The tech industry’s approach to innovation will likely undergo a major shift as new generations of tech leaders come to power. Historically, innovation has been economically motivated for the benefit of individuals and shareholders, which will continue to be true, although the nature of innovation will likely evolve to consider its impacts on the world in greater depth than has been true historically.
“As an innovator, you may be able to make some term gain without having to worry or be concerned about ethics whatsoever,” said Greg Epstein, the newly-appointed first humanist chaplain at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and executive director of The Humanist Hub. “You may be able to achieve some things that we define as success in this world without caring about or even paying any attention to ethics, but in the long term, [that approach] will likely have some directly damaging consequences in your life. What I’m seeing students prepare for today is not just conventional success but to have an inner life that is meaningful.”
Values change from generation to generation, so it should be no surprise that what fueled the tech industry’s direction to date may change in the future. While it’s true that some of today’s tech leaders demonstrate a capacity for doing something good for society, the general trajectory is to innovate, grow, exit, maybe repeat the last three steps a few times and then focus on something like underprivileged individuals.
Doing something “good” later in life is consistent with mid-life realizations of mortality when one questions the legacy one is leaving behind. According to Epstein, the Millennials and Generation Z are more likely to ponder the societal value of their contributions earlier in their career than Baby Boomers or Generation X.
Tech Innovation for Good Versus Tech Innovation Is Good
Arguably, technology innovation has always focused on the positive, if “the positive” is defined as achieving the art of the possible. For example, cars are safer and more reliable than they once were, as the result of technology innovation.
However, the more technologically dependent people and things become, the more vulnerable they are to attacks. In other words, the negative potential consequences of new technology tend to be an afterthought, with the exception of products and services that are designed to protect people from negative consequences, such as cybersecurity products.
In previous generations, technology impacted society more slowly than it does today, so the mainstream positive and negative effects tended to take longer to realize. For example, adoption of the first mobile phones was relatively slow because they were large and heavy, and cellular service was spotty at best. Now, entire industries are being disrupted seemingly overnight by companies such as Uber and Airbnb.
Generational Differences Matter
Each generation is shaped, in part, by the world in which they mature. Over the past several decades, each subsequent generation has been exposed to not only more technology, but more sophisticated technology. The “new normal” is a connected world of devices, many of which are recording everything, and social media networks through which anything and everything can be shared.
“Increasingly, young people on campus want to create collaborative technology [so] that people can have a fair opportunity in life and human beings can help one another to achieve a better of life than we’ve ever had before,” said Epstein. “I think that people are hungry for conversations about what that could look like [and] what that could mean because human beings have never had this responsibility before to transform our collective lives for the better.”
Innovation for a Higher Purpose
Thus far, technology innovators have followed a pattern, which is to innovate, to capitalize, and to then deal with negative consequences later if and when they arise. In other words, the tech industry has been focused on the art of the possible, generally without regard for the entire spectrum of outcomes that results.