AMERICAN RENEWAL: Tech Innovators Need To Bet On People
Nathaniel Fischer on December 18, 2019
What went wrong with technology?
It’s a question that more and more Americans are asking. We’re doing so even though the tech-driven economy is delivering new consumer products faster than ever before and reaching more people than ever before. Yet while tech gains ground, there’s still a growing sense that opportunity is fading. A growing share of population sees a future where we’re entertained, but not engaged, and possibly employed, but certainly not empowered.
We all expected more of the technology revolution. Yet there’s no reason it can’t still deliver. Tech is increasingly being designed as an amusement or replacement for people. At its best, however, technology can be a bet on people. Technology can empower, unite, and uplift.
People are the world’s greatest resource. We’re uniquely creative, endlessly entrepreneurial, and naturally curious. Time and again, people from all walks of life see opportunities widely missed and turn unlikely ideas into reality. As history shows, we simply need the right conditions to unlock our boundless potential, and the progress that comes with it.
Properly understood, technology can foster those conditions, as it has done over the centuries. Yet the shift into the digital age has been different. As I’ve seen firsthand in my work in the tech and investment worlds — and as tens of millions of Americans see in their daily lives — Silicon Valley tends to produce powerful tools for a technological elite but mostly consumer or social products for everyone else. There seems to be a broad pessimism about humanity. It’s a belief, conscious or not, that people’s potential is limited, not unlimited.
This helps explain the trajectory we’re on, headed for a future where a dynamic tech sector is coupled with wider economic and social stagnation. Some people want to cushion the blow: see the idea of a universal basic income, which has gained rapid popularity as a solution to the supposedly inevitable day when technology renders all but the most important people obsolete. But the better path is to avert this course.
Technology’s effects, far from being set in stone, are shaped by the assumptions of those who design it. When innovators believe talent will be increasingly concentrated in a small elite, they build tools for these groups, allowing them to pull still further ahead. Conversely, when innovators and investors recognize that human potential is broadly distributed, they pursue ideas that broadly empower.
This is where technologists ought to concentrate, and the field is ripe with opportunity. Instead of focusing first on social networks, consumer products, and the like, tech innovators should seek ways to leverage human talent. Concepts pioneered in Silicon Valley should empower every industry and geography.
In practice, this could take many forms.
Financial technologies can help distribute credit and capital to small entrepreneurs. Innovative models have made capital richly available in a few elite networks, and technology offers cost and information advantages that can help extend these models to a far broader range of businesses.
Career platforms and marketplaces can let people find new and better opportunities, building and showcasing their skills and reputations in ways more open and inclusive than conventional college degree and credential games.
Software can be designed to give individuals and small entrepreneurs in all sectors powerful tools comparable to those used by big companies, breaking down barriers to competing in the global economy and giving them the building blocks for innovation and growth in their own industries and geographies.
No matter what form it takes, putting productive technology in more hands will empower people of all backgrounds to pursue their goals – from simply improving their lives to developing groundbreaking business models in industries both new and old.
It’s impossible to estimate the wealth these risk-takers and reward-seekers will create, but that’s the point. Silicon Valley’s success defied prediction. Now imagine what’s possible with innovation that extends much farther and empowers far more people. By viewing people as creators, not just consumers or users, tech can spur a new era of shared prosperity.
This can do more than create great businesses. By empowering people, tech can offer people hope, rather than create more cultural and economic tension. The belief that progress benefits all, not merely some, is the sine qua non for the market economy. Many people rightly feel that technological changes threaten their ability to succeed, and in their search to protect themselves and preserve their future, they’re turning toward radical ideas like socialism. Tech that empowers can restore people’s faith in the market economy, fostering untold opportunities and prosperity.
Instead of letting more people fall behind, it’s time for tech to give them the tools they need to rise. Instead of developing platforms that primarily empower a few, it’s time to help each person take control of his or her own destiny.
Most of all, it’s time to bet on people. That’s the key to creating tech that empowers and uplifts, spurring new wealth creation across the country. This is an enormous opportunity — one that innovators, investors, and policymakers alike are largely ignoring — and it’s what Americans want and expect from technology.
Nathaniel Fischer (@NateAFischer) is an entrepreneur and investor. He makes early-stage venture investments and is the principal of NF Macro, a multi-strategy investment firm. He previously co-founded Trustwork, an online platform for property maintenance services, and InvestRes, a $1.5B real estate investment company.
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