Making Technology Work For Those Who Aren’t Working

In November, during the week of the presidential election, I was at MIT for the Celebration of 50 Years of Entrepreneurship at MIT. The Friday night event included a keystone from Simon Johnson, an MIT professor who became famous during the financial crisis because of his superb analysis along with his almost daily blog The Baseline Scenario and his willingness to openly challenge an enormous amount of conventional thinking.

I remember hearing Simon for the first time at an MIT Sloan Dean’s Advisory meeting in the basement of a fancy hotel in NY in the middle of the financial crisis. Many of the advisory board member attendees looked like hammered dog shit as they were part of the New York financial services and real estate world. Simon gave a clear eyed, extremely compelling pep talk that challenged everyone to ask questions and think hard, rather than just retreat into gloom.

On the Friday night after the election in 2016 on the six floor of E-52, Simon gave another impassioned talk. As he wrapped up, he addressed the elephant in the room, which this time corresponded with Trump, a Republican Congress, and a huge swath of red on an electoral map where a bunch of people, including me, had previously expected blue.

One question really stuck with me.

“How do you make technology work for those who are not working? Especially for those who are not working because of technology.”

This is not the first time we’ve had to deal with this as a species, or a country. The transition from the agricultural revolution to the industrial revolution is a simple historical analogy. There are others, but Simon asked another question after making the analogy.

“Is this time different?”

I don’t know the answer to the questions but they slapped me in the face and made me sit up.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve had a lot of interesting conversations, mostly with Amy, about the next 20+ years. I believe humans are in for the biggest transformation (and subsequent challenges) that we’ve faced so far since the origination of our species. I think it’s going to be extremely complicated, painful, and confusing to many.

Simon suggested a powerful approach and one he’s going to take. He’s going to rip up all the old models and start with a blank sheet of paper. As part of that, he’s going to start with the question, and explore. He doesn’t know where it’s going to lead him, but he’ll let it go where it will.

I’m of a similar mindset. I’m also comfortable with my first principles, like the notion that a key part of the improvement in our situation, both economic and cultural, around the world are startup communities. I believe ever more deeply than ever in the philosophy of #GiveFirst, which is the title of my 2017 book. I’m committed to the work path I’m on with Foundry Group and Techstars, the philanthropic path that Amy and I are on with the Anchor Point Foundation, and the philosophical path I’m on with many friends around the world.

While I don’t have any answers to Simon’s question, I have more questions and answers to some of those questions. And, I know how to find answers, and find more questions. So that’s what I’m going to do this year, both in the context of my existing work, and on new intellectual, functional, and philosophical paths.

You’ll see this show up in what I read, what I do, and where I travel. For example, you’ll see hints in my Goodreads book list (whether or not I do book reviews.) For example, each of the last two books I read – Interface by Neal Stephenson / J. Frederick George and Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance – are both relevant to this discussion.

I’m not trying to find the answer right now to anything in particular. Instead, I’m starting with a blank sheet of paper and trying to learn more, with a beginners mind.


Also published on Medium.

  • “I’m also comfortable with my first principles, like the notion that a
    key part of the improvement in our situation, both economic and
    cultural, around the world are startup communities.”

    vs.

    “I’m not trying to find the answer right now to anything in particular.
    Instead, I’m starting with a blank sheet of paper and trying to learn
    more, with a beginners mind.”

    That’s a blank sheet of paper, aside from the conclusion you’ve already written at the bottom!

    Not saying you’re entirely wrong, innovation and creativity are how most problems get solved – and startups are one environment where that sort of things happen. However, there are others and I think it would be a mistake to just assume that startups are “the only solution”.

    Due to financial pressure and the temptation to exploit externalities, startups will also inevitably be a huge part of the problem.

    • I don’t think you have to abandon first principles to approach new problems with a beginners’ mind. I understand that introduces preconceived bias, but it’s also important (at least to me) to acknowledge where my biases are.
      For example, another first principle of mind is “It is not acceptable to murder another human.” I don’t feel the need to suspend that to explore something new.

      Also, your assertion “Due to financial pressure and the temptation to exploit externalities, startups will also inevitably be a huge part of the problem” seems to simply be provocative / contrarian. It’s probably useful to state that “startups” and “startup communities” are different things.

      • I don’t mean to be contrary, but as I’m not part of the start-up world (I dipped my toes in and then backed away) I may have a less forgiving and simplistic view than folks who engage with start-ups all the time.

        As I understand it, start-ups are proudly for-profit engines of disruption. It’s almost the definition of a startup to take a problem, find a more efficient solution (=eliminate jobs) and generate profits for the founders and investors (=increase inequality).

