The Rest of the Rest of Us

Macworld is about the excitement of the arrival of new “cargo,” to use Jared Diamond’s term from Guns, Germs, and Steel. As Diamond wrote, people with more resources see the world differently. It shapes our world view. The things we possess are not just these things but (to us) symbols of hope and signs of optimism that good things are possible. Technologists, by definition, are people who not only have resources but are resourceful — we know what to do with what we have. It’s a huge advantage.

I was reminded of Apple’s slogan that the Mac was “The Computer For The Rest Of Us” unveiled as part of its “1984” commercial. How we identified with that slogan. To quote Henry V, “we happy few.” It spoke to how we saw ourselves as outsiders, as participants in a rebellion against conformity. We saw technology as a way of setting ourselves free — free to explore, free to do things our own way, free as in freedom. With this technology, the “rest of us” became an enlightened majority and ever since we’ve been buying computers, cell phones, HDTVs, HD video cameras, digital cameras, GPS systems, iPods, etcetera, etcetera.

Well, what about all those people who don’t have what we have, who don’t pay attention to Macworld, who don’t keep up with the latest technology? Aren’t they the “rest” of the “rest of us?” It’s possible they don’t understand “our” world and more likely that we don’t understand theirs. They don’t have our access to tools and information (resources) and they don’t share our sense of hope and optimism. They don’t share our belief that technology (and the people and companies developing it) can change the world. Instead, they live with fear of many things, including a fear of what we may do, including making decisions without considering them.

I raise this issue because I feel iPhone guilt. Taking the iPhone out of my pocket in a public place makes me uncomfortable. Some people ask nicely about it: “How do you like it?” But I’m keenly aware that others don’t have what I have and they notice it. The iPhone is a great phone but I’m conscious that it’s helping to define “the rest of us versus them.”

A recent Economist story, “The Social Technologist,” profiles Yossi Vardi, the gregarious Israeli entrepreneur who made his name selling ICQ to AOL in 1996 and has been herding start-ups ever since.

His message: only a happy few are benefiting from Israel’s amazing high-tech boom. “We have become two countries: a high-tech one with few children and very high incomes, and a poor one with lots of kids.” Vardi says.

The same could be said of the United States, of course, or any country with a sufficiently developed “high tech” sector. What’s worrisome — and you see this if you go watch student presentations at Stanford or sit-in on any number of presentations by high-tech start-ups — is that the resourceful keep discovering new ways to serve one another. The people with lots of cargo are excited about getting more cargo. MySpace keeps getting better.

I recently visited Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where the market once supported lots of jobs in textiles, tobacco, and furniture-making. One person told me that a 16-year-old could drop out of high school and walk into a factory for work and live a middle-class life. Today, kids still drop out of high school at 16 but they don’t have a factory job waiting for them. Even those who once had the factory jobs are out of work now and attend government-funded retraining programs. Said this same person: “How many lawn mower repairmen do we need?”

One of the presidential candidates (sorry, I can’t remember which one) said that we are losing lots of jobs, and not just factory jobs, but white collar jobs as well. In other words, the college-educated will have difficulty finding many of the “good jobs” that were available to previous generations. I’ve never heard a politician say before that the college-educated may be in the same position that factory workers have been in over the last 20 years.

It’s not just the tech community that has trouble seeing these problems clearly. Timothy Noah writes in Slate of a recent column by Gloria Steinem in support of Hillary Clinton and maintains that Steinem’s own agenda is blocking her view of the big picture:

“Gender,” writes Gloria Steinem on the op-ed page of the Jan. 8 New York Times, “is probably the most restricting force in American life.” That is incorrect. Poverty is the most restricting force in American life. It’s become somewhat unfashionable to point this out, but I don’t see how it could be otherwise. Given the choice between being born poor and being born female, which would you choose?

Nonetheless, one doesn’t want to be a poor single mother with children. One would rather be a Hillary or Gloria. Steinem’s argument’s basis in gender would have us believe that the problems of poor women are essentially the same as those women who themselves have lots of resources or who grew up in families with lots of resources.

Novelist and English professor Lorrie Moore writes in an Op-Ed in The New York Times called Last Year’s Role Model that the “political moment for feminine role models has, arguably, passed us by.”

The children who are suffering in this country, who are having trouble in school, and for whom the murder and suicide rates and economic dropout rates are high, are boys — especially boys of color, for whom the whole educational system, starting in kindergarten, often feels a form of exile, a system designed by and for white girls.

In the progressive Midwestern city where I live, the high school dropout rate for these alienated and written-off boys is alarmingly high. Some are even middle-class, but many are just hanging on, their families torn apart by harsh economics and a merciless criminal justice system.

While we have become comfortable debating issues of gender and race, many of us are missing the obvious fact that people who are poor lack the resources the rest of us have and that’s what makes them disadvantaged. That’s why they see the world differently. That’s why they don’t share our optimism for the future or the future of their children. With a public school system that’s failing the poor (and all but the brightest of the middle class), there is not much hope that children in poverty can find a way to escape it. An article on Barack Obama in The New York Times make this point:

After Hurricane Katrina, (Obama) did not attribute the lumbering federal response to the race of most of the storm’s victims. “The incompetence was color-blind,” he said, adding that the real stumbling block was indifference to the problems of the poor.

It’s unacceptable that our government is indifferent to the poor. But let me reframe this argument again in terms of technology, lest you think I’m trying to make a political point. (I hope you understand that I’m not trying to argue on behalf of a candidate but rather for the importance of poverty as an issue deserving our full attention.)

Is the high-tech world indifferent to the problems of the poor? Do we have any competence that matters in helping them find a better life? Or are we just making “the happy few” that much happier?

What is a social network if the people facing the toughest problems are not part of it? They don’t need more signs that tell them that they are on their own. The have-nots don’t do networking. It doesn’t get them anywhere.

Whether it’s the latest from Web 2.0 or Apple Computer, do we need to ask what it means for those who aren’t able to take part? Does it help them catch up or put them further behind? That calculation is part of the social cost of any new technology. We might think of it like we’re starting to think about our oversized carbon footprint and its impact on the physical world. Is there any way to offset the negative social impact of the technology that we’re so busily developing?

It’s a challenge for the “best of us” to address.