Dear Big Tech Leaders: Instead of Harvesting Our Data and Launching Yourselves Into Space, How About Making Life Better on Earth?
Once upon a time, Big Tech was the hero who would save the world. Several years and one fatal character flaw later, the hero has become the villain.
It’s a tale with many sad chapters. CEOs of major tech companies testifying before Congress about mishandling our data and abusing our trust. The proliferation of hate speech. Misinformation and election interference. Antitrust investigations.
The real tragedy, though, is the broken promise — the lost potential and wasted years. Imagine what a different story we might tell if Big Tech corporations like Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple and others had used more of their power for social good rather than for mining data to generate ad revenue or to sell to third parties. Therein lies the fatal flaw: lack of moral imperative.
Fortunately for Big Tech, there’s a simple way to fix a fatal flaw. Do the opposite.
Like Ironman, the superhero who gets his power from the technology in his armor suit, Big Tech’s power comes from technological innovation, supercharged by massive quantities of data. Facebook is not just a social media company, or Google a search engine, or Amazon an online marketplace, or Microsoft a technology developer. They are all in the business of data collection. On a smaller scale, governments, businesses, NGOs, universities and other actors are also in the data game. And there’s plenty to be had. According to IBM, 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are generated in this world each day. As Scientific America describes it, that’s the equivalent of all the data in the Library of Congress being produced more than 166,000 times per 24-hour period.
What will humanity do with information on that scale? Will we continue down the path of primarily using our data to make our lives more convenient, to amplify the loudest voices on social media no matter, whatever the cost, and to line shareholders’ pockets? Or will we harness it to solve the world’s problems? As the global nonprofit DataKind asks, will we “use data to not only make better decisions about what kind of movie we want to see, but what kind of world we want to see?”
Sixty years ago, U.S. President John F. Kennedy, in speaking to his country’s growing technological prowess, pondered a similar moral dilemma in his inaugural address. “The world is very different now,” he said. “For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life.” Five months later, Kennedy stood before a joint session of Congress to propose a space program that included putting a man on the moon within the decade, a Rover nuclear rocket, weather satellites and other space projects. The countless innovations that flowed from those initiatives laid the groundwork for the sophisticated tools and engines Big Tech has at its fingertips today.
Now, as the industry’s data practices come under greater scrutiny and its leaders indulge in a miniature, ego-driven space race of their own, it’s time we had a hard conversation with Big Tech.
It can start with a question: Why not take your “moonshot” on Earth?
The United Nations has identified 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Pick three. Let’s say No Poverty, Quality Education and Climate Action. (Do it right and other SDGs will be swept up in the cascading effect.)
Now use your power for good. You have the connections — contracts and relationships with governments, corporations and NGOs around the globe. You recruit the brightest minds on the planet to join your teams. You hold the world’s mobile phone data, satellite data, biometric data and much more in your data warehouses, made interoperable and organized for common uses such as logistics, shipping and commerce.
What’s stopping you from applying those resources and knowledge to the long-standing (and quickly escalating) challenges our world is facing? It’s not as if successful models don’t exist: Innovative programs around the world are demonstrating how data can be leveraged to solve critical problems. Look at Togo, where more than 50% of the population lives in poverty. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, lockdowns threatened to reverse the country’s progress on poverty reduction. The government of Togo launched an emergency cash transfer program to quickly assist the country’s poor, but its first challenge was to identify the neediest. Partnering with UC Berkeley and others, the program overlaid voter records and mobile phone data with rich data from satellites (e.g., metal roofs indicate wealth, poor terrain suggests poverty) to target and deliver aid to its most vulnerable families.
Similarly, at Grameen Foundation, we reinforce household data with satellite data to help poor smallholder cocoa farmers in Ghana increase their yields. NGOs around the world are executing programs like these, but their efforts and data are fragmented over hundreds of applications.
You, Big Tech, can create platforms that unite the efforts of multiple users across geographies. You can bring together the actors — and the funding — needed to connect, enhance, measure, replicate and scale such endeavors. Imagine, for example, what a smallholder coconut farmer in the Philippines or a rice farmer in India might achieve if equipped with the precision agriculture data of a company like John Deere?
Yes, there are hurdles to clear. “Do No Harm” policies must be enacted. Data privacy must be protected with international safe harbor agreements, regulation of access for scientific and social impact uses, and anonymization and safeguarding of personal data. Transparency and willingness to share data for the greater good will be critical — whether from participating NGOs, multinational corporations, or governments.
Then there is the highest hurdle of all: You, Big Tech, will need to decide that accumulating ever-greater amounts of money is not your ultimate goal — or your most lasting legacy. In making that shift, it may help to weigh what you relinquish in revenue against the social and political capital you will earn — or to consider the satisfaction your brilliant employees will gain from applying their abilities toward caring for their fellow human beings. You may even find, like many businesses that embrace social impact, that prioritizing people over profits ends up boosting the bottom line.
We acknowledge that reshaping your approach to business is a big challenge, much like the one President Kennedy took on to get a man to the moon. Perhaps his words will inspire you now: “We choose to go … because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win …”
Tell us, Big Tech, with JFK’s words ringing in your ears: Isn’t it time to fix your flaws, mobilize your resources for the greater good and bring your focus back to Earth?
Photo courtesy of SpaceX.