        Increasing inequality and impending job loss due to automation are *exactly* what people are worried about, no? And rightly or wrongly, a lot of people seem to have less faith in “trickle down economics” than they used to. So it would seem a lot has to change in the incentive structure around start-ups, if they are to become part of a solution instead of exacerbating the (perceived) problems.

        Again, I apologise if this seems contrarian or provocative – but you are a thoughtful person and I am genuinely interested to know how you can reconcile these issues. You mention the a difference between “startups” and “startup communities”, but without a bit more context I’m not sure what you mean.

        In any case, I look forward to reading future posts on the subject.

        • I think the challenge in the discussion is our different viewpoint. It comes out in your assumption statement.

          “As I understand it, start-ups are proudly for-profit engines of disruption. It’s almost the definition of a startup to take a problem, find a more efficient solution (=eliminate jobs) and generate profits for the founders and investors (=increase inequality).”

          Many startups CREATE NEW THINGS. The notion that the goal is “find a more efficient solution (=eliminate jobs)” is not a correct universal assumption. I also don’t agree with the assumption that “generate profits for the founders and investors (=increase inequality)”

          Starting from that frame of reference generates a conversation that I don’t think will go very far.

  • Sam

    “Extremely complicated, painful, and confusing to many.”

    This puts a premium on leadership, business and otherwise. And #givefirst dovetails nicely with what we need for where we’re going.

    It’s an important book at an important time. Looking forward to it.

  • Tim Enwall

    Ive been thinking a lot about this subject too. One key doffeeence between agrarian to industrial transition is that people don’t need to migrate. Tech can come TO the areas where workers aren’t working.

  • SouthWabashSoul

    Hi Brad, this is tangential to your technology bent, but since you mentioned Simon Johnson, you may be interested in Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) which is a heterodox school of Post-Keynesian analysis of macro economics. It’s largely a combination of Chartalism (Innes), Keynes and Kaleckian profit theory, and Functional Finance (Lerner). I do have to warn you, the primary authors in this schoool (Bill Mitchell, U of Newcastle; L Randall Wray, U of Missouri, KC and Warren Mosler, private equity) are a bit of a surly bunch. But if you had largely solved the twin problems of economics (price stability and full employment) and then had your work ignored for 20+ years, you may get a bit surly too. Johnson is a great thinker and willing to speak truth to power, but he’s still got one foot in the New Keynesian school which may as well be neoliberal. You have to go with both feet.

    Also recommended for the baseline scenario in economics are the more traditional PK economists like Joan Robinson, Nicolas Kaldor and Wynne Godley, but there are very few blogging economists following this school right now (Cullen Roche is one), even though I’m pretty sure it’s where Jan Hatzius gets his insight. They also leave out a few elements of MMT which I consider critical to a differentiated understanding of macro. If you choose to explore, good luck!

  • Trent Niemeyer

    I thought this Andrew Ng’s call to action was excellent. I’m keenly interested in philanthropy dedicated to removing institutional barriers for those less advantaged and motivated.

    https://twitter.com/AndrewYNg/status/815342695321174017

    • Yup – right on.

  • jalal

    good job 😀

    http://www.wtn24.net/

  • taptaptap

    Do you know about RISE (Super PAC of entrepreneurs out of Chicago focused around tech//startups//changing job creation conversations to actual tangible jobs)? I’ve been involved and should be exciting to watch moving forward. Started by Sittercity CEO Genevieve with her husband Dan Obamas CTO who you probably know either/or of them. Happy to connect if you are interested in hearing more.

    • I’m not familiar with RISE but I do know Genevieve and Dan (we looked at investing in SitterCity early on). I’ll drop them a note.

  • There is something that a lot of Republicans and Democrats are missing in this whole debate. It’s not technology that is the only problem-it’s purely poor government policy. People are handcuffed by government. The “experts” have been wrong so much-the “elite” wrong so much-the ‘think tank” wrong so much that people summarily tossed them out on their arse.

    Look at farm policy. Suppose I am low skilled technically, but I am willing to take a risk farming. Do you realize the labyrinth of regulation that I have to run to farm? Suppose I can scrap together a small mining operation-I have to deal with 3-6 government agencies before I can put a shovel in the ground. Suppose I want to start a hair braiding service-I have to go through hours of state mandated permitting just to braid hair.

    The US is way over regulated. The US and state governments also have engaged in way too much social engineering. I am reminded of Pogo, “We have met the enemy and it is us.”

    In my home state of Illinois, and my home city of Chicago, it’s impossible for a small businessperson to get ahead because of the absolute burden of government. If you don’t kiss rings (and other body parts), kickback money to the right people, hire the right people, you don’t go forward. The tax and regulatory burdens are huge (see IllinoisPolicy.org and Wirepoints.com) One hotel in the south suburbs of Chicago pays 220k/yr in property tax. 3 miles away in Indiana the bill would be 70k/yr. That’s crushing.

