by Garrett Neiman, CEO & Co-Founder, CollegeSpring
A version of this article originally appeared in the January 2017 edition of Wired Magazine.
History is ruthlessly clear about what happens when too much wealth ends up in the hands of the very few. Even as anger about economic inequality has fueled movements – including the campaigns of populist political candidates – specific causes and solutions remain elusive. One piece of the puzzle is rejecting the hollow claim of today’s technology companies that innovation improves quality of life for everyone by default, and beginning a serious conversation about how innovation can be leveraged to fight inequality, rather than amplify it.
As CEO of CollegeSpring – a nonprofit organization that helps low income American students become academically and socio-emotionally ready for college – I encounter economic inequality every day. Recently, I met a young man from San Francisco’s dilapidated Excelsior neighborhood who dropped out of high school and became a drug dealer to pay for his single mother’s cancer treatments. My next conversation was with a San Francisco billionaire who, from his corner office, which had sweeping views of the Golden Gate Bridge, shared stories of the captains of industry who had advised him along the way. I have many experiences such as this: one moment I am in an inner-city school where exhausted teachers strive to motivate discouraged kids to fight another day, and the next I am hearing about private jets and other such luxuries most people cannot imagine. It is impossible to do the work I do without sensing that the deck is stacked for some and against others.
Economic inequality has spiraled out of control. The world’s richest 62 people now have more wealth than the bottom half of the global population. In many countries – including the US, China and Sweden – real wages for the top one per cent have doubled in recent decades, while wages of the bottom 90 per cent have hardly changed. In the US, 95 percent of the economic gains since the 2009 economic recovery went to the wealthiest one percent of Americans.
Technology is the raw material for fighting economic inequality: most economists agree that differences in technology adoption across countries account for a significant portion of differences in per-capita GDP, and the same concept can be applied to individuals. Importantly, those with resources not only have better access to new technologies, but also extract more value from them. As MIT professor Erik Brynjolfsson has noted, “the technology-driven economy greatly favors a small group of successful individuals by amplifying their talent and luck, and dramatically increasing their reward.” If the top one percent continue to swallow up the world’s economic gains, entrepreneurs will be inclined to launch businesses that neglect the poor, perpetuating inequality. Declaring victory early is dangerous: when we say a product is ubiquitous before it is, entrepreneurs move on to the next invention for the upper and middle class while the have-nots fall behind.
Accelerating the adoption of new technologies among consumers who lack disposable income requires creative and elaborate partnerships. One new effort is ConnectHome, a 2015 White House initiative designed to expand high-speed broadband to more families across the US. The pilot program alone is offering 275,000 low-income households access to the internet at home.
Collaborations such as these are difficult and sometimes scale slowly. In fact, some venture capitalists boast they will not invest in such public-private partnerships to grow their businesses. We must eliminate this kind of short-sighted thinking and take into account the unintended negative impact of technological innovation. Otherwise, momentum for revolution will continue to build.
Cover Photo Credit: Chris Betcher