By Kentaro Toyama
In a recent op-ed co-written with Bono, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg upped the ante for technological utopianism. He wrote, “If you want to help people feed, heal, educate and employ themselves around the world, we need to connect the world as well.” Translation: the Internet is necessary to ensure food, health, education, and jobs for everyone.
Kentaro Toyama is W.K. Kellogg Professor of Community Information at the School of Information and author of Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology.
This is an astonishing claim, especially on top of another statement Zuckerberg likes to make: “The richest 500 million have way more money than the next 6 billion combined. You solve that by getting everyone online.”
These claims go well beyond the usual braggadocio of Silicon Valley. Once upon a time, tech titans would tentatively suggest, “Our technology can improve your life,” content to tantalize us with the possibilities. Later, they began to insist, “Our technology will improve your life.” But now we also have, “Our technology is necessary to improve your life.”
It’s all but a threat: Use our technology, or else!
But digital tools routinely fail to live up to their more grandiose promises. The evidence is all around us. In Detroit, you can see it among some of its residents who go hungry despite having Facebook accounts — the technology delivers neither food nor the means to pay for it. You can see it in the city’s schools where computer labs are commonplace, but students still don’t receive the education they deserve — overtaxed teachers don’t have the time to attend to individual needs. You can see it in the unemployment line, where the ”sharing economy” of Uber and Airbnb does little to bring jobs to people without cars or spare rooms to rent.
Across the United States, the last four decades have seen the number in poverty rise, social mobility stagnate, and inequality skyrocket to levels not seen for a century, and all this during a golden age of digital innovation. If all of Silicon Valley’s successes so far haven’t addressed America’s own social ills, why should we expect that they will do much for the rest of the world’s?
To be sure, the tech industry is an engine of economic growth. But those spoils go largely to technology producers, not consumers. When you buy an iPhone, it’s Apple employees and shareholders who get rich, not you. This is easy to forget amidst the noisy buzz of today’s digital entrepreneurship. Yes, tech companies create jobs, but the jobs go to those who have skills the industry values. The rest are lucky if some meager scraps eventually trickle down.
In the movie The Matrix, an advanced technology harvests human energy to feed itself while giving people the illusion of a pleasant life. It might seem that that dark future is pure science fiction. But, Facebook is an advanced technology that harvests human attention to feed its shareholders while giving people the illusion of a pleasant social life. Machines are already distracting us from honest living.
If Zuckerberg and other would-be tech-philanthropists were serious about helping the world less privileged, they’d be focused less on spreading the means of their profit-making, and more on nurturing others with the necessary skills to succeed. They’d be working to ensure universal quality education, not lobbying for selective immigration to steal other countriesí talent. And, they’d pay attention to the mounting research that shows that spreading technology doesn’t in and of itself solve poverty, inequality, or social immobility.
In Detroit, there are grassroots efforts to provide shelter for the homeless, training for the jobless, and community for neighborhoods alienated from themselves. These efforts work without the fanfare or the tech savvy of the glitzy start-ups and big corporations hailed for revitalizing the city. But, their work is at least as important if the goal is not only to revive Detroit but to support the people of Detroit to achieve their own aspirations. Whatever technology might do, in the end, social challenges need human solutions above all.
In the video below, Kentaro Toyama elaborates on these points and explores why technology alone cannot make schools better or make children better learners.