Creating a Technologically Literate Society

The world is moving faster than ever.

It took thousands of years for humans to build a computer, but once we had computers, we used them to build better computers. Moore’s Law of exponential improvement followed, and now we have computing that gives us superpowers. This progress is still accelerating (Tim Urban has a great post on this in his series on AI). People with computers have leverage that humanity has never had.

Steve Jobs did an interview back in the 90s where he discussed a column he read in a magazine about the most energy efficient life forms on earth. Humans were unremarkable when compared to other animals. But the human on a bicycle was more energy efficient at getting from point A to point B than any other being on earth.

Humans and their tools are powerful. The most powerful tool we’ve ever built is the computer.

Computers give us the ability to build products with no cost of replication. They allow us to communicate with anyone else on earth and automate processes that used to take armies of people to complete. Those who know how to use computers are more effective than those who do not.

Gen Z and most of the Millennial generation don’t know life without computers or the internet. Social media platforms, software development, and internet culture come naturally to them. It gives them leverage. We’ve seen this leverage at work in Silicon Valley, where billionaires are minted in their 20s and 30s. We see it with teenage Youtube stars that have bigger viewerships than hit shows on three letter TV stations. And we recently saw it happen on Wall Street, when hedge funds were short squeezed by an army of Reddit users.

Some of Gen X and many Baby Boomers don’t understand technology. There are countless people who struggle to figure out how to share their screen on Zoom. During the recent GameStop short squeeze, CNBC had to explain what Reddit was (as if it were some new, cutting edge platform, and not something that’s been around for 15 years).

Interestingly, for them this has yet to really matter. People over 50 tend to be far along in their careers. They’ve earned positions of power that don’t involve daily work with tools. Rather, their biggest asset to the world is in their experience and decision making. They’ve been able to largely get by without needing to understand technology, because someone else can understand it for them.

But it’s not just older generations who have yet to fully grasp computers & technology. There are still billions of people without access to smartphones and the internet. There are young people who might understand social media, but still struggle with using technology in a useful way. And what about the millions of people who worked in industries which have been displaced as a result of technological progress?

Technical Literacy and Income Inequality

How long can this dynamic persist without causing serious problems? At what point is technology so ubiquitous that technical illiteracy becomes a major force of inequality? Those who have yet to learn how to leverage technology have placed themselves in a vulnerable position. Consider this chart that outlines changes in wages by industry (source: Ray Dalio’s Study on Income Inequality)

Jobs that require high levels of technological proficiency saw a minimum of 15% growth in inflation adjusted wages from 1997 – 2016. Those that require manual labor stayed mostly flat or declined.

Another example of tech growth vs non-tech growth can be found in this video that visually shows the market cap of the world’s largest companies over the last ~30 years. In the early 90s, old world companies like Exxon Mobil, Walmart, and Coca Cola stood alone at the top of the list. Companies like these collectively employed millions of middle class workers who did not need deep technological knowledge.

Today? Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook rule the world. Old world companies are less powerful than they were in the 1900s, and many of their manual labor jobs have been outsourced or automated away.

I love the following saying:

“I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:

1) Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.

2) Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.

3) Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”

-Douglas Adams,The Salmon of Doubt

When something is invented later in your life, you can miss how impactful it is if you’re not careful. Using computers in the 1980s made you more efficient and gave you access to video games, but it didn’t allow you to build an Instagram following or grow a SaaS business. This dynamic has changed. If you don’t understand computers, you are at the mercy of those who do. This is true from a personal security, psychological, and economic point of view. They are no longer the domain of nerds who are disconnected from society, but a fundamental part of how we work and live.

The technologically illiterate are the most vulnerable to phishing attacks. People are being hijacked by social media & search algorithms, and those who can’t use computers are being out earned by those who can. New technologies in AI, biotech, and crypto are coming. Each of these are much more complicated than simpler things like Zoom and Excel that many have yet to get comfortable with. We have people building incredible deep learning algorithms and state free money, but the leaders of the free world still can’t articulate Facebook’s business model.

To make the world a more technically literate place, we need to do the following:

  1. Demystify technology
  2. Create cultural attitudes of optimism toward technology

Technology is Not as Scary as You Think

“Technology isn’t my thing”

How many times have you heard this phrase in your life? Maybe it came from your mom, grandfather, or even you!

The most counterproductive thing that people who don’t understand technology do is assert that they don’t get it.

As my upcoming podcast guest, Taron Foxworth, asserts: technology is not magic.

These things are rooted in the laws of physics, and are happening in ways that can be understood. Classes like Harvard’s CS50 do an amazing job of explaining how things like computers work, and we need more of them. No matter where you are, you CAN learn how technology works, and gain leverage in your life. It’s within your mental capacity, and it’s worth your while to understand things that you spend hours a day using. Do you need to become an engineer? No. But it’s worth seeing behind the curtain.

Where do you start? I’d suggest picking any topic that you’re genuinely curious about, and find where new technology overlaps with that interest. Are you a former athlete that loved diving into statistics? Check out how Sabermetrics. Like video games? Peer behind the curtain of video game development. Into finance? The crypto rabbit hole has room for you. Take a page out of Naval Ravikant’s book:

Once you peek behind the curtain and recognize that technological progress is being created by people, and not magic, you’ll begin to see ways that you can apply it to your life.

Pro Tech Media

Part of the reason we avoid technological literacy is due to that fact that our culture has done a poor job of showing its upside potential. Hollywood soured on the tech industry a long time ago. No more Star Trek, but lots of Black Mirror. People don’t want to be associated with these supposedly horrible things that will be created by people who understand technology. We need more movies like Iron Man and Big Hero 6 that inspire people to become builders and technologists.

The people who build technology have the chance to make the world a much better place. We can build cures to horrible diseases, save humanity from the future effects of climate change, and create a more abundant world. Let’s show that in theaters!

Massive income inequality is a major problem in the Western world. Intelligent people like Ray Dalio have been sounding the alarm for years. One way to level the playing field is to boost technical literacy. If we can inspire people with media to get more involved with technology, and then empower them to become builders themselves, we can revive the American dream that we’ve been steadily losing over the past few decades.

If this interests you, then I’d suggest checking out some other content on the topic:

Everything by Balaji Srinivasan. This post on the Purpose of Technology is a great place to begin.

Every podcast on Pod of Jake

Zero to One, by Peter Thiel

Nasjaq on TikTok

Lux Capital’s Futura Series

It’s Time to Build by Marc Andreessen

Notes on Technology in the 2020s by Eli Dourado

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