I was in a discussion with a good friend recently about the political challenges in the world. We came to the conclusion that for the world to prosper, we need the current technology boom to change our value systems. The only way we’ll be able to responsibly harness the fruits that technology bears is with a renewed attitude of cooperation and care for the most vulnerable among us. Technology has given us the tools to reshape how we live in the world; if it also changes the way we interact with our neighbors, it can be transformational.
Elon Musk recently described his new plan to reduce L.A. traffic with a caveat: he doesn’t see himself as a savior trying to solve all the world’s problems. His brilliance makes it more likely that we’ll intelligently use our technology. But it doesn’t guarantee we’ll use if for the benefit of all. Musk is a visionary who wants to advance clean energy. In an interview with Stephen Colbert a few years back, he said this is the biggest goal to achieve.
Another great leader of technology, Bill Gates, has used his experience in the tech world to completely revitalize the way we think of philanthropy and global development. He is a tireless champion of poor people around the globe. While I quibble with his monopolistic business practices while he was at the helm of Microsoft, no one can argue that Gates hasn’t changed. His devotion to global health and development proves that technology can inspire us to make life easier in more than just a business sense. It can get us to realize that technology also can lift up the poor and ease their suffering.
Technology is at its simplest the use of tools to make our lives easier. Yet the hard thinking it inspires transforms us when we seek to learn about it and contribute. Everyone can do this if they are open to feedback and work by the scientific method. As playwright Bertolt Brecht wrote, “Science has only one commandment: contribution.” The power of disciplined thinking is that it can change how we view people who are different from us in their living circumstances or lifestyles. We become more open to them and hearing their perspectives when we learn our own growing scientific mind is dependent on new information. Suddenly their data points are seen as extremely vital.
I was at the University of Chicago Compton lecture this weekend. In place of the talk about the Higgs field, we heard a guest lecturer give a mathematical explanation of why gerrymandering is unfair and not representative, with mathematical ideas for how to make districts more compact. Jamie Saxon, the presenter, worked at CERN as a 15-year-old and went into advanced training in physics. He’s using that training to look at political problems. Wouldn’t it be nice if physics began to inform politics instead of greed?
Working on practical math and science can train our minds to view global problems differently, appreciate their complexity and solve those problems. Technology can inspire progressive social policies. When 62 billionaires have as much wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population, it’s clear that political principles are skewed toward the influential in business. Not all technologists live as plum lives as Gates and Musk. And there are plenty of Peter Thiel’s in the world. But over all, technology has the potential to reduce suffering, fight disease and level the playing field for the poor.