Nit-Picking the NYTimes Biz Section

The previously much-ridiculed co-founder of AOL, Steve Case, discusses leadership in last Sunday’s The New York Times Business Section (5 MAY 2013). (Ah, for the days when chatrooms instead of timeline feeds were the main conduit of disgust with the digital overlords’ decisions!). There are, however, a few off-the-cuff denunciations of the government’s negative interference with innovation I’d like to address*. He says:

“The attackers are the entrepreneurs who are disrupting the status quo, trying to change the world, take the hill, anything is possible, and have nothing to lose in most cases. They’re driven by passion and the idea and intensity. Large organizations — and it’s true of Fortune 500s and it’s also true of governments and other large organizations — are defenders. These guys aren’t trying to pursue the art of the possible, how to maximize opportunity. They actually are trying to minimize the downside, and hedge risk. They’re trying to de-risk situations. Entrepreneurs can’t even think this way. It’s not even a concept they understand.”

He ignores the continuing, massive investment in R&D and innovations created by the government — including the very infrastructure on which his fortune was built. I’m no huge fan of Apple, but I bet they’d disagree that larger organizations can’t be creative.

Further, while Case may consider “defenders” as some sort of obstacle to be overcome or enemy of entrepreneurial innovation, he should also realize that “minimiz[ing] the downside, and hedg[ing] risk” is the government’s core job. It’s the whole point of the social contract. I give up some rights to be protected in those I retain, a protection offered by the government as a body of citizens. Protecting citizens from harm is not stifling innovation.

On the other hand (and next page of the paper edition), Jenna Wortham discusses the all-too-real implications of a growing digital divide created by high-end, personal and wearable computers’ cost prohibitive-ness to less wealthy “early adopters.”

“Surely, wearable computers are in our future, whether they are embedded in glasses or smart watches or even contact lenses. But the experience of wearing Glass raised questions for me about the future of new technology and who gains access to it first — part of a much larger debate concerning the undercurrents of power and privilege that course through the Web.

At the very least, the release of Glass could shape how we think about human and computer interactions, and — considering Glass’s abilities to quietly take photographs and record videos — how we influence policies about privacy and public spaces.

And it would be a shame if the only people who participate in this leap forward are those who can afford it.”

This is true, and a very good point. The last thing we want is the like of Steve Case, Clay Shirky, Sunil Paul and other technological solutionism evangelists and the wealthy deciding all policy on these issues either. Pointing that out is part of the purpose of this blog.

She goes further to note that privacy may, essentially, become a commodity.

“Some analysts say the future of security and privacy on the Web will belong to those who can afford expensive, anti-hacking software and other protective services. That could be the antithesis of the rise of the social Web, which promised a utopia imbued with the ability to empower those who used it, regardless of their location, financial means and level of privilege.”

You want privacy? Pay a private company for it. Can’t afford it? You’re out of luck. (This is where Case and others miss the point of government interventions.) She also notes that the poorest receive hand-me-down, poorly performing smartphones.

“This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. When the iPhone came out, it cost almost $600, in its cheapest form, and I couldn’t afford one. By the time I’d picked up enough extra shifts as a waitress to pay the price, the second and third versions of the gadget were on the market.

There’s no doubt that the device changed my life. It made me a much more streamlined individual and eventually gave me a competitive advantage as a budding technology reporter who had firsthand experience as the Apple ecosystem evolved. Relatively early access thus proved beneficial, as it has for many others who were the first to adopt and use new services, like the early “vloggers” (that’s video bloggers) on YouTube or developers in the App Store.”

There is a certain arrogance in assuming that providing children and adults in the lowest economic brackets with the latest technology would give them the needed leg-up to succeed in our society. Definitely, our students and lower-income folks (like myself) should be given the opportunity to experiment with, learn about and develop skills with the latest technology, if only to help with employment readiness. But we can’t leave out socioeconomic context. When she says lower- to lower-middle class incomes, she means middle class. There are far more pieces to the puzzle in helping the majority of people climb out of poverty. I appreciate that this is a short business column, and it raises some good points that others in Sunday’s section do not, but there is a lot more that goes into moving from waitressing to writing in the Times. It ain’t an iPhone.


*I know I’m starting to sound repetitive and nitpicky with various people’s statements, but that’s the idea. It’s important to counter these statements with equally timed responses. That’s partly what this blog is all about.

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