A decade ago, it was a common belief that the tech industry was an unadulterated force for good in the world. Social media seemed to be forging deep connections between people and innovation was making our lives better—the future was so bright, you needed sustainably-manufactured shades. From President Barack Obama to the trendsetting elite, people seemed very hopeful about Silicon Valley’s impact on the world.
While a strain of distrust always existed during the tech industry’s meteoric rise, the techno-optimists won out. Now kids want to be Instagram influencers, and you can Uber around most small towns. There are valid and growing fears that tech is enabling extremism and global climate change, though. If you’re like the average American, your views on the tech industry have probably soured somewhat in recent years.
However, there are many reasons to still believe that technology will improve the world for the better—especially if it’s harnessed to work in equitable and sustainable ways.
“As we exit the 2010s and get into the 2020s, we will hang on to the last-hurrah belief that more is better in technology,” explains tech strategist Sandeep Kishore. “I think we will move past the tech tipping point and experience a technology overdose in the first half of the 2020s. But the second half will be about people and how each of us can (and should) benefit from this slew of tech before we get ready again for the 2030s.”
Technology, in the end, is a tool like any other—from the first wheel to the latest artificial intelligence. Like any tool, it can be leveraged to do good in the world, and there are many reasons to believe tech will improve our situation in the coming years.
The recent creation of the COVID-19 vaccine is a medical marvel: the first vaccine created with mRNA technology, which could open a whole new front in the war against disease. Of course, considering the overwhelming tragedy of the coronavirus pandemic, it can be hard to celebrate any wins, and the vaccination rollout continues to leave a lot to be desired. Still, the COVID-19 vaccines show how technology can solve global problems.
“Tech for Good,” a recent paper by analyst firm McKinsey & Company, found that technology has been a major driver of overall health and life expectancy in the 37 OECD countries—2 factors that, in turn, increase feelings of well-being in these populations. The authors found that technology is improving human health in multiple ways.
“The possibilities range from AI-powered drug research, which is pushing the frontiers of drug discovery, to personal lifestyle wearables that can help individuals monitor their health and track improvements,” the paper says. “Technology can also ease access to health, including through telemedicine, and create new efficiencies and reduce waste in healthcare systems, whose rising costs are increasingly affecting living standards and putting pressure on public finances in some countries.”
The tech industry is improving human health via innovations in medicine—like the mRNA vaccines—as well as improving access to healthcare via the rise of telemedicine and therapy apps. With proper management and equitable distribution, these technological advances in medicine can be an unequivocal force for improving our health and lives.
The biggest challenge facing the world this century will be man-made climate change, a product of an earlier age of technological innovation: the Industrial Revolution. Technology accounts for some 8% of worldwide electricity usage, according to McKinsey. The tech industry, and especially renewable energy innovation, is the field poised to help us meet this global challenge in the coming years.
Technology is also pushing industry to make big strides in pollution management and packaging.
“Technologies have multiple roles to play in improving sustainability,” the McKinsey authors noted. “First, they can help reduce air and water pollution by curbing current pollution sources and preventing future pollution. They can limit some of the contributors to climate change, including through energy efficiency and renewable energy sources. They can reduce waste through more efficient recycling and other measures.”
AI and machine learning will also have a defining impact on the future of conservation. These systems can utilize immense amounts of data about our natural world and help scientists determine solutions.
“[Technologies] have the potential to conserve biodiversity, including through AI-powered monitoring of land and sea, and through their potential contribution to sustainable and productive food systems,” the McKinsey researchers added.
While the technologies of yesteryear, like plastic and fossil fuel extraction, continue to cause environmental sustainability issues around the planet, new technologies are working on mitigating these 20th-century problems. These technologies are primed to become more affordable, accessible, and popular as the century continues and their necessity becomes clearer.
In the past few decades, many have worried about the rise of automation—if robots are doing all the work, what will people do? The past few decades have shown the rise of AI is a valid source of anxiety, as automation has usually resulted in reduced employment.
However, this state of affairs doesn’t have to continue. Technology should reduce our workloads, increase safety at our jobs, and give us more leisure time. While we need to work together to ensure no one gets left behind, work is an arena where tech can make life better for everyone.
The researchers at McKinsey believe there will likely be short-term job security worries as automation nears its peak in the next few decades. The firm estimates that some 60% of workers and about 30% of work activities could be automated in the near future, a reality that everyone should prepare for—and the tech industry itself can help to ease this transition toward automation.
“Alongside innovation, technology can make a significant contribution to workforce fluidity, helping people retrain and businesses redeploy human resources, while minimizing the time and cost of displacement,” according to the McKinsey report.
If workers can be supported by companies and governments alike, automation will help both employers and employees.
“Digital platforms and AI can be used to improve the chances that job seekers find opportunities to match their skills and preferences,” the report continues. “This can reduce the length of time people spend between jobs and improve their earnings prospects. For employers, talent-matching technologies can improve worker productivity and provide savings in recruiting, interviewing time, training, onboarding, and attrition costs.”
The sheen of social media as a force for improving our democratic institutions has been deeply tarnished over the past 5 years, but there’s reason to believe these platforms can still change the world for the better. Additionally, our relationship to them will likely change as more people reclaim some control over their data and realize social media is just one of many forms of connection—not the only way.
“Ideally, we will have more transparent control over our data, and the ability to understand where it resides and exchange it for value—negotiating with the platform companies that are now in a winner-take-all position,” Perry Hewitt, a marketing executive in Silicon Valley, told Pew Research.
Alistair Nolan, a senior policy analyst in the OECD Directorate for Science, Technology, and Innovation, told Pew that society will need to reckon with social media in a profound—and likely written—way.
“A new digital social contract will likely be needed, the specifics of which we cannot be sure now, but the contours of which we see suggested today in proposals ranging from universal basic income to institutionally mandated time free from digital distraction,” Nolan said. “The hope is that political processes allow our social arrangements to adjust at a pace commensurate with broader technological change, and that dysfunction in political processes is not aggravated by digital technologies.”
Social media has an undeniable impact on our societal systems, although the exact causality is hard to moralize or even define. As individuals, as businesses, and as a world, we will have to figure out ways to make these platforms work for us, rather than the other way around.
The critical thing to remember when considering how tech will improve our future: technology is a tool. The challenge to make the world better, and how we wield tech, is actually up to us.
“Intrinsically, technology is neither good nor bad—it is the use to which it is put that makes the difference,” the McKinsey report posited.
The tech industry right now offers society both negative and positive applications.
“Malicious uses include mass disinformation campaigns and cyberattacks that seek to jeopardize national security and cyber fraud targeting consumers,” the authors continued. “Positive uses include AI applications for early detection and better treatment of cancer and other diseases that are a burden on society, such as diabetes. Most technology applications can generate both good and bad outcomes—sometimes for the same person.”
As our technologically-infused society matures, good people will use tech for good—and they’re hard at work right now.