Sustainable development vs. digital onslaught vs. work

People with serious money and past success often feel compelled to set aside time and brainpower to help solve critical issues around the world. High tech people, especially, feel this sudden urge to make things right or better. It is almost as if they suddenly realize that their many billions of dollars are worth nothing when compared with the world they fashioned — a world stripping away the ethic of work, with an enforced digital schedule set by machines, and, never least, the energy consumptive industries they have built.

So it was last week in what looked like a school classroom in Geneva that self-proclaimed world enterprise leaders, like Melinda and Bill Gates and Jack Ma, gathered to discuss the Fourth Industrial Revolution and how they — the masters of that universe — see promoting the advantages of the digital age across the globe. Don’t be fooled by the simple classroom photos. Tasked with the “need [of] new thinking and innovative ideas to harness the benefits and manage the risks of this digital age...” by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, that room full of past techies, and now merely digital tycoons, toyed with ideas for cyber security and the very definition of sustainable development — which hardly included any definition of work our parents could (or would want to) understand.

Don’t worry, maybe they have no power. Right? They’ll issue a report to the media in the summer. Meanwhile, Vint Cerf, one of the Internet pioneers (and Google VP), said, “This is truly an exciting and critical moment ... We just marked the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and 50 percent of the world is now online. Today, we are challenged to induce responsible behavior in the digital age.” Yes, you read that right. They are worried about users’ behavior, users’ responsibility — not theirs. Users are not workers.

Not once in that conference did anyone talk about sustainable employment. And that’s not the first such conference. It was the seventh with over 2,000 world tech leaders hashing out what they feel is the sustainable future for all humankind. But not everyone at the UN is such a big fan of such discussions. Fabrizio Hochschild, UN assistant secretary-general for strategic coordination, feels that there are serious issues here that are not being addressed. He likens the digital development as the next global crisis after climate change. “We’re at the point of asking ourselves, ‘will emerging technologies contribute to peace overall or will they undermine it? Will they generally further access to sustainable development [and gainful employment] or will they further inequality? Will they facilitate respect for human rights or will they provide new tools to those who wish to contain or violate the realization of human rights?’”

What was agreed at the conference in Geneva was that the digital “sphere” as it is being called at these meetings “amplifies existing inequalities.” Far from making the opportunity playing-field even across the globe, digital access and implementation is skewed toward those members of society that use digital technology as the mainstay of their business. In other words, the dream that a plumber will get paid a living wage because he or she uses their hands will be outstripped by the digital operator at the top who controls access to everything the plumber needs to practice their job.

These “high level panels” may be uncommon but the political power and control of those present — from Microsoft to Google to Apple to Facebook to Netflix to Alibaba and on — cannot be overlooked—and always remember their desire to promulgate a digital-primary world as the future for human endeavor already sweeping aside normal human aspirations and self-worth for more than half the world’s population. And that is a dangerous proposition. Without the pride of work—work properly compensated—humans become either disaffected or rebellious. That is in our DNA code, not techies’ digital coding.


Peter Riva, a former resident of Amenia Union, now lives in New Mexico.