Technology: Friend or Foe?
Updated: Oct 3
Originally published in 2016 on HuffPost
Many people, especially those of us over 50, frequently bemoan the fact that “technology” is confusing, constantly changing and/or costing us jobs. And I can’t argue with that. There is no denying that for those of us who weren’t born living with bits and bytes, technology can be confusing. And for sure it’s changing fast. (I had no sooner figured out Facebook then my 11-year-old at the time informed me that it’s passé and only for “old fogies.”
This is to say nothing of the advancements in big data and technologies that can now predict outcomes or automate machinery. For certain, these have freed many individuals from repetitive and often mind-numbing work. But they have also taken jobs from people who needed and wanted them, both in the USA and around world. Not to mention the negative impact on so many of us now watching countless hours of mindless cat videos on YouTube (I have my own “mindless” vices but I’m happy to say this is not one of them).
Indeed, it’s a brave new world. People are being replaced by machines in many ways. And with the advances in Artificial Intelligence and human-machine learning, this trend will only continue. But before we go demonizing technology, I want to spend a minute looking at the positive side of these developments, especially for some of the world’s poorest people. Consider for just a minute the ways technology has already improved village life for smallholder farmers in Africa. Technology — be it smart phones combined with internet access or even just texting — has literally transformed village life for millions. How? Farmers can now check market prices for their crops or get weather forecasts. They can download tips for better planting techniques or new developments for fertilization or ways to save water. Simultaneously, that same smart phone can provide the farmer’s pregnant wife with prenatal healthcare information and in some cases even diagnostics. And it can help her educate her already school-aged children. Using symbols, much of this can be accomplished even if the user can’t read.
Indeed, in these ways, I would argue that the internet and smart phones, tablets etc. have been some of the greatest equalizing factors of modern times. That little screen we in the West have become addicted to for connecting with friends, watching movies and keeping in touch with the office, is the very same device that is opening markets; breaking down barriers and borders, transferring knowledge (often for free) and improving healthcare outcomes, to name just a few of the things it has brought to more remote parts of the world. Minutes have even become a “bankable currency” in many places, allowing “savings,” even among the “unbanked.” So, truly there are two sides to the technology story. Yes, jobs are being lost; but they are also being created. For example, it may take fewer people to produce a car these days and of course people are even forgoing owning cars thanks to developments like Uber and the sharing economy. But, at the same time, an entire new industry of “app producers” has been born. And this is just one of many, many examples.
Net net: I think technology writ large is enabling many important, live-saving and life-enhancing advances. But, we need to keep harnessing it properly in order to minimize the downsides and maximize the upsides. We need to ensure that we don’t simply stop thinking for ourselves; stop asking the tough questions; stop checking our facts and sources, etc. And we need to re-train those in jobs and industries that are being negatively impacted by these advances so that they are ready for the new opportunities being presented. It won’t be easy, but we’ve done it before. Think about the transition from the agricultural to the industrial economy. We turned farmers into factory workers. The biggest difference is that we did that over a couple of generations. Today, given the speed of change, we have to do it in more like a decade. And the process will never truly be “done,” as learning must now be a life-long pursuit for all of us. But while the task is great, by applying some of these very same technologies, I’m confident we can build the next generation of workers and I think we’ll all be better off because of it.
ABOUT PERRY YEATMAN:
Throughout her career, Perry has been a leader in working at the intersection between business and society. From the early days of CSR to the rise of B-corps to the mandate for all brands to embody a social as well as functional mission, her work has helped companies, NGOs, multilateral organizations and governments simultaneously achieve economic, social and environmental benefits. Perry's experience includes revamping and running corporate foundations; developing public-private partnerships; defining and driving brand social innovation; marketing one of the world’s leading social impact measurement firms; and advising leaders from all sectors on how to create and lead purpose-driven organizations. To learn more about her thinking on these issues, visit her blog here.