Progress is a great thing, but always comes with consequences. We tend to focus on the great while too often giving short shrift to those consequences, especially when they’re negative. We celebrate winners not losers, often dismissing them out of hand. We get frustrated when every giant step forward seems to be followed with one or even multiple steps backward. We’re astounded by how long resistance holds on and how hard fought it can be. Notice I didn’t describe the consequences as “unintended”. That’s important, because progress implies change, overturning what those who embrace it now consider retrograde, past its use-by date. So the consequences are often intentional. Not surprisingly, action breeds reaction, often vigorous and unbending. Unaddressed consequences are the story — and perhaps the explanation — of our time.
Long after Brown, there remain powerful forces fighting integration manifest, for example, in some all too obvious efforts to undermine public education. Just last week, the Supreme Court had to turn back another blatant assault on abortion rights which, almost forty-three years since Roe, are still under constant and systematic attack across the land. The same kind of resistance is underway in the wake of the more recent Obergefell marriage equality decision. North Carolina’s HB-2, the so-called “bathroom bill”, is just a thinly veiled blowback to newly won LGBT rights. Each of these can be attributed to the intentional consequences of progress. It’s easy to see this resistance as bigotry or narrow-mindedness, but each step that many of us consider a move forward disrupts the ways, ideas and often deep seated and heartfelt beliefs of people firmly rooted in “the way things were.” That society at large accepts, or in some cases that the Constitution mandates, moving on doesn’t mean that individual’s or institution’s belief systems have, or can, change on a dime. They were poorly prepared for the consequences of progress, but so too were we. This lack has caused much bitterness and friction.
Some of the reactions to consequences seem misdirected, and sometimes purposefully so to mask some hidden agenda. But sometimes that misdirection stems from confusion or an unwillingness to accept and more importantly to address, the consequences of progress. In the social area where previous “norms” are upended and beliefs challenged — like abortion, integration and marriage equality — an often toxic mix prejudices and differing religious doctrines come into play. These are often emotional reactions involving dogmas that are difficult to objectively prove or disprove, where logical arguments and the finer points of law have little currency. We can, though often we don’t, understand the reaction at play, but are unable to resolve what is seen in absolutes; as a matter of black and white, not greys.
That isn’t the case where core beliefs are not threatened. Here, consequences can be more easily and successfully addressed. But here, too, they are often neglected. I’m thinking specifically about progress like the Industrial Revolution and in our own time the Technology Revolution that has so changed and clearly improved the way be function and work. What might be considered one bridge between these two revolutions happened just a little over one hundred years ago. As recounted in 2013 by the Daily News, Henry Ford revolutionized car manufacture with his assembly line. He reduced the time it took to assemble a Model T from 12.5 hours to 93 minutes. Daily production in his Michigan plant moved from 100 to 1000 cars per day. “In 1914”, the News wrote, “Ford's 13,000 workers built around 300,000 cars -- more than his nearly 300 competitors managed to build with 66,350 employees.” Consider what impact of that next-step-revolution-influenced reduction of manpower meant in 1913. Technology has gone so much further, something I mentioned in my most recent post. As the News article noted three years ago “…just 500 people work directly on the assembly line at Ford's Michigan Assembly Plant, which now builds 605 Focus and C-Max sedans in each of two 10-hour shifts. Some 48,000 people worked at the Crystal Palace at its peak.” Progress and consequences.
The unrest we’re experiencing today both here and abroad has been building for some time. As most assuredly happened before in other disruptive periods, scapegoating and misdirection abounds but the underlying problem seems clear. We’ve made huge technological progress but have failed miserably at addressing and mitigating its consequences. Once highly sought after and valued as skilled workers find themselves out in the cold unprepared to meet the challenges of progress. The skills they have are no longer needed. The new skills required for twenty-first century employment are not in hand. Public and private policy embrace and benefit from progress, but have fallen dangerously short in addressing the consequences. That requires investments and a reorientation of priorities that we simply have not made. That doesn’t have to be the case.
In his famous reach-out 2009 speech in Cairo President Obama declared: “I will host a Summit on Entrepreneurship this year to identify how we can deepen ties between business leaders, foundations and social entrepreneurs in the United States and Muslim communities around the world”. That program was expanded to all communities and has resulted in an annual event sponsored by the State Department and held this year on the campus of Stanford University. On its final day, the president delivered a short talk and then, along with Mark Zuckerberg interviewed three young entrepreneurs. Among them was Mariana Costa Checa, Founder-CEO of the Peruvian technology education social enterprise Laboratoria. Her company is focused squarely on the consequences of the technology revolution. Her story says it all:
“…I started [Laboratoria] in Peru two years ago. We are now in Peru and Chile and Mexico. And what we tried to do is to go out and find talent where nobody else is looking for it, ...to identify young women who haven’t been able to access quality education or job opportunities…and train them to become the most awesome developers…and connect them with employment opportunities in the tech sector.
[In joining, most of our students] are completely unaware of their potential…thinking that it’s going to be really hard to break this vicious cycle of low-skill employment, underpaid employment, or just domestic work. But they soon start learning to code, and it’s just such a powerful skill set. A few weeks into the program, they start building their first websites, their first apps, their games, and showing them to the world. And it’s so empowering. And six months after joining, they’re ready to go out and join the workforce. So we have students who get three job offers from the coolest companies in town. …They triple their income…start supporting their families. And…they start realizing that anything is possible if they work hard enough for it, no? And we have students that have gone from working at a corner shop in a slum to working at the IDB in Washington as developers, a few blocks from the White House. So really, they are an example that anything is possible, no?”
Yes, anything is possible if we start aggressively addressing the neglected consequences of progress that we have come to take for granted. The stories told by Mariana Costa Checa and her counterparts reflect the aspirations I hear from startup entrepreneurs with whom I work In North Carolina. Their businesses focus largely on unmet needs, solutions that can touch and change many lives. But the program initiated in Peru, one of reorienting and training to meet the needs of today not yesterday speaks to both what can be done. Sadly, it also points to our deficiencies. Some people decry globalization and immigration, but the reason her South American students are now working in Washington is that we haven’t trained enough people here to fill the coding savvy jobs that already exist and will continue to grow. If young kids from impoverished families can learn so too can middle age former factory workers or vastly underemployed fast food workers. The cliché, “where there is a will, there is a way” rings true. Those young Peruvian girls are an “example that anything is possible, no?”
We hear a lot of anger and finger pointing in this campaign season, perhaps more than in recent memory. Much of that anger, though not defined as such, comes from the unaddressed consequences of a modern world that is on the move and can’t be turned back. It would be nice to hear more concrete talk of what we can do to get those left behind or falling behind back on a success track. And what we can do is no mystery, but it requires urgent action and a meaningful investment in human capital. No president can restore manufacturing in America, nor can any of us stop the clock, much less turn it back. But doing something to mitigate the unaddressed consequences of the technological age, enabling opportunity, is a goal that can be achieved. Whether our elected officials at all levels have the willingness to do so isn’t so evident. But, “anything is possible”, no?