Why We Should Pay Attention To A Different Breed Of Tech Innovator

I was reading a recent New Yorker profile of the silicon valley billionaire Peter Thiel – he was one of the founders of Paypal and the first major investor of Facebook – and I was struck by both how unpleasant he seemed and by how familiar his off-putting, Randian creepiness was. Last night, the BBC ran a documentary on Mark Zuckerberg, billing him as ‘the man who turned friendship into a billion dollar company’, which is a remarkably succinct way of pointing out that probably the most widely recognised tech pioneer since Steve Jobs has made lots of money in quite a weird way. Thiel, in the article, ‘concedes’ to his rather disapproving interviewer, George Packer,

You have all these Internet companies over the past decade, and the people who run them are sort of autistic. These mild cases of Asperger’s seem to be quite rampant.

Social media, as everyone knows, has exploded in the last five years – millions and millions of people use it each and every day all over the world in innumerable different ways. Am I the only one who is sick of only ever hearing about these hugely conservative, Libertarian billionaires whose breakthroughs have more to do with their own wish fulfilment than actually making anything better. Packer puts it rather nicely,

In Thiel’s techno-utopia, a few thousand Americans might own robot-driven cars and live to a hundred and fifty, while millions of others lose their jobs to computers that are far smarter than they are, then perish at sixty.

In 1952, the late, great Kurt Vonnegut published a terrifically funny, horribly depressing novel called Player Piano in which, in a near-future America, almost everybody (except managers and engineers) are left unemployed and unhappy in a society where almost everything is automated, run by machines for the sake of industrial efficiency. He was fascinated by the loss of dignity that seemed to be accompanying technological innovations in the mid-twentieth century and the increased social divisions as well as the crime and health problems that come along with that.

The idea of doing that [replacing human workers with machines], you know, made sense, perfect sense. To have a little clicking box make all the decisions wasn’t a vicious thing to do. But it was too bad for the human beings who got their dignity from their jobs.

His interest in the social side of technological innovation seems rather prescient. It came more than fifty years before the spectacularly grim Wall-E and its armies of hideously overweight, useless humans. In this world of social media pervading the public and private sides of our lives where are the tech innovators who share that interest in the future of society, not just their bank balances or their escapist fantasies?

Many of you may have heard of Ushahidi – “a non-profit tech company that develops free and open source software for information collection, visualization and interactive mapping” – but you may not have heard this talk  (which explains rather well who they are and what they do if you haven’t heard of them):

It’s nice to hear from a techie who doesn’t offer a utopia or a dystopia, but rather a way of working with and reacting to the world, and its problems, that involves the people who need to be involved – like those who need to know which bit of town to avoid in the hope of avoiding violence. The more socially sensible, useful innovation like this, the better things are likely to be. The technological change, the mechanics of innovations, isn’t what makes something like Paypal or Facebook important, it’s what it can do for people, how it can help society – the thing that matters is what is done, not what has changed.

I hope that this blog-post can be my little contribution to a movement that takes attention away from innovators as callous and aggressive as Thiel, giving more attention to those that organisations like TED and PopTech have done marvellously to give some attention to. Perhaps, with a few hundred more posts like this, the next New Yorker profile on a techie will be about someone like Ory Okollah, not yet another miserable, alienated silicon valley drone.


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