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Opinion

Silicon Valley Must Stop Consumerizing and Start Empowering

Silicon Valley should epitomize the American ideal: our can-do mindset and entrepreneurial aspirations. Yet the past year’s bipartisan anger at Facebook reflects a profound skepticism of America’s tech giants. Technological elites have become insular, and are getting rich in an extractive way — consumerizing people rather than empowering. Meanwhile, those same people who have made these elites so wealthy by using their products feel economic opportunity is slipping away. The only way forward is for tech leadership to do an about-face, and start building tech to empower everyday people.

The problem is that Silicon Valley does not believe in people.

Silicon Valley’s smartest engineers are paid to figure out how to distract people instead of empowering them. They have built powerful tools for themselves. For the broader population, Silicon Valley companies release a steady stream of consumer or social products, but do little to make most people more productive. Beliefs about people shape the way technology is applied, and in the worldview driving these product decisions, only a minority of people are worth betting on as producers. Most are just consumers or “users.”

This worldview is dangerous because it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When Silicon Valley builds productive technology primarily for itself, it gives a competitive advantage to technology- focused business models. Companies that consumerize people, like Facebook, come to dominate industry after industry, their market power marginalizing smaller entrepreneurs and pushing workers into regimented roles with limited upward mobility. While a small New Economy elite grows ever more productive, others face insecurity and obsolescence.

Many in Silicon Valley who assume mass obsolescence is unavoidable now advocate a universal basic income. They favor a hand-out over a hand up, moving toward a dystopia where most people are relegated to a welfare-funded consumer-focused existence. Such a future may not be inevitable, but Silicon Valley is working to create it.

There is another path.

Last century, many assumed industrial age technology meant a future of giant factories built on mechanized labor, and giant bureaucracies to administer or regulate them. But some entrepreneurs saw people as more than cogs in an assembly line. Toyota’s founder recognized people’s potential as knowledge workers, and turned from automated robots and complicated workflows to simpler processes run on human judgment. This created enormous shareholder wealth and launched a revolution in manufacturing. (The lesson was recently reaffirmed when Elon Musk scaled back automation at Tesla’s factories after costly production delays, noting that “humans are underrated.”)

Today’s technology can likewise be applied in ways that marginalize most workers. But it can also be applied to empower workers — to free them from drudgery and bureaucracy and to amplify their judgment and creativity.

Investors and entrepreneurs today must recognize that, contrary to the prevalent elitist view, human potential is broadly distributed. People everywhere have the ability to create and invent, to spot opportunities, solve problems, and build businesses. What they lack are the productive tools those in the technology world take for granted.

Technology entrepreneurs must build tools for a broader range of workers. First steps can be simple: products that offer even small immediate advantages can bring workers online. But if designed to empower, these can help workers build meaningful online brands and eventually access finance, technology, business opportunities, and more. Like Jack Ma did when he recognized the potential of small manufacturing entrepreneurs in China, innovators must develop technology to empower people who are overlooked by elites.

A bet on people is the best investment we can make. We can create a future in which anyone can engage in meaningful work, a fundamental part of the human experience and of social order. This can unlock the entrepreneurial drive of workers throughout the economy, enabling untold innovation and human advancement.

People are right to fear the future. If we continue on the current trajectory, many will be increasingly marginalized. Current elites do not bet on them because they do not believe in them. Populist rejection of these elites and their agendas is an understandable reaction.

But the ultimate solution is entrepreneurial, not political. There is enormous untapped human potential, and an enormous opportunity to use technology to unlock it and ignite a new era of abundance.

Peter Rex is the founder and CEO of Trustwork, a technology business whose mission is to empower the global workforce and reshape the economy.

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