Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Digital Transformation for the Greater Good

Adam Smith wrote about rational self-interest, which posits we work for the greater good when it benefits ourselves.  But what is the greater good, and how does digital transformation impact it?

I believe most of us would agree that replacing large numbers of humans with machines that result in wide scale unemployment and suffering is not in our rational self-interest or the greater good. Having massive numbers of jobs terminated by the Terminator does not result in a safer, healthier, happier civilization or vibrant economy.  So what is the greater good that we, out of rational self-interest, can strive for?

Just because something is possible, and VCs will fund it, does not mean it supports the greater good. Technology that takes all meaningful jobs away from humans resulting in their suffering will soon become a target for their wrath.  I can already imagine brands placing badges on their products that certify "Human-Made" to gain a competitive advantage over machine-made production.

At the macro level, if businesses increasingly replace human workers with machines, they will soon have difficulty finding employed customers that can pay for their products.  At what point do businesses seek to expand employment opportunities out of a rational self-interest rather than decrease them through automation? Is it even realistic to expect profit maximizing businesses to seek the greater good of the societies they operate in?  We must seriously ponder these issues as gathered humans.

I think there is value in playing out future scenarios:
  • In the short-term, manufacturers want to automate faster than their competition in order to gain economic advantages while there are sufficient numbers of consumers employed elsewhere to provide a market for their goods.
  • In the mid-term, entire industries will automate and terminate large numbers of jobs, but hope other, slower-to-automate industries will employ their customer base so there is money to spend. 
  • In the long-term, however, when digital transformation has swept through all industries, who is left to employ the consumers and provide them with living wages so goods can be purchased?
As jobs that require little training or education diminish in numbers, we have two choices, 1) Increase education levels to equip humans for employment in the digital future, or 2) subsidize and fund employment opportunities that benefit the greater good, so there are sufficient incomes available to support a healthy economy.

There are plenty of problems left on this planet to be solved, and solving these problems could employ many. Today, however, not all of these problems have economic and greater good values assigned to them. Fresh water sources, clean air, litter removal, forestation, sustainable farming, peace, better health and wellness, improved education, beautification of public spaces, etc.  All of these areas have the potential to generate enormous benefits for the greater good, but they need society to place a value on them and fund employment in these areas which are not always profit generating but support the greater good.

A vibrant economy, and a safe and secure society depends on healthy employment numbers, adequate wages, property ownership, human and property rights, hope, peace and purpose. Digital transformation must add to the greater good, or it risks accelerating a break down in our society and economy.

Kevin Benedict
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***Full Disclosure: These are my personal opinions. No company is silly enough to claim them. I work with and have worked with many of the companies mentioned in my articles.