Tag Archives: What We Have vs What We Want

When Tech Touches Politics

Over the past couple of days, there has been somewhat of a debate going on, with various blogs slamming people like Robert Scoble over the fact that they haven’t mentioned the current situation in Kenya. Scoble has his posted a response which is essentially that as a tech blogger, it doesn’t impact the area he has chosen to blog about. Having said that, as a counterpoint to that, one of the items that came through on Roberts link blog earlier in the week shows just how politics and tech do touch each other.

The posting I picked up on initially was something by Tim O’Reilly, called “What We Have vs What We Want“. In that article he was quoting from an article in The Times describing a business venture in India, where using the remains of an old plane, an entrepreneur is making successful business out of providing the airline experience to the poor of India who could never afford to go on a plane for real. This is the full works apparently with the safety demonstration, stewards and so on – except the plane never leaves the ground. However, the article to which the O’Reilly article was a counterpoint is perhaps even more interesting.

The original article, “The Rest of the Rest of Us” is a very interesting read, and is written by Dale Dougherty a technologist working with O’Reilly, challenging the mantra of many technologists that technology will change the world, looking at some of the political problems that the US is facing, and asking whether technology is really changing the world for everybody.

The main point of the article is that in the US, for all the hi-tech jobs, and advances in phones, entertainment or whatever, at the bottom of the pile are a group of people for whom this sort of thing is just irrelevant or unobtainable.

The example he gives is of Winston-Salem in North Carolina, where the economy used to be built on textiles, furniture making and tobacco. In the past, a 16 year old could drop out of school with no qualifications and walk into a factory involved in one of those industries and live a reasonable life. It is different now, those kind of factory jobs have gone to the far east, and in a situation that you can find repeated across the UK as well, there are fewer and fewer of those kind of jobs, and leaving school without the most basic qualifications. Indeed, a recent Institute for Fiscal Studies report in the UK reported by the BBC showed that behind the oft quoted rise in living standards in the UK was a more worrying trend – increasing inequality in British society – whilst the majority of the population have seen incomes rise a little, the top earners have seen a significant increase, whilst the low earners have seen their incomes fall. In a world where we’re told that most people have more technology in their mobile phone or in their TV than was in the Apollo Space Programme, there is a whole group of people who aren’t getting any benefit from our burgeoning hi-tech economies.

The whole article is well worth a read, and is equally true for what is happening the UK as for the USA. The final few paragraphs however sum up what Dale Dougherty is trying to say – and poses some big questions for technologists:

Is the high-tech world indifferent to the problems of the poor? Do we have any competence that matters in helping them find a better life? Or are we just making “the happy few” that much happier?

What is a social network if the people facing the toughest problems are not part of it? They don’t need more signs that tell them that they are on their own. The have-nots don’t do networking. It doesn’t get them anywhere.

Whether it’s the latest from Web 2.0 or Apple Computer, do we need to ask what it means for those who aren’t able to take part? Does it help them catch up or put them further behind? That calculation is part of the social cost of any new technology. We might think of it like we’re starting to think about our oversized carbon footprint and its impact on the physical world. Is there any way to offset the negative social impact of the technology that we’re so busily developing?

It’s a challenge for the “best of us” to address.

O’Reilly’s counterpoint of course is that if you look beyond our own backyards, the problems pale in comparison – whilst the hi-tech economies are moving further ahead, other places are struggling with more fundamental problems – and all the points above can equally be applied when we look at things on a world level.

Both articles are available on my link blog.