a Humanized Future

Desiree Gruber, CEO of Full Picture. (All photos by Rebecca Greenfield)

During our recent Techonomy NYC conference, almost everyone was struck by a pervasive through-line: Our approach to creating technology must change. It has to become more intentional, human-centered, and explicitly responsible. But there was a deep resolution among speakers to find ways of getting there.

This kind of thinking emerged from each day’s opening speakers—Scott Heiferman, who founded Meetup, on day one, and Douglas Rushkoff, author of Team Human, on day two. Heiferman turns out to be a fan of Rushkoff, and had already read his book. It’s a sort of manifesto for a return to human values and a pushback against the values of the marketplace.

It was surprising for many to hear Heiferman, a serial entrepreneur who recently sold his company to WeWork, saying things like we need to get to a kind of “cooperativism” to escape the damages caused by a technology landscape that too often divides us. Meetup, of course, was founded on the notion that getting people together in the real world was a key role for tech. That idea “cooperativism” is one championed by Rushkoff, who says that both capitalism and socialism put too much emphasis on the marketplace and financial values, and that cooperativism, by contrast, would reinforce human values. It’s more of an aspiration for a new kind of community than a description of an economic or social system.

Rushkoff opened his talk by criticizing the conference theme, “Collaborating for Responsible Growth.” “If I could summarize Team Human…I would say it’s about ‘collaborating for its own sake,’” he began. He’s down on the very idea of growth, which he says is too connected to financial metrics for progress. He hopes that via cooperativism we can refocus on the humanness in one another. He wants to combat the depredations of a technologized marketplace which he–and many other speakers and attendees at the conference–believe is wearing away the foundations of civilized society. While obviously we didn’t agree with every word he said, we are deep believers in dialogue, and we applaud his passion.

Douglas Rushkoff, author of a new book, Team Human, speaks at Techonomy NYC.

Here in more detail is what’s wrong, as echoed by speaker after speaker:

  • Contrary to the near-utopian expectations of many people at the dawn of the internet era, data is not often enough being used for us—and is often deployed against us.
  • We’re addicted to our devices, and it’s making us dumber.
  • The companies that dominate the digital society are operating for their own advantage, not for ours. It’s undermining social discourse, flattening human experience, and corrupting politics.
  • Government does not nearly yet have enough of a grip on these trends, and therefore isn’t doing enough to counteract them.

It’s a daunting and humbling set of conclusions. Nobody, of course, predicted at Techonomy that we are about to live in a less technologized society. If anything, it will become more so. Luckily, there were quite a few positive ideas about how to escape from our current mess, often through more intentional use of digital and networked tools that take human-ness into account. But there were no illusions about how far that would take us from today’s IPO-driven, growth uber all mindset.

The conference theme of “collaboration” was celebrated by many people as indispensable to understanding how businesses, governments, and nonprofits can collectively find new avenues for human possibility. Soumitra Dutta of Cornell University outlined some of the ways we could use technology to help achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals for the planet by 2030. Sara Dewitt of PBS Kids talked about how digital games and educational tools for children could help them bond with others, connect with their parents, and get engaged offline. Jasmine Crowe of Atlanta-based GoodR explained how her startup has created a digital platform that connects restaurants and other groups that have excess food at the end of each day with local institutions that can distribute the food to people in need. She wowed the room.

Jasmine Crowe, CEO of GoodR, is interviewed by Steven Gray, Techonomy’s Head of Content.

But even someone like Desiree Gruber—CEO of Full Picture and a master digital marketer—couldn’t help noting how fearful she is about the effects of the unbridled exploitation of data on young people like her own son.

When two Democratic presidential candidates took the stage on Wednesday we began to hear what concrete ideas for a better-functioning society might look like. “It’s not immigrants who are causing economic dislocation,” said Andrew Yang. “When you go to an Amazon distribution center, it’s not immigrants–it’s robots.” The entrepreneur-turned-politician talked about one of his central policy proposals–a universal basic income paid monthly to all Americans: “Americans love the idea of getting a dividend on our collective progress. It’s your money. We can easily afford a $1,000 dividend.”

Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur and Democratic presidential candidate, speaks at Techonomy NYC.

John Delaney, the former Maryland Congressman who created the House of Representatives’ AI Caucus, was also a font of ideas. “Let’s create a national service program that wouldn’t necessarily be mandatory,” he said, for one thing. “Let’s create a ‘Climate Corps,’ in which younger people would help seniors retrofit their homes, or work on infrastructure.” Climate action was emphasized by both candidates as an urgent priority for the nation, and one that is non-partisan.

Mark Bertolini, author of a new book entitled Mission-Driven Leadership: My Journey as a Radical Capitalist, explained how frustrated he was as CEO of Aetna because current rules and business practices prevented him from taking some actions that might have addressed societal inequality. He said, for example, that while he could depreciate investments in equipment, he had to expense any investments in people, including if he were to give them stock. He said he believes the primary distinction between the winners and losers in an unequal age is that some generate wealth from equity ownership while others have to depend entirely on wages.

Candidate Yang said he sees an appetite among Americans for what he called “a revolution of rationality.” We hope he’s right.

Techonomy is about optimism, progress, and yes, rationality, as a critical tool to maintain both. So in this weird time, as people use more tech personally even as their views of tech and society’s potential darken, we remain proponents of an eyes-open path to an inclusive, people-centric future. To be a Techonomist is to believe in a more efficient, kind and open society.

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