Fixing the World
The earliest foundations in America were established by men who had made fortunes by recognizing and capitalizing on social demographic industrial and financial changes in our country. Most were self-made and still young when accomplishing their discoveries or leveraging the new technology into enormous wealth and economic power. They were convinced they could use the same disciplines and mindsets to dispense what they had accumulated. Calling it “scientific philanthropy,” they focused their energies on solutions, systems and large-scale issues.
In “Charity Philanthropy and Civility in American History,” Judith Sealander writes, “They studied society closely, understood the dangers posed by the industrial revolution that had created their fortunes and worried publicly about the dangers. They and their advisers fretted that the age promised opportunity and prophesied…without big solutions to its many problems, a society in transition could be exploding.” They and their staff were convinced they could tackle complex global issues and apply business and scientific principles to fix the world.
Andrew Carnegie even thought he could eradicate the causes of war. The Charter of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace specified that once permanent peace prevailed worldwide, the foundation could use remaining funds to attack other significant problems. In fact they did advance progress in health literacy poverty and education. Still the damage from the “scientific philanthropy” is all too real. In one of the worst examples of supporting scientific and rational solutions Carnegie, Rockefeller and others funded the spread of eugenics – a pseudoscience that resulted in 60,000 Americans being forcibly sterilized to preserve racial purity by eliminating the propagation of those who were unfit. It was rational and forward looking. It solved big problems. It promoted the larger good.
The world is broken and we can fix it. Sound familiar?
In the Wall Street Journal article, “Is Smart Making Us Dumb?”, Evgeny Morozov writes about a revolution in technology that allows our mobile devices and other household devices to guide and subtly change our behavior by reinforcing “good” behavior and punishing “bad” behavior. A smart fork monitors how quickly you are eating and alerts you to slow down. A smart trash can takes pictures of your trash and awards points for meeting recycling standards and takes away points when you don’t. According to the article, “a number of thinkers in Silicon Valley see these technologies as a way not just to give consumers new products they want but to push them to behave better. Sometimes this will be a nudge; sometimes it will be a shove. But the central idea is clear: social engineering disguised as product engineering.”
In 2010 former Google CFO Patrick Pichette told an Australian news program that his company “is really an engineering company with all these computer scientists that see the world as a completely broken place.” He has restated Google’s notion that the world is a “broken” place whose problems – from traffic jams to inconvenient shopping experiences to excessive energy use – can be solved by technology.
The futurist and game designer Jane McGonigal, a favorite of the TED crowd, also likes to talk about how “reality is broken” but can be fixed by making the real world more like a videogame with points for doing good: “From smart cars to smart glasses, ‘smart’ is Silicon Valley’s shorthand for transforming present-day social reality and the hapless souls who inhabit it.”
The world is broken and we can fix it. The same mindset that created these fortunes can be applied to make a better world. A world designed to be free of imperfections, mistakes, bad choices, poverty and disease – and ideally overseen by those who have the knowledge, wealth and superior insights to guide and nudge us along the right path.