Mark Andreessen and Meg Whitman, two people who ought to know, were recently asked whether “technology creates inequality.” Their answer was a resounding “no.” They were asked the wrong question.
Andreessen is the entrepreneur who co-founded Netscape and has made millions selling his companies to business giants. Whitman heads Hewlett Packard Enterprise. They not only embrace change, but bring it into our everyday lives.
The question should be: Is technology leaving some people behind?
Technology manifests in satisfying human wants — even some wants we didn’t know we had. Many take for granted that its inexorable march forward will provide future comforts and solve existing problems. Indeed, over the last 100 years, technology has changed our society in ways we could not have imagined by our not-too-distant ancestors. Until relatively recently, you could have taken a citizen of Rome and plunked him down in Lower Manhattan, and other than a language barrier, society would have seemed pretty familiar to him.
Advances in technology and their effects on society are moving at break-neck speed. We are morphing from creatures inhabiting a shared physical world, to ones who socialize and work in virtual reality. Tech could very well change our definition of life, as both DNA is manipulated to create “artificial life” and software mimics consciousness through “artificial reality.”
And tech wipes out some livelihoods as many find their jobs as obsolete as a buggy whip manufacturer in 1950s Detroit. However, it will also provide for our dramatically-lengthened lifespans.
In the world of innovation, we look at these changes and say “get ready.” We assume that everyone welcomes the future, since “you can’t stop progress.” I wonder though, should those of us who promote technology be a bit more humble?
We conclude that technology is a public benefit and everything it creates is also good. In Silicon Valley, the “hacker culture” that spawned many of tech’s leading companies tells us that the Internet must be free and a market free of government intervention is the best path forward for society.
I wonder whether supporters have forgotten something important: not everyone benefits equally, nor is everyone uniformly pleased with technology’s influence on our society.
Sure, its application to business creates greater efficiency and in a free-market economy, that benefits companies with sufficient scale to use technology to limit competition. Absent some type of government regulation (such as antitrust laws) or collective action (such as tenure), the last 30 years of economic history pretty clearly demonstrate that technology enhances the creation of oligopolies.
Technology can exclude people in several ways; as it has accelerated, fewer of our citizens understand it. No one likes feeling stupid, and a technologist’s excitement in his or her next great innovation is not only lost on many, but may be perceived as arrogance or condescension.
Technology can also challenge the world view of religious Americans. If you accept carbon dating, then the biblical timeline doesn’t work. Knowing that humans can now create life in a lab without divine intervention, you might take offense. If computers are “conscious,” what defines humanity?
Technology might not create inequality, but lack of context or a holistic understanding of how it affects us may be at the root of much of what divides us. We in technology should remind ourselves that progress in the tech world is not the same as progress in the human spirit. I am not suggesting for a moment that we should stop pushing against boundaries of discovery. Only that we be cognizant that not everyone is excited by the status quo being disrupted.
Jonathan Aberman is a business owner, entrepreneur and founder of Tandem NSI, an Arlington-based organization that seeks to connect innovators to government agencies. He is co-host of “Forward Thinking Radio” on SiriusXM, a business and policy program, and lectures at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.