by C. Kelly
Special to the NNPA from The Michigan Citizen
Technology is fundamentally changing the world in which we live. Just as the 1880s Industrial Revolution transformed public infrastructure and the economy — the way we work, live and do business — technology is today’s catalyst. That was the prevailing message at this year’s annual Techonomy Detroit conference held at Wayne State University, Sept. 16.
Some estimate that by 2020, half of the American workforce will be made up of freelancers. Traditional jobs and the benefits that accompanied them — pensions, retirement and healthcare — are going away. Fewer people will benefit from the old structures that created the American middle class and made the workforce feel secure.
According, to a recent Gallup poll, Americans are pessimistic about the changing economy.
University of Virginia history professor Philip Zelikow, also a fellow at the Markle Foundation, believes the U.S. needs to create responsive policy for a changing era.
“How do we build a future where America can thrive in the 21st century?” asked Zelikow at the kick-off session on the American dream.
Zelikow says no one knows how many jobs there will be in the future, but the U.S. must invest in policies that will “broaden future participation.”
THE ROLE OF GOVERNMENT
Andrew Keen, a self-described polemicist and author, addressed the audience during his “The Internet is Not the Answer” presentation and said we should be critical of tech’s predominance and its role in replacing the state and traditional role of government or other public institutions.
“What we are seeing over the last 25 years is more and more income inequality,” says Keen, with a simultaneous retreat of government and retraction of
the traditional economy.
“The implicit idea is that, as the state withdraws, as the Great Society fizzles, the Internet becomes that operating system,” says Keen.
Tech has destroyed American job-producing business including manufacturing, publishing and the music industry and transferred that “enormous wealth” to Silicon Valley. This while convincing most people these companies are a public good or utility, not for-profit endeavors.
Keen referred to this new economy as the surveillance economy, where data is constantly mined and people are the products.
Recent years prove to be an “epic fail” for the economy, turning all of us into “data serfs.”
He also noted the world cannot go backward, and new awareness is required.
Yet, the possibilities and impending changes of the new economy cannot be denied. Several panelists discussed the access technology has created, lowering barriers of entry to entrepreneurship and making education or other forms of learning possible among other seismic changes and efficiencies.
Danae Ringelmann, the founder of Indiegogo, a crowd-funding site, says her company “is democratizing access” to capital. Ringelmann appeared on the “American Dream” panel and also on “The Digital Divide: How Can the Tech Industry Become More Inclusive?” discussing the lack of diversity in the tech sector.
Ringelmann believes technology is the fastest way to create “sustainable change” and Indiegogo is a platform that funds ideas that might not be funded in other contexts. In launching the site, she wanted to “blow up the gate-keeping to capital” and allow the public to make the decision on what ideas should be funded.
As a result, the Indiegogo community funded a doll company that will make dolls based on women scientists including its first doll, the Marie Curie.
Being an entrepreneur may be the job of the future, and people should be prepared to go their own way, recalibrating and understanding the difference between ownership and income, according to Ringelmann.
“Young kids need to think (entrepreneurially) about solving problems and (identify) what they love to do and what they are good at.”
RACE AND DIVERSITY
Lack of diversity is a major criticism of the tech sector and threatens to undercut growth, as these organizations will need to serve a diverse customer base. Tech’s largest companies are overwhelmingly white and male, undercutting the industry’s pervasive meritocracy message. Although, these companies represent the future of the world economy, people of color, women and those with other identifications are not well represented.
Google released its diversity numbers earlier this year and other companies are being asked to do the same. Civil rights activist Rev. Jesse Jackson has attended shareholder meetings and sent letters to tech companies calling for more diversity.
Some question how race will impact the sharing economy, an important innovation. The peer-to-peer economy is changing labor and upending the old corporate and top-down models. TaskRabbit enables people to “live smarter by outsourcing household tasks and errands to trusted people in your community,” according to the company website.
The COO of TaskRabbit, an African American woman from Detroit, Stacy Brown-Philpot says TaskRabbit is being used by workers in a myriad of ways including as a method of garnering supplemental income. One of the company’s “taskers” is a car salesman who couldn’t make ends meet on his full time salary. The site allows the “tasker” to set their own wage.
Philpot appeared at the conference’s “The Economics of Sharing” panel.
Companies such as TaskRabbit are playing a new role, taking lengths to help freelancers understand the Affordable Care Act and launching a project with Intuit that helps these workers keep up with expenses and IRS requirements. TaskRabbit even helps their workers finance a smartphone, necessary for work.
TaskRabbit will launch in Detroit in the next few months. Uber and Lyft, ride-sharing companies, and Airbnb are already operating in the city.
One audience member referred to a study revealing that Airbnb rentals might be impacted by race because users make different choices based on photos, declining to share services with Blacks specifically, and therefore leaving Blacks out, because the “trust” factor is necessary in the sharing economy.
Arun Sundararajan of the NYU Center for Urban Science and Progress says there must be efforts to make the sharing economy more inclusive because much of the economic activity generated by peer-to-peer will go to those “from the lower end of the economic spectrum.”
Carol Goss, who retired from Detroit-based Skillman Foundation and is currently a fellow at the Advanced Leadership Initiative at Harvard University, says she is concerned Black and Brown children in Detroit are not exposed to opportunities and “often graduate without the skills for technology or jobs related to technology.”
“We have to be intentional about making connections between schools and work and apprenticeship and create a level playing field to get all young people ready for this exciting time,” she said. “(We must) understand that using technology for entrepreneurship is an important part of making a living for yourself.”