Investor and Twitter philosopher king Marc Andreessen sparked an online debate yesterday, after he claimed that opposing the idea of disruption was “to be against consumer choice” and against equality.
For Andreessen, disruptive new products inevitably bring more accessibility to goods that were once only available to wealthy elite (i.e. MIT’s Edx bringing Ivy League classes to everyone).
While personally I agree, Andreessen and I got into a friendly debate over how well he was representing his critics. I think Andreessen gives short shrift to the very real and somewhat compelling fears of those who haven’t jumped on the disruption bandwagon.
Technology brings greater consumption equality but decreases financial equality. That is, everyone gets more stuff, but the richer command more of the money, as jobs are replaced by a smaller group of high-skilled workers and entrepreneurs.
Financial inequality creates a world where the average Joe has less control over their government and their own lives. Innovation tends to concentrate economic power, even if it raises the overall quality of life.
So, for the past six years, I’ve been developing a series of surveys that get to the heart of the anti-tech/pro-tech divide. I hope it helps people understand each side.
It’s an ongoing project, but the preliminary results are instructive in understanding the current national debate over “disruption.”
Survey (answers at the bottom)
(If you want to participate in a similar survey for my research, take this one before reading on.)
1. Is an economy better when there’s a bigger pie with huge inequality or a smaller pie with much greater equality?
-Smaller pie, greater equality
-Bigger pie, less equality
2. To make schools and hospitals as effective as possible, which of these strategies is best?
-Schools and hospitals should strive to give the same quality of service to everyone.
-Schools and hospitals should compete to see who can discover the best ways of delivering service.
3. What is the most effective way the government can help the economy ensure broad prosperity?
-An economy where the gap between rich and poor is not too large
-An economy where everyone has the opportunity to be successful and innovative
4. Hypothetical moral dilemma: Two people are drowning in the ocean. An individual can save one. One person is the individual’s best friend. The friend is unemployed and lives off his parents’ wealth. The other person is a stranger who researches cures for cancer. Who should be saved?
-The best friend
-The cancer researcher
5. Some states make organ donation enrollment automatic (when people get a driver’s license), with an option to opt out. In other states, people are left to choose whether to be an organ donor. Which do you think is best?
-Opt-out (automatic enrollment)
6. If you had the choice between developing a product that saved the lives of 1 person today or 2 people in 50 years, which do you have a greater moral obligation to do?
-1 person today
-2 lives in 50 years
Answers* (see method notes at the end of the article): The second option in every question is the pro-tech side. By “pro-tech,” I mean that these are the answers that I usually get from Internet founders.
I’ve also been interviewing people who protest outside Google buses (and the local San Franciscans who support the protestors). Their answers have helped me shape the response options for the anti-tech crowd.
Equality in stuff vs. equality in control
Andreessen claimed that “Money is only useful in terms of what it can buy.” In other words, equality is about stuff.
In my interviews, many tech critics chose the “small pie with much greater equality” option. The anti-tech crowd fears disparity in power far more than in their relative purchasing power.
“What’s better for people is where there’s less disparity and people have more control over how they make that money,” said one local San Franciscan, who wants heavy regulation and taxing of the Internet companies.
Pro-tech folks like meritocracy; anti-tech folks prefer uniformity
Disruption, by its nature, is uncertainty. On the path to a better life, parents still need to feed their children and pay for college. This is where labor unions come in. They protect workers from the chaos of the market.
This is why some cities have moved to kneecap ridesharing startup, Uber — at least until cab drivers can find more reliable work. I once interviewed a Seattle, Wash. legislator who supported a bill delaying the the legality of Uber. In addition to protecting cab drivers, she told me that there should be regulations against surge pricing, since she thought consumers deserved predictable costs. In other words, behind regulation lies a preference for predictability.
On the flip side, technologists love meritocracy — in everything. Mark Zuckerberg has been a giant supporter of charter schools, highly experimental public schools that often function without teachers unions. Tech folks want everything to function like a business, even essential government services.
Behind meritocracy is a moral dilemma: society vs. loved ones
Meritocracy may benefit folks over the long run, but it often requires short-term sacrifices, such as the loss of jobs. At the core of whether to support greater social gains or to protect jobs is a classic dilemma in the field of moral psychology: Do people have more of an obligation to protect those we know and love, or to help all of humanity equally?
Innovation may benefit lots of strangers, but it also brings a loss of jobs. When faced with this choice, organizations like labor unions are going to fight to protect their workers first and foremost.
(Note: In a separate survey I’m currently testing, I ask whether a company is more valuable for how it improves society vs. how it pays its employees. Preliminary results reveal a similar divide.)
In the drowning dilemma above, the pro-tech side says we should save the scientist, and the anti-tech side is to save the best friend.
A fascinating implication of this is how we think about the benefits of future innovation. If we have the same moral obligation to all of humanity equally, then we have a greater obligation to start inventing things that will help future generations, since there’s a lot more people that will exist in the future than currently exist today.
For instance, when I interviewed Paypal cofounder Peter Thiel about the importance of technology, he said, “I always find it odd that people are as complacent as they are about things. One out of three people at age 85 has dementia, and this is not even cause for general alarm.”
Pro-tech folks see more urgency in innovation than anti-tech folks who are — quite reasonably — more concerned with the present than the future.
Conclusion: two reasonable sides
While I personally side with Andreessen, the anti-tech folks have a rational distrust of the sacrifices we must make in the name of innovation. So, Andreessen and his supporters can talk all they want about the great things that technology will provide everyone.
But all tech critics will hear is more power disparity and hardships for those they love. Unless the tech community starts speaking with a different set of values in mind, the national conversation will continue to go nowhere.
*Notes for methodology geeks:
The survey is informed by 65 semi-structured interviews, conducted in person and over the phone with Internet founders and people who show up to technology protests in San Francisco. A lot of the questions have changed or been significantly altered over these interviews. So I don’t have a statistically meaningful sample size yet, just a consistent pattern of responses. For instance, the tech founders I interviewed had a habit of talking about a “zero-sum” world, so I began to ask questions related to those responses.
Second, while not every question is my survey is binary, many are. I’m not a fan of Likert scales. Respondents have a tendency to think the government should do everything it can (build schools, enforce a high minimum wage, protect workers, fund cancer research, etc.). But in the real world, elected officials have hard decisions to make because money is scarce. Binary response options are one way of imposing real-world scarcity on otherwise unrealistic respondents.
If you’re interested in giving your input on one of the latest surveys, you can take it here. If you’d like to be interviewed for the survey or want to contact me, email me at gregory at venturebeat dot com