“It will require all of us to work together–and harness tech–to solve our many complex challenges.” That was the refrain of Techonomy’s Digitally United conference in mid-March. Speakers across the board said it’s on all of us to come up with the kind of multi-stakeholder, interconnected, multi-faceted solutions we need. That’s true, they said, for political division, climate change, racial and gender equality, public health, and global digital connectivity.
Below, some key themes that emerged from the two-day event.
Social media is the most distrusted institution in the country, and a key vector of technologized division. Many speakers addressed that. The conference began with Harris Poll CEO John Gerzema reporting a raft of data about American progress. A stark finding was that 69 percent of Americans distrust social media, more than any other major institution. The distrust is bipartisan – a harbinger for change when paired with the stat that 57 percent of Americans think we need legislation to determine how platforms are policed. [ See Gerzema’s full presentation here.]
“The issue around social media is becoming mission critical. It’s becoming existential,” said Ben Pring of Cognizant, co-author of Monster: A Tough Love Letter On Taming the Machines that Rule our Jobs, Lives, and Future. Pring said now is the time to act– “The stakes really couldn’t be any higher.” His book outlines concrete, if sometimes controversial, proposed policy solutions, including: eliminating Section 230 of the U.S. Communications Decency Act, establishing a powerful Federal Technology Administration, prohibiting all political advertising on social media, prohibiting social media to anyone under 18, and establishing social media user licenses, effectively eliminating anonymity on the platforms. Pring acknowledged that not all will happen, but argued we need to start debating real world solutions.
Human rights lawyer Susie Alegre spoke about the role of “freedom of thought” in this technologized age. After the Cambridge Analytica scandal, she said her “blood ran cold.” She then had the epiphany that social media, with its algorithms and microtargeting, has the power to manipulate our internal states. She argues that this infringes upon our basic right to freedom of thought, enshrined in human rights law. Talking about “ethics,” she said, gets companies off the hook by putting them into squishy territory. Law needs to be applied.
Oren Segal’s view of history is long, as the VP of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. He said that while hate and manipulation may not be at an all-time zenith, it’s easier than any other time to spread hate and catalyze extremism. He said that if his comparatively small team can identify hate groups on social media, then Facebook and other platforms, with their resources, certainly can.
Of course, Facebook is not going to radically change or disappear overnight. “The question is,” asked FIN’s James Ledbetter, “can it be fixed? And where does that fix come from?” He was interviewing Andrew Essex, founder of famed ad agency Droga5 who now runs Plan A. Ads are the lifeblood of social media, so what responsibility do advertisers have? They’ve got leverage, replied Essex: “I would just like to see more courage. I think they underestimate their power to make a change. And maybe it will be consumers who put the pressure on brands that forces them.”
Humana wants to keep leveraging telemedicine to expand access to health care, especially, as executives David Icke and Slawek Kierner said, for seniors. In the next three years, the health care giant wants to bring one million seniors online. Steve Collar, CEO of SES, the world’s largest commercial satellite company, made the compelling argument that once people have shelter, their next two priorities are food and connectivity. Collar said SES maps all of its ambitions to the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals for 2030.
The SDGs were a repeated theme. Several panelists said connectivity underpins all of the Goals. The International Telecommunications Union has been thinking about connectivity since 1865, said Doreen Bogdan-Martin, director of the ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau. She said it’s worth thinking of connectivity as the 18th goal, because it is essential to achieving all of the rest. Bogdan-Martin pointed to the need for multilateral solutions and the importance of collaboration, international cooperation, and public-private partnerships (the ITU is the only UN agency that has always had business partners).
Kate Garvey, co-founder of Project Everyone, is one of the SDGs most important backers. Project Everyone is a communications NGO behind critical design and marketing for the goals (including the logo, the colorful iconography and celebrity-packed campaign videos). All Project Everyone’s work has been devoted to, she said, making the goals “more famous.”
The Harris Poll finds 65 percent of Americans support the Black Lives Matter movement, but only 20 percent want to “defund the police.” Its polling also shows that Black Americans are twice as likely to lack the digital access and hardware needed for telemedicine, and that systemic racism and a disparity of trust in the health care system is hindering the roll out of the vaccine. Multiple panelists noted that the average Black family in the U.S. owns only 1/10th the wealth of the average white family.
Abbey Wemimo, co-CEO of financial-inclusion-oriented startup Esusu, said his company uses data to bridge the racial wealth gap by offering microloans and helping renters build good credit. “Where you come from, the color of your skin and particularly something like your credit score should never determine where you end up in the wealthiest nation on the surface of the earth,” he said.
About the national racial reckoning after the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Ken Gibbs, a top social media marketer at Amazon, echoed the importance of corporate responsibility. “Everyone wanted brands to acknowledge that racism is alive and present in America today, and a lot of brands did that. But I think the next question was, is it only going to be a cosmetic acknowledgment, or are you as a brand going to take this a step further and use your ways and means to affect change in the real world?”
What business can and should do emerged repeatedly, as an urgent question. Morgan McKenney of Citi spoke about its Action for Racial Equity campaign. It committed $1 billion to expand banking and access to credit in communities of color, invest in Black entrepreneurship, invest in affordable housing and promote Black homeownership, as well as strengthen the company’s path to becoming an anti-racist institution. Daniella Ballou-Aares of the Leadership Now Project spoke alongside McKenney about the group’s efforts to give voice to business leaders’ commitment to democracy and justice in new ways. She emphasized that executives are finally taking seriously more than just the bottom line. ”What does it really mean for every aspect of your business model to be part of a society that functions?” she asked.
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, who faced extensive personal threats following the 2020 election, said “Democracy is a team sport.” Her big point was that it’s up to all of us to ensure democracy prevails. Regardless of the eventual success of the election in Michigan and nationally, if we don’t remain vigilant, forces that want to dismantle democracy will grow. She also talked about Michigan’s Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, a bipartisan group of randomly selected voters now redrawing district lines fairly and apolitically.
Anne Marie Engtoft Larsen is Denmark’s official ambassador to the technology industry. Her goal is to put democratic governance back in technological innovation. She said countries must collaborate to ensure technology delivers on society’s ideals. She proposed the European citizen-driven approach to tech governance as the ideal (as opposed to American market-oriented or Chinese authoritarian-driven approaches).
The tense relationship between the U.S. and China came up several times. When asked to name our most serious challenges, Atlantic CEO Nick Thompson alluded to the dangers of the so-called splinternet, especially relating to artificial intelligence. “The challenge,” he said, “will be how do we get back to the point where there is technological sharing, where there is technological cohesion?” He continued: “A Cold War where you have a Chinese tech stack…and a Western sphere – that is what we do not want, [but] are very much heading in that direction.”
“There are no easy answers,” said Techonomy founder David Kirkpatrick in his closing remarks, “and there are many different pathways to more concord, progress, and togetherness.” But speakers made clear there remains reason for hope.
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