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.