Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) is perhaps better-known for her views on social issues than the latest technological breakthroughs. Yet as she demonstrated at SXSW this past Saturday, she has a keen eye for using tech innovation to create social value.
What remains to be seen is how effectively she can galvanize action on technology innovation for the public good.
Saturday’s interview at the rather hip South by Southwest conference was wide ranging, and somewhat tech-light. But it was in AOC’s responses to questions from the audience that she began to unpack her thoughts about technology innovation.
In answering a question on automation for instance, she replied “We should not be haunted by the specter of being automated out of work … we should not feel nervous about the toll booth collector not having to collect tolls anymore. We should be excited by that. But the reason we’re not excited by it is because we live in a society where if you don’t have a job, you are left to die. And that is, at its core, our problem.”
She went on to say “… we should be excited by automation, because what it could potentially mean is more time educating ourselves, more time creating art, more time investigating in the sciences, more time focused on invention, more time going to space, more time enjoying the world that we live in.”
Tech-forward doesn’t have to mean tech-naive
AOC’s tech-forward attitude to automation will jar with some I suspect. Yet it reflects a belief in a future where technology, if done right, can benefit everyone.
This comes out even further in her response to a question from none-other than William Sanford Nye, aka “Bill Nye the Science Guy.”
Bill pressed AOC on how to combat the fear of loss in how it affects people’s attitudes, beliefs and actions — especially when it comes to climate change.
AOC’s response was that one of the “keys to dismantling fear is dismantling a zero-sum mentality … we can give without a take technologically.”
She went on to emphasize that we too-easily default to viewing progress as a cost rather than an investment, but that we don’t have to. And she pressed the point that all of us have the opportunity — as well as the responsibility — to ensure that our elected officials realize this.
It’s easy to misinterpret AOC’s remarks as naively promoting innovation. But this would be disingenuous. She’s already demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of the social costs of blind innovation, including her recent comments on very-human biases that can end up baked into the technologies we use.
Rather, what emerges is a commitment to developing new technologies in ways that benefit everyone, from entrepreneurs and businesses, down to everyday people struggling to make ends-meet.
Innovating for the public good
This commitment reflects many of the drivers at the heart of movements around socially responsible innovation, and what’s increasingly being referred to as “public interest technology.”
The ideas behind public interest technology are still evolving. But at its core, it’s about using technology to grow social value.
For instance, this may be through using tech to address socially important issues. Or using it to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of government.
It may even include ensuring that commercial technologies end up being an economic and a societal win-win.
This concept of future technologies that benefit but don’t harm people comes through loud and clear in AOC’s talking points and policies — including the Green New Deal which, despite its detractors, combines a commitment to social and environmental resilience and growth with a savvy understanding of the roles that science and technology have to play in achieving this.
Given her commitment to social good and her tech-savvy, I have no doubts that AOC “gets” public interest technology. The question is, can she be an effective advocate for innovating for the public good?
For instance will she be able to catalyze a new wave of technologies that serve all of society? Or push for ethical technology that doesn’t preferentially harm vulnerable populations? Or help navigate the thin line between responsible and irresponsible innovation?
And could she inspire a new generation of publicly-minded technologists?
I hope so. We’re long-overdue political leadership that helps steer increasingly powerful technologies toward a future where they serve society, rather than enslave the unwary. And these are not partizan issues. Investing in technology to protect and improve lives and the environment cuts across the political spectrum.
Avoiding the mistakes of the past
But to achieve these goals, there has to be greater awareness of the consequences of unthinking innovation, and the dangers of simply assuming that science and technology will lead to a better future.
This is something that history has taught us the hard way — there have been too many tech-losers in the past as greed, lack of understanding, and willful blindness, have led to progress that’s been built on the back of human suffering.
If we’re to avoid the mistakes of the past — especially as we develop technologies such as gene editing, AI, and geoengineering, that make those of previous generations look like child play — we need to get more intentional, and more proactive, in how we ensure the public value of innovation.
This is going to take bold, smart, and informed policies. But it’s also going to need a groundswell of support from those whose lives stand to benefit or suffer from how we, as a society, embrace tech innovation.
And this is where AOC and others give me hope. Because at the end of the day, we need leaders who have social value at the heart of their policies, but who understand the power of tech innovation.
And who are able to mobilize people to take action and make a difference.
Updated 3/10/19 with links to video of the talk, and expanded quotes