How should those of us who believe in the positive potential of technology react to a fractured America? What is our responsibility to respond, in the face of the shocking public resurgence of hate in American society and the even more shocking tendency of our president to encourage it?
How did technological change and “innovation” contribute to bringing our country and world to this point? And how can technology play a more active and constructive role to help us get past it? At Techonomy, my company, we are firm believers that tech can help lead to a fairer, friendlier, healthier, and happier world. But it’s not automatic. It takes conscious and positive approaches, and many tries, to find constructive pathways. And society at large, along with government, have to get more involved with tech policies, to help guide decisionmaking about painfully difficult matters.
In general tech has not focused sufficiently on these questions. The industry has built a significant proportion of the infrastructure and tools of modern society, for good and for ill. These systems play an increasingly important role in determining how social dialogue and conflict plays out. Therein lies enormous, unprecedented, and too often unrecognized responsibility. What is called for is a shift in mindset, a reorientation of the priorities of innovation.
The changes brought about by connectivity and automation form the backdrop of a restive political culture. Historian Jon Meacham told Charlie Rose this week that there is a fear abroad that “Information Age brains matter more than Manufacturing Age brawn.” This profoundly important point directly ties tech to the state of the social fabric. Many feel excluded from the headlong forces of change. Will the relationship between automation and jobs be positive, or, as many experts seem to believe, hugely negative? Can those alienated people be included as automation and artificial intelligence relentlessly advances, as it certainly will?
And that is by no means the only vector through which tech gets implicated in the debate about our country’s future. The successes of tech have generated enormous and unprecedented wealth. Tech leaders are America’s richest people, at a time when income inequality is one of our biggest existential dilemmas. That only heightens their responsibilities and that of the companies they lead.
And tech companies have astonishing and unprecedented power. A very small number of them have constructed the communications infrastructure of the world and the country, over which professional media and individual opinions constantly flow, often in ugly ways. The question of whether Facebook and Google are culpable for having created the context for division is urgent.
We’ve seen a stumbling and fitful effort to confront such questions in the past weeks, as Facebook, Google, GoDaddy, Cloudflare, and other companies in the net communications ecosystem have blocked or canceled accounts and websites of groups whose doctrines of hate violate terms of service or other policies.
One can say that Facebook is right to block accounts and pages for white nationalists, for example, but what is it, other than the peculiar evolution of circumstance, that makes Facebook the arbiter of what speech should and should not be allowed? Facebook is by far the largest source and conduit for information and news in the country.
But this challenging set of discussions must be met head-on at an even higher level than the executive suites of these organizations. The net infrastructure has become central to social dialogue and communications, yet government for the most part has not developed policies and laws to guide it. Don’t we need government to provide essential guidance on social norms and freedom of speech, rather than leaving it to the policies of companies guided by the concerns of profit and commerce? It’s disturbing that the discussion is not taking place at that level. But it is another consequence of the breakdown of government effectiveness in the United States that we likely cannot expect much progress on such questions in the near term.
I am completely unsympathetic to the impulses that led James Damone to write his recent incendiary memo at Google. He was wrong about diversity and about the contributions of women. But the company’s firing of him is nevertheless troubling because it betrays something larger about Google’s mindset. The search giant has an indispensable role in its central business as a protector of free speech and freedom of inquiry. We need all our institutions, governmental and corporate, to be firmly committed to openness and freedom, but it is especially important for Google. Again, the consequences of that can be awkward or worse, given some of the speech that is abroad, but others than only Sundar Pichai and Larry Page should be helping decide how to handle it. Weirdly, Facebook and Google have become as important as the first amendment to the Constitution in guiding our national dialogue, but the connection between the two is not clear.
And however much blame the net giants should bear for allowing a coarsening of public discourse, they do not bear it alone. They may be helping form audiences, but they are also serving their wants and desires. What is the role of all of us in succumbing to the allures of instantaneity, wanting always to feel stimulated by the information streaming past our noses?
And how have the innovators, entrepreneurs, and leaders of tech tempted everyone to succumb to this orgy of stimulation? One critical question the world will inevitably find itself forced to confront in coming months and years is how much an advertising-based business model has led companies to value eyeballs and page views above all else, and what the alternatives might be.
I don’t have the answers. As in so many areas surrounding the influence of tech in relationship to society, there may be no clear answers. That in itself is a topic the tech industry itself needs to admit and confront far more openly than it has.
So can tech and innovation in general militate towards love, tolerance, and inclusion and serve as a bulwark against the rise of hate? For me an inspiration can be found in the writings of my departed friend, University of Michigan Professor C.K. Prahalad. He published a book in 2004 entitled The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid. It argued that the most important and world-changing innovations would arise in technologies for the poor and less-privileged, largely because there simply were more of them. Demand for progress is nearly insatiable among those left out, if they can afford the new tools. And technologies developed in large numbers end up being cheaper to produce because of economies of scale. We have seen the virtues of those economies of scale clearly with smartphones, which today can be bought for as little as $30 in some countries. As a result, more than 40% of the world’s people have them. But Prahalad argued that starting at the bottom was both best for the world and good for capitalists. The affordable products, he said, would frequently make their way back to the developed world, among other virtues.
So here’s one possible direction tech could follow: starting with innovations that aim for inclusion rather than with those aiming to serve the privileged. There are many implications of that, including in the resulting corporate culture. Take the contrast between Uber and Airbnb, two companies that arose around the same time and whose trajectory has been so different. Uber started as an operator of black cars for the rich. Airbnb started as a way for people with little money to put a temporary roof over their heads. Is it a coincidence that one has become known for its heedlessness and tendency towards illegality and sexism, while the other strives, albeit fitfully, to find a path towards responsible behavior alongside its successes?
While, as I noted above, Mark Zuckerberg faces profound challenges in keeping Facebook a socially-constructive institution, I also think he is one of the most positive role models we have. He relentlessly makes the point that Facebook is for everybody, and that it aims to help create a more open and fairer society. He clearly articulates the values he wants the company to follow, emphasizing community. He is already engaged in giving away the lion’s share of his massive wealth in order to achieve laudable social goals, decades sooner than Bill Gates began giving away his. He has shown himself willing to engage directly with all sorts of people in his unusual trek to all 50 states. And Facebook has developed an extensive array of technologies for inclusion around the world through its Internet.org initiatives. All this despite the fact that Facebook began as a tool for the rich and privileged at Harvard University. It took conscious efforts to mature so far beyond that.
Hate, sadly, is the topic of the week, month, and year, and will stay in our faces. Technologists, business people, and even journalists must simultaneously keep our values in front of us in all we do, and remain, as citizens and technologists, devoted to working for inclusion and equity, fairness and freedom.
These issues will be front and center at the Techonomy 2017 conference this coming November. For seven years it has aimed to highlight the biggest challenges and opportunities faced by a technologizing economy and world. Kirkpatrick is Techonomy’s CEO, and authored 2010’s The Facebook Effect.