What Happens When Tech Becomes Self Aware?


One of the most interesting trends in technology has nothing to do with AI, or machine learning, or the on demand economy. It has nothing to do with informatics and its impact on genomics, or whether (or when) Black Mirror transitions from social fiction to social fact.

No, to me the most interesting trend in technology is simply this: The leaders of the technology industry have internalized the impact of their creations on the world, and they have begun to turn their attentions outward.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, it’s about time.

I first noticed the trend when friends started peeling out of well paid, high whuffie jobs at Twitter, Google, and the like for posts inside the Federal government. That started back in 2010, when Katie Stanton Jacobs left Google for a State Department post. But what was a trickle turned into a flood — Jen Pahlka started Code for America (and was integral to the launch of the USDS), Megan Smith and Alex Macgillivray decamped to the White House, and scores more followed, many of whom joined the USDS with Haley Van Dyck, Todd Park, and Mickey Dickerson (tech refugees all).

As this shift was underway, the largest technology companies in the world began to pay attention to policy issues beyond H-1B visas and net neutrality. Google, Uber, Airbnb, and Facebook became major players on K street, hiring a raft of lobbyists and engaging in public debates beyond their previously narrow interests. Sure, most of their work could be called self serving, but that’s actually not the point: The past few decades in tech have been marked by a decidedly arrogant approach to policy: Regulations and government were seen as damage to be routed around. Tech has since moved from its punk rock, fuck-em-all approach to engagement with the elected representatives of our country. That’s progress.

It wasn’t always a honeymoon, and not everything worked out as planned, but the vibe is real — the government now welcomes leaders of the technology community into its rather byzantine culture, and the technology industry has begun to have a certain pride of ownership in its ongoing role in shaping government policy. One only hopes our next President recognizes this trend, and encourages it.

Which brings me to today’s news: The launch of the Economic Security Project, a multi-stakeholder alliance founded by a diverse group of Valley leaders, more traditional policy makers and activists, and researchers. Its mission is to explore the concept of a universal basic income — and it’s backing that mission up with serious social science, serious grant making capability, and serious intent: if we’re going to truly change the world, we need to take responsibility for imagining how that world is really going to work. Read the ESP’s founding manifesto, penned by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes — nowhere do you find the self-serving rhetoric so common to technology industry pronouncements. This is a group of well meaning and smart individuals who want to address what is the single most vexing issue in our society — the unequal distribution of our shared wealth.

I have signed on to support the ESP, and I urge you to do the same. We can’t make progress unless we take this first step. It’s time for the tech industry to lead — and not just through the products or services we make.


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