    Anyone that is going to propose more government solutions to problems, or more identity politics is going to fail. They are out of touch with what’s really going on in 90% of the US.

    • It’ll be fascinating to see what the next four years of government brings …

      • Agree. I think the appointments so far mostly understand it-Betsy DeVos is big on education reformation for example. The entrenched bureaucracies despise her-but innovation around them is the right way to go.

    • D Chandler

      Is it the government or the incumbents using the system to protect their turf?

      • Yes (all, each, both …)

        • D Chandler

          Exactly what I was thinking. I just read a great book this weekend on the topic that I am still digesting, The Wealth of Humans, that tackles this topic.

          The big eye opener for me was the discussion of Social Capital, which is basically the culture of companies and start-ups that bring efficiencies that cannot be transferred to other companies. Basically, in the past you could work for a company, get skilled up, and then take those skills elsewhere, but with culture, you cannot transfer that. Great read.

          https://www.amazon.com/Wealth-Humans-Status-Twenty-first-Century-ebook/dp/B0166SLTB8

          • Thx – grabbed it.

  • This is one of the themes I’m toying around with in the sci-fi drama book I’m currently writing. The prose will not reach the level of Grisham or John Le Carré, rest assured, but I’m working on bringing to a point that at the very least I’m happy with.

    • Super – send me stuff to read again!

      • I’m going back to running my masonry business on February 27. I’m aiming to finish the first draft of the book to an acceptable result by then, at which point I would send it to you; otherwise, the project shall enjoy some back burner time, I’m afraid. I’m writing the story at the same time as I’m learning to be a writer, doing research, and not making my wife feel abandoned. When I’m screwing around is when I’m playing guitar, bass or drums for a change of pace; or composing songs to go along with the book — pretty creative time, I love it!

  • The Om Malik piece in the New Yorker “Silicon Valley has an empathy vacuum.” http://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/silicon-valley-has-an-empathy-vacuum had a similar effect on me. It does lead to some really interesting and tough questions. Trump is trying to drag the US economy back to the factory age via brute force and protectionism and rollback of energy policy. That’s one (short-term) solution that only reinforces denial and delay. The longer-term solution is much harder to find: How do you incentivize and educate and entire society to move, en-masse, to the higher ground of innovation that cannot be easily replicated by machines? Reminds me of the tension that IBM always experienced, trying to R&D its way up and out of the commoditization of hardware, to stay one step ahead of margin collapse. Eventually the answer was “services.” In some ways that points the way to another model, where the value of work in the US economy goes to those who either innovate, and those who can provide complex services (brain surgery, nursing – although even those aren’t safe in the end I’m sure).

  • Jason Randell

    Looks like Googles Ex Director of HR is having a stab at this too… http://www.siliconbeat.com/2016/12/13/117630/

    GE has a new policy that I think (most) companies should pick up too…
    http://fortune.com/2016/08/05/jeff-immelt-new-hire-coding/

  • @bfeld:disqus and all, so I understand that many of us are seeking to learn and gather answers (I was just reading this today: http://bigthink.com/philip-perry/47-of-jobs-in-the-next-25-years-will-disappear-according-to-oxford-university? )

    I’m specifically interested in what “change” may be needed in general startup community culture to put “creation of jobs” back into the forefront of concerns?

    Some of the other comments have well addressed that startups can often be seen as disrupters developing technology to replace humans (and I think there are large swathes of companies who could be described this way), maybe something can be done at the early stage when forming the startup’s culture and setting out principles for the company. What needs to change for startups to be part of this greater solution? — I’m guessing the answer may include some of the steps you’ve pioneered when it comes to embracing diversity in startups communities.

  • martinsnyder

    I think the biggest issue of all is that our biological (especially our social/cognitive, systems) are being wrenched between fixed ancient foundations and accelerating environmental (technology driven) changes.

  • Anthony Cousins

    Have you seen this Edie Weiner Ted Talk?

    She goes into great length talking about displaced workers in the current and coming economies.
    I think that any startup or national effort has to solve two large scale structural issues.
    1) For primary education. How do we go beyond standardized testing and teaching systems for the masses? Where you live has a direct correlation to the quality of education you receive. This is an area where the private sector can do a lot of good I think.

    2) Re-educating displaced and underemployed individuals. People and existing job and or families are hard pressed to return to school. While online learning is convenient for sub 40 something and under group..people over 50 are intimidated to learn new economy jobs.

    I can’t see any solution that doesn’t being viable long term that doesn’t fundamentally turn our existing educational paradigm on its head.