Tech companies and their leaders have enjoyed a cushy existence. Their inventions have become embedded in our lives and economy to such an extent that we can’t imagine living without them, and the wealth of our nation depends on their success. The financial control they have over us is only matched by the idol status we give them in our digitally-obsessed culture. And they enjoy the pinnacle of political pandering, which remains unmoved even by their obvious disdain for politics.
And those inventing our new technologies deserve a lot of credit. Their creations have made life and work more comfortable and efficient. However, our rose-colored glasses hide from view the consequences of rapid growth in the technology field. Creating new technologies that become necessary in our daily personal and professional lives does more to increase the digital and economic divide than eliminate it, unless calculated action is taken to bring these technologies to those without easy access to them.
So far, social media royalty like Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, and Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter, haven’t shown much interest in this kind of social good. In large part this is due to the prevailing tech industry attitude that technology-driven professional goals are, in fact, perfectly aligned with the social welfare of the world. Many in the technology sector believe there is no higher social good than championing openness, transparency, and connectivity through their million- and billion-dollar companies. But technology’s potential as the great equalizer is only met if the newly available information is in fact disseminated to the entire population, and not just used to better those who already have a leg-up.
Thankfully, there has been some recent movement in Silicon Valley to be more politically involved and philanthropic. However, many of these endeavors, it could be argued, miss the point. Most of the foundations that have been started - such as Google.org started in 2010 by Google founders Lary Page and Sergey Brin - have focused their energy on solving enormous global issues, like poverty and renewable energies, through the creation of more technology. But scant few have focused on actually teaching existing technologies to those who could really benefit from this knowledge. Kids and adults who don’t know how to use the technologies which have become minimum requirements for our emerging job market are at an insurmountable disadvantage. Teaching them these skills can be the difference between chronic unemployment and a lifetime career. The problem is, teaching poor people how to use technologies that many of us take for granted is not nearly as sexy or profitable as creating the next great solution to our energy crisis. And what we often forget is that while Silicon Valley leaders are championing openness, they’re also in it for the money.
Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, was recently called before the U.S. Senate to explain why the company keeps billions of dollars worth of taxes out of the country by keeping billions of dollars worth of profits in foreign banks. Somewhere between the flirting and the fawning, members of the Senate managed to ask Cook for recommendations on changing the tax code. Unsurprisingly, just like other billion dollar corporations such as Exxon and General Electric, Apple would like to see the U.S. slash the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to somewhere in the mid-20s, and to adopt a single-digit tax rate on foreign earnings that corporations bring back to the U.S. Furthermore, Cook said that the United States should eliminate corporate tax expenditures and be revenue-neutral. It appears that championing social good through openness is one thing, but doing so through tax-funded social welfare programs, which help millions of people climb out of poverty each year - well, that’s something different.
Cook went on to say that "Unfortunately, the tax code has not kept up with the digital age” - a vague and flippant riposte which has become the go-to response for many in the tech community. And it works, because while few of us understand the intricacies of the technologies we live on, we deeply understand that our entire economy is linked to their prosperity. There’s no doubt that the tax code needs many adjustments, mostly focused on simplification, but there is doubt that the large corporations which lobbied for and benefit from the complicated tax code are sincere in their requests for real reform.
Because people like Cook and Zuckerberg hold the purse strings, this should harden our criticism and expectations of them, not soften them. And to do this, it is necessary to dispel the myth that technology will auto-equalize, that its very existence will pull people out of poverty. Technology is human-made and will bow to the human will, whatever direction it flows.
Even companies like Kickstarter, a social media crowdfunding platform, promotes the aura of the “great equalizer,” the belief that anyone can get a good idea funded through this technology-driven system. This is far from reality. A critical look at what it takes to make a successful Kickstarter campaign exposes the digital know-how and previously established networks that are required. To have a successful campaign you need to already have a sizable social network; you need to have access to and skills at using specialized technologies, (these days, a successful Kickstarter campaign relies on the production of a sophisticated and eye-catching video); you need to be able to devote lots of time and energy, and often some of your own money, to the project; you need to know how to create a budget; you have to be able to manufacture gifts for your backers, like stickers and t-shirts; and, of course, you need access to an Internet-connected computer and the knowledge of how to use one.
Kickstarter has helped thousands of people fund projects they could otherwise not afford. It has pooled resources from more than 4.1 million people to raise over $627 million for more than 41,000 projects. It provides a platform and leaves the rest up to us, and there is nothing wrong with that. The problem is promoting the idea that anyone can take advantage of this technology, when in fact only people with time, advanced knowledge, established social support and regular access to a computer have any real chance.
There’s no doubt that new technologies help us solve problems more efficiently, in large part through social connections. Our collective IQ is, in fact, often smarter than our individual ones. But, just like anything else, this new growth has created new problems that so far have been largely ignored. Too often, emerging technologies help us bypass institutional systems rather than improve them, and the creators of these technologies seem to assume they will trickle down without outside intervention. So while millionaire and billionaire tech leaders stand on the sidelines, the digital and economic divide grows bigger, in large part thanks to their inventions.
The digital age has the potential to be the great equalizer, distributing to everyone the education and knowledge that used to be out of reach to so many. But this potential will only be met with concerted effort made by the same people who are creating these technologies. Social media alone won’t solve our problems. It might be time to hold Silicon Valley to a higher social standard.
Camille Koué is pursuing her master’s degree in Communication, Culture & Technology at Georgetown University. She is focused on theintersection of technology, infrastructure, and design and the effects these domains have on broader systems, including human-infrastructure interaction and urban development. A native of Oakland, Calif., she graduated from American University with degrees in Visual Media, Justice, and Spanish Language.