One of the earliest milestones in the evolution of humanity was the control of fire by early humans. Fire by its very nature is a destructive force, but its use in the right circumstances gave us heat, light and, a few hundred thousand years later, the means to fuel the global industrial revolution. Like so many elements of life, positive and negative effect hangs in the balance.
This duality of nature is something that has underpinned humanity throughout its history and continues to raise questions for us today. In 2018 we are grappling with the duality of a new significant force: technology.
It’s been a tricky few years for the perception of technology. The ‘dark side’ has been well-documented across the world, from its role in the rise of populism to state-sponsored weaponization of hacking on the geopolitical stage, with North Korea and Russia in the spotlight.
Considering these external factors, it’s easy to conclude that technology may be doing more harm than good in humanity. But as with fire to the early humans, tech also has an intrinsic duality; meaning it has a profound potential for good in a huge variety of guises.
As we approach International Human Rights Day, an international day of action held on the anniversary of the day the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we take a moment to reflect on some of the amazing ways technology is empowering and supporting communities across the world.
According to the most recent UN Slum Almanac, around 1 billion people globally live in slum conditions. By definition, a slum is an urban area marked by crowding, poverty and social disorganisation. Due to their large, sprawling nature, it is difficult for governments to begin to redevelop and improve urban slums. However, technology is providing solutions for a myriad of issues.
For example, in the urban slums of Nairobi, the introduction of mobile payments has revolutionised the lives of thousands of Kenyans by improving their access to water. Prior to the rollout of M-Pesa, residents faced a regular hunt to buy a 22-litre can of water in person, after a long queue at one of the local banking halls. M-Pesa, a mobile-based payment service allows users to transfer money via-text between customers, banks and companies, including Nairobi’s Water and Sewerage Co., giving residents an easy way to pay their water bills, with reliable access to clean water straight to their homes.
Encouraging social mobility
Looking at technology’s impact in the western world, it hasn’t always been synonymous with social mobility. There has been mounting criticism for some time about how technology-fuelled movements like the ‘gig-economy’ are proliferating social inequality. In spite of this, there are some exciting examples of technology-enabled movements that are giving individuals the tools they need elevate themselves out of modern poverty.
Beam is one case that fits this bill. Crowdfunding has been a well-utilised tool for tech firms for some time, but Beam uses it to support the homeless to re-skill and re-build their lives. Beam encourages people to ‘crowdfund’ practical training courses in order to give people the skills they need to achieve financial independence and a renewed sense of purpose.
Elsewhere, in the United States, Outreach Grid gives homeless outreach workers and enforcement agencies a collaborative tool that enables them at a glance to understand the state of homelessness in the city, in order to deliver faster and better care.
Giving individuals a platform to be heard
So far, 2017 and 2018 have been two years in which the buzz around online activism reached a critical mass. Large-scale social media campaigns such as #MeToo and #Oscarssowhite have highlighted the lack of diversity across many industries, increasing pressure on businesses and societies to evaluate the ways in which they can improve the balance. Diversity is key to the success of any society. In fact, according to findings from this year’s Global Talent Competitiveness Index, higher diversity and inclusiveness scores – with Switzerland leading the way – have a strong correlation with per capita GDP. You could say that diversity is both a consequence of and a contributor to success and prosperity.
It’s fair to say that amidst the negativity, the internet in recent years has had a feeling of the ‘Wild West’ about it. But without this platform, we wouldn’t have the means to set the wheels in motion for social change on such a huge scale. For better or for worse, the internet presents a space for us to unite behind a cause across borders, regions and countries.
So, what next? Like our ancestors before us discovering a way to utilise fire to positive effect, we need to find a way to harness the power of technology to propel us forward in a positive direction. Technology will always be a dual force – it’s up to us to find a way to tip the scales in a way that technology unifies instead of divides.
Read about the technology barriers in India’s industries.