Innovation as Moral Leverage
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” (Margaret Mead)
“Be the change you want to see in this world” (Gandhi)
There is an idea virus within American culture that has the power to destroy. The idea is that technology and innovation are fundamentally good. Whether you consider yourself a technologist, an entrepreneur or a scientist (all labels I use to identify myself at times) I’d like to propose an alternative to to this idea and an inoculation against the virus.
Observation #1: Innovation amplifies whatever values and beliefs are held by the innovator.
For instance, if I value my time, I might invent the first clock, or start a business to create time-management products, or devote my life to unlocking deep mysteries of the physics of time. And if I believe clean drinking water is a fundamental human right, I might invent a new method of water purification, or start charity:water, or study how global climate change affects water policy for at risk populations.
Observation #2: When certain values or beliefs are amplified others are necessarily diminished.
This is moral leverage.
Through the creation, promotion and use of specific innovations, the values associated with those innovations become selected for; conversely, those innovations which are never created (or are out-competed in the marketplace) leave their concomitant values vulnerable to conflicting and more technologically fortified values. Think of it as an evolving moral ecosystem where values thrive and spread or go extinct bad on selective pressures amplified by innovation.
Let’s look at the global financial crisis through the lens of moral leverage. We may ask ourselves what are the innovations — technological, financial, legal, political, and so on — that enabled the situation to unfold as it did? What are the values that were promoted or amplified, and what are the values that became “collateralized damage”? Finally, what are the individual and collective beliefs about the world that were either reinforced or falsified by the events of the past few years?
To make it more concrete, listen to this Fresh Air segment on tax liens and see if you can answer these questions. Or listen to the second segment in the show to hear the link between the industrialization of food production and the advent of breast cancer.se
Observation #3: Innovation by itself is neither good nor bad.
There are luminaries that argue innovation is inherently good because it is democratizing. And others who point out that technology leads to bubbles and echo chambers, which lead directly to evil. But innovators are optimists and often make the claim that, in the long run, innovation leads to good: violence declines; eventually dictatorships fall. The techno-optimist story goes that violence and dictatorship cannot last against the inexorable and exponential advance of technology, especially those that promote transparency.
Moral leverage provides another another interpretations of the same data, which is not that innovation is good, but rather…
Conclusion #1: People are inherently good.
Except for the value placed on democracy itself, democratic systems are, by definition, amoral; they simply allow “we the people” to express and live by our own individual and collective values, whatever those may be. Part of the freedom of expression afforded by democracy manifests itself in what we would call innovation. So if innovation acts as moral leverage — amplifying the will of the people — then the logical conclusion is this: the moral arc of the universe derives it’s bent towards justice, not from technology or innovation but rather from their source: YOU.
Is this so surprising though? Isn’t “good” defined by that which promotes our values? Or if you prefer, the value of life as a whole? And even if you believe that good is defined by God’s values… are we not made in God’s image?
Now you may say, so what? The distinction between “humans are good” and “innovation is good” is purely academic. To that I would say:
Conclusion #2: Innovation without conscious moral intention is amoral.
Innovation by itself will not save the world, it will only hasten the arrival of its implied moral ecosystem. If you are working on technology for violence — even in the name of “defense” — you are creating an ecosystem under which violence thrives. This internet worm, presumably created by those who would protect you from nuclear attack, chillingly illustrates this point. Without considering moral leverage, it’s easy to frame our choices in ways that blind us to the infinite possibilities, and “force” us to act against our own values.
Conclusion #3: It’s not hard to save the world.
What life requires if we are to survive is this: each of us must check in from time to time with our own values, and reflect on whether they are in harmony with our words and actions. It’s really that simple.
The great thing about leverage is that it turns small shifts at the source (i.e. you) into massive revolutions in the end. That choice you made the other day to forego the water in a plastic bottle is a small expression of your values, but it has the potential for viral infection that changes the world. And when you align your career choices with your personal values as Scott Harrison did, you accelerate the spread of your values exponentially.
So how do we know what’s right for us? Very simply… it’s what feels right. It’s an emotional resonance (a loving feeling perhaps?) that tells us that we are in line with our values. Conversely, when we feel stress or discord, or that sinking feeling, we know something’s not right. It only becomes hard when we waste energy on things that we cannot control, when we take responsibility for other people’s actions, or when we mistake other people’s values for our own. Which leads to the most subtle but important premise of all:
The only way to fail is to judge.
The act of judgment is what the “logical” mind does. It tells us what we (and others) “should” do, based on a set of rules and assumptions. The mind is a wonderful tool, essential for survival. But it distracts us from listening to our heart and living by our values. That is something that can only be felt and is beyond the reach of logic or words.
You don’t need laws or incentives to be a good person. Listen to your heart. And trust the universe be the judge of whether you did the right thing.