The Social Impact of Technology

FRAMINGHAM (01/27/2000) - When your grandchildren ask what you did to help end poverty, how will you answer?

It's almost impossible to imagine IT innovation without capitalism. The Soviet Union was able to create impressive industries of almost every other type.

There were home-grown Soviet cars, pharmaceuticals and power plants, but with few exceptions (like some early experimental military machines) Soviet computers were merely copies of Western designs. And the copies were almost always many years behind the times.

There are undoubtedly many reasons for this particular Soviet failure, and it is hardly the only one. But an apparent explanation is that the Soviet mind-set was focused on linear, zero-sum thinking. Their designers worried about how to make things efficient, how to allocate resources and so forth. They demanded a nice frame around each design problem- constraints to be solved.

The rejection of precisely that kind of thinking is practically a religion in Silicon Valley and related environs. You simply cannot make new information systems that way. An information system designer is actually doing what the original Soviets claimed to be doing-inventing radically new ways for people to live, communicate and work together-and bringing forth dramatic new wealth as a result.

Information designers spin spectacular new wealth out of imagination-a rejection of linear thinking. There is a problem in this pretty picture, however.

The economic boom times enjoyed lately by the United States, thanks largely to the triumphs of information systems designers, have been egregiously lopsided.

The gulf between wealth and poverty is becoming wider and more dangerous.

Indeed, according to the Bureau of the Census, nearly 50 percent of the nation's wealth is now held by the richest 20 percent of the population, an increase of about 4 percent over the last 52 years. In contrast, 40 percent of the population has experienced a decrease in their share over the same time period. The old linear problem of allocation between rich and poor hasn't been made obsolete by our nonlinear explosions of riches. Furthermore, poverty is not just a matter of outward style in the United States. I wish it were. In fact, it shortens health and life, destroys families and kills hope.

Future generations are going to judge us by whether we can rise to meet the challenges of Information Age poverty. There are no excuses. America is in an undisputed leadership position on the world stage, and there is no question that our wealth abounds. We believe that capitalism is not a zero-sum game, that wealth begets more wealth. Therefore, moral imperatives aside, it should be in all our interests to find a way to alleviate the suffering of those who haven't yet benefited from the boom times.

So, what to do? First, understand the nature of the problem. Access to information technology is central to wealth creation in the new knowledge economy; those who are frozen out of it will not become significant earners.

But the problem is not precisely that poor Americans do not have access to information technology. They do-it's just that they are accessing the wrong technology.

There are, sadly, many children in the United States who receive inadequate health care, education and even nutrition, and yet, ironically, some form of access to television and video games is virtually universal. A typical current video game system is actually more powerful than the average current personal computer and yet costs perhaps one-tenth as much. Admittedly, PCs come with more goodies, like mass storage, but even so, there is a striking disparity.

What determines economic access to technology is not the inherent cost of the technology's parts, but the commerce model. The bottom line is that poor kids are learning how to be high-tech consumers without learning how to be high-tech earners.

I don't think there is a silver bullet that will solve this problem, but I believe a connected campaign of government, industry and community initiatives can vastly improve the situation. These approaches need to focus on kids and families. Here are some specific things your company can do now to improve the prospects for disadvantaged kids:

* One of the most promising trends in technology is the opening up of video game machine architectures. If kids can connect to the Net with cheap machines and create their own content and services, they will grow into a new generation of empowered, productive, technically skilled citizens, even if they have to endure crummy schools and bad neighborhoods. Unfortunately, this trend is not well enough established. If you work with a company in the video game business, please consider advocating open architectures. Include a modem. Create wonderful authoring tools so that kids can build their own content additions on top of your titles. Allow open Web access.

* Connectivity is central if kids are to be empowered by digital technology.

Some schools that have PCs tend to do stupid things with them. This is in part because of the antiquated textbook industry, which sees itself as purely a content provider rather than a tool provider. It's also unavoidably the case that the adults who run the schools are from older generations and don't understand the new economy. Once the computers in a school are online, the kids have a chance to use them well, even if the school system installs only inadequate software on its own (and believe me, that is what schools tend to do). John Gage, director of the Science Office at Sun Microsystems Inc., has spearheaded a successful approach to solving this problem by organizing NetDay, a volunteer effort to wire schools for the Internet (see www.netday. org).

[Gary Beach, publisher of CIO, is on NetDay's Board of Directors.] This was a job that government would have gotten around to eventually, but much too slowly to matter to a generation of kids. You can participate in NetDay. Find out if there are disadvantaged schools in your area that aren't wired. The new local wireless solutions can help speed the process and lower the costs.

* Kids need to be motivated to become producers and not just consumers. The most powerful effort in that direction is ThinkQuest (see www.thinkquest.org), an initiative of Advanced Network & Services Inc., a nonprofit corporation in Armonk, N.Y. (Advanced Network & Services also funds and houses the Internet2 Central Laboratory.) The ThinkQuest Internet Challenge is a nonprofit competition for scholarships and awards in which youths ages 12 through 19 compete by creating Web-based educational tools and materials. What is astonishing is the quality of the results. The ThinkQuest server is one of the most popular among kids around the world-it gets roughly 20 million hits per week, up to 3.5 million per day. Take a moment to think about this. When kids take their own initiative and become producers of curriculum, curriculum suddenly becomes popular. Some of the entries have been so useful-including a wonderful introduction to C++ programming-that they have reportedly been adopted for training purposes by major corporations. Kids from more than 70 countries enter ThinkQuest each year (since 1996, there have been almost 50,000 students and educators from 100 countries). Participants often work in teams, overcoming differences in language, culture and socioeconomic status. Your company or organization should be sponsoring ThinkQuest scholarships. Is it?

* The way adults communicate with kids in order to achieve the goals of education must be revolutionized. A great example of how to do this is Whyville (see www.whyville.net) from the California Institute of Technology. Whyville teaches kids how to be scientists by doing real experiments instead of reading about what other people did. Kids form a natural community over the Net as they learn to plan and realize goals. Is your company sponsoring efforts like Whyville?

None of the above initiatives are handouts. They're investments that will increase wealth for us all.

The problem with pre-digital industries was that they had only a finite demand for labor. Once a factory produced as much of a product as was in demand, it had no need to produce more. This resulted in pernicious, repeated obsolescence of labor forces as technologies changed, and the resultant unemployment destabilized industrial economies for most of this century.

I'm about to make a comment that might sound sarcastic, but can also be taken at face value: The beauty of the Information Age is that information technology is forever broken and always in need of more human labor to maintain and improve it. There are two reasons for this, one technical and the other cultural. The technical challenges of IT will be all too familiar to readers of this magazine. But even if IT someday becomes easy to manage (as a computer scientist, all I can say is, "Don't hold your breath"), the cultural factor alone will be enough to drive an economy that fully employs a boundless number of educated workers. The reason for this is that all things digital are ultimately made of human meaning, a substance that can be endlessly improved with further effort.

The challenge now is to knock down the barriers that keep some people out of the new economy. The barriers are composed mostly of momentum, a collective entrapment in bad old habits and a lack of faith. If any group of people in the world has enough optimism, skill, energy and faith to address this challenge, it is the pioneers at the leading edge of the information economy. Someday your grandchildren will ask what you did to help mankind end poverty. What will your answer be?

Jaron Lanier is the lead scientist of the National Tele-Immersion Initiative, Internet2 Central Laboratory, in Armonk, N.Y. His Web site is www.advanced.org/jaron. How can CIOs make a difference? Tell us what you think at difference@cio.com.

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