So You Wanna Be a Disruptor?

One of the major trends the tech community is promoting lately is a vision of a shared economy–where anyone with a car might become a taxi driver, and anyone with a guest bedroom can become a b & b owner. At its heart, the sharing economy has values that appeal to many of us–more cooperation between humans is a thing we’d like to see. Plus, it’s just geeky and cool—who doesn’t want a ride in a car that sports a pink mustache, or to stay in a treehouse in Hawaii?

The benefit of the sharing economy also releases us, to some degree, from the increasing need to own every possible device or tool we might occasionally have to use. The sharing economy works every time a group of neighbors band together to buy a snow blower, in a place where major snows happen only once or twice per year. One neighbor agrees to maintain the snow blower in exchange for a reduced financial outlay–nobody on the block has to shell out the whole chunk of money–and voila, a shared resource is born! Scale this up to a town-wide system for sharing a 3D printer, and members of your community can save some real money. The library, after all, is one of the original elements of the sharing economy, largely promoted in this country by a captain of industry.

I wonder, though, what people in the tech industry are doing today to understand the interests of those they are putting out of work with the innovations they design, other than bemoaning the idea that non-tech workers are resistant to change?

What are they doing to help us find solutions to the real problems of our economy–things like high unemployment, income inequality, or a political system that seems rigged to favor the rich? I can certainly understand the impulse to focus on things that seem fixable–like not being able to get a taxi late at night. But if you really want to disrupt the way the economy works, why not start trying to figure out why increased productivity hasn’t led to an increase in the quality of life for most people?

It was Henry Ford, after all (hardly a pro-worker guy) who understood that, in addition to making advances in technology, he also had to pay workers a decent wage if he wanted a market for his products. How are you going to get to build the next billion-user app or device, if the US standard of living continues to sink? Does it make sense to base a business plan on the idea that people will continue to pour thousands of dollars a year into data plans to enable them to do “jobs” that don’t allow them to feed themselves or their children?

There has been some recent interest in the idea that the tech industry, in particular—and big business, in general—has some role to play in helping to overcome inequality, and invest in a shared public good. What if there was a conversation inside the industry about how to advance public policy that allowed people to work fewer hours, and still be able to afford things? To advance the idea that maybe if we’re all going to work more contract jobs, we should design a social safety net including healthcare and retirement security that welcomes people moving fluidly between work and unemployment, instead of discouraging fluidity? If the industry is destroying jobs faster than it’s creating new ones, what is it doing to convene a conversation about how to protect the out-sourced or underskilled, besides just saying, “tough luck”?

I consider myself to be an amateur geek. I’m an early adopter, an itinerant gamer, a tech fan. Like many geeks, I came to my love of technology through science fiction, and it taught me one important thing:

We’ve always got choices to make, when we adopt new technologies-are we embracing a future where technology serves to advance the interest of all humanity? Or are we embracing a future where technology serves the interests of the few—the tech-savvy, the smartest, the rich?

We need tech-savvy people to join the fight for economic justice. Because at the end of the day, the disruption that we can cause there has more potential for creating public good than any one company can ever hope to achieve. A friend of mine starts every day with the tweet, “A Better World is Possible.” Let’s make that true, together.

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