Technology is a double-edged sword that can bring about positive change, but often has unexpected consequences. Burning fossil fuels for energy has contributed to an environmental crisis. Air travel enabled COVID-19 to spread rapidly causing a pandemic. TVs and the internet flood us with news of these crises, which can be damaging to our mental health.
But I think we have good reason to be optimistic about the future and the role of technology.
Five years ago, environmental concerns had me feeling pessimistic about the future, and I feared humankind’s technological advances were to blame. At just the right time, I attended an event where Tom Standage, Deputy Editor of The Economist, gave a talk on technological optimism. It resonated with me so well that I’ve continued to work in and with technology companies ever since.
During his talk, Tom, recited quotes from intelligent and respected people through the ages, discussing a technological advance of the time that alarmed them significantly. One was from Plato, who believed that widespread adoption of the written word would be the end of dialogue between people, and a reduction of our memory capabilities due to decreased use. Another feared books would be used to spread misinformation and predicted chaos.
The written word and books are ‘technologies’ we now know are essential for progress. However, similar worries about decreased dialogue and misinformation exist today regarding the internet and social media. They are perceived as echo chambers, that spread fake news impeding productive dialogue and tolerance of varied opinions, causing polarisation and social unrest.
Tom’s message was that our concerns about the consequences of new technology are inbuilt. Positive consequences outweigh the negative over time, and we not only learn to live with that new technology, but love and rely on it. We find a way to deal with the side effects (if they arise).
Technological Optimists hold that ‘exponential technological growth will allow us to expand resources ahead of exponentially increasing demands.’ The demands we face won’t always be for physical resources. For instance, the UK and global economy is suffering as businesses struggle to generate enough to revenue to pay staff, potentially causing mass redundancies. The furlough scheme can hold back the floodgates for a short while, but once that’s over and businesses are forced to return to normal, their revenues won’t return at the same rate as their payroll expense.
At Hi, we’ve used established ideas behind supply chain finance, but applied them to a different problem. We’ve created new technology and operational frameworks to offer Pay Asset Finance, enabling employers to defer their payroll costs for a set period of time and have their staff paid more frequently by an external funder in the meantime. This allows those employers breathing space to put their working capital into the business, whilst also stopping employees from having to turn to predatory lending in times of financial hardship. The funding isn’t construed as debt on the employer’s balance sheet and is offered at low rates due to a government guarantee.
Reviewing examples of humanity using technology to overcome problems, or overcoming problems caused by technology, doesn’t give any assurances about the future, but it does give reason to be hopeful. Working for a technology company with a sincere mission to help solve a very real and current problem means I’m lucky enough to be reminded of reasons to be optimistic daily. Between technology, human ingenuity and good sense, I think we’ll be alright.