[Strategy] Access to the Means of Production

There is a growing chorus from the progressive parts of the US economy, concerned that many historically marginalized race and class groups may not be benefiting from the fullness of the revolutions occurring in high technology, economics, and communications.

This chorus centers in the world of high technology startups of Silicon Valley and their media/opinion outlets. Ironically, this call is coming from a world that has historically been dominated by the mostly male, mostly white (or Asian) and the mostly highly educated.

The gender/sexual discrimination case of Ellen Pao and her plight as CEO of Reddit, has brought the issue of “women in technology” to the forefront of tech Twitter. Missing in this discussion (or maybe floating around the edges of it) is the fact that discussions around the core issues of class and racial advancement and economic development continue to employ the language of the past to define problems of the present; and, to frame discussions of the future. This framing (or storytelling, if you will) has to shift in three areas for there to be more participation from those currently existing exclusively in the space of the historically discriminated against:

Access to technology, content creation mechanisms, and the knowledge of how those systems work (and why) needs to be framed as a social justice issue, rather than as a technology/economic issue.

The challenging and uncomfortable question that no one asked (not the NYPD, not the Mayor of New York’s office, not the multiple variations of protestors, not the progressive pundits) about the entire Eric Garner incident is: “Why was Eric Garner on the sidewalk, selling “loosie” cigarettes, and having continuous issues, run-ins and arrests with the NYPD in the first place?”

Think about that question for a moment and then think about this, equally challenging question: “If Eric Garner had sufficient access to technology, content creation mechanisms, and the knowledge of how those systems work, would he have had to be on a sidewalk at all, or could he have fed his family, from his home, by using those mechanisms?”

These are two questions that need answers, advocacy and more noise behind them, because access to the means of production is the social justice issue of the 21st century—regardless of race, culture, class or creed. And let’s not even get into dissecting the background of other lives and how they could have been positively impacted by a greater knowledge and access to technology that could bring them—at minimum—the beginnings of an income and a better life.

Creating (and co-creating) rather than constantly consuming as a means of understanding how new technological and economic systems will work in the future.

Even with 1.5 million pieces of blog content being created every day and 175 million blogs being out there (along with all the videos on Youtube, live streaming, podcasts and other image based content) there is still a dearth of quality, meaningful content. Particularly, content that reflects the lives that are lived by people other than a thin stratum of wealthy, North American and European peoples.

As the Internet expands globally, many young, African Americans run the risk of being left behind on a global web, full of aggressive, young focused content creators. Understanding the how and why of content production allows people to co-create their lives with others. This is an idea that’s an easy sell when a culture leapfrogs the desktop computer; less so when a subculture is historically marginalized and suffers from the results of educational disparities for a wide variety of reasons.

Changing mindsets around the possibility of owning and building something requires telling a different story about what risks matter—and which risks don’t matter.

As the risks that used to matter begin to matter less and less, appropriate preparation through role modeling and education is important for everybody in the US culture. However, for those people who will be left behind as the perceived security of employment becomes more and more a thing of the past (“In my experience as a black entrepreneur, I saw the majority of my family take the government job route, while I always had the itch to pursue a self-made career.”) there will be no gentle landings as circumstances change. Just sudden, violent bumps.

As the Singularity eventually arrives, the solution is not to ameliorate the impact of these bumps through the creation of Universal Basic Income systems, or micropayments and micro-lending schemes. These are band-aid solutions at worst, and recipes for negative social disruption at scale at best. Instead, the long-term solution is to begin to teach future generations what the real risks are. The mindset and attitude that causes success to have many fathers and failure to be but an orphan, still reigns in many sectors of this economy, but that shouldn’t prevent our society from investing in education about the risks that matter: emotional labor, collaboration, and building credibility and trust through the long tail, rather than relying on the short mass.

In the end, there are disruptions that have to happen in education, economics, finance, real estate, and other areas, not to level the playing field—this is an impossibility—but to create new fields, with new rules for new participants that may have been historically disenfranchised by the past.

Give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for a lifetime. But teach a man to build and sail a boat, and he’ll go to the furthest horizon and teach someone else. Isn’t it time for us to advance the access, technology and discrimination battles past the language of 20th century battles, and frame them instead in the language of the 21st century, that we’re already 15 years into?

-Peace Be With You All-

Jesan Sorrells, MA
Principal Conflict Engagement Consultant
Human Services Consulting and Training (HSCT)
Email HSCT: jsorrells@hsconsultingandtraining.com
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