Technology — Creating Unprecedented Change and Unpredictable Societal Consequences
6 December 2016
Written by Sebastian Farquhar
Our generations are not the first to be continually reshaped by technology. New discoveries make hard tasks easier, usually making society as a whole much better off. But there are distributional consequences to innovation which cannot be ignored.
The conversation at Philanthropy Impact’s recent panel on technology returned repeatedly to unemployment driven by automation, and the responsibility society has to help those whose jobs are displaced by technological change. An important part of this is to increase flexibility in the labour market by developing solutions that help people retrain quickly for new jobs, and to invest in the transport infrastructure that lets people find employment further afield.
Another impact of technology, which was discussed, is that it opens up new approaches for philanthropists. GiveDirectly, for example, is able to cheaply make direct cash transfers to needy households. It uses new digital infrastructures to enroll households, to carry out the transfers, and to measure impact. It is even developing ways to use machine learning with satellite data to better target the neediest areas. The result is an evidence-based and effective intervention that has been highly recommended by GiveWell, a charity evaluator that does detailed due-diligence to identify the most cost-effective charities to support.
The ability to collect and track detailed data on aid may be part of what is shaping a growing revolution in philanthropy coming out of the effective altruist movement - which the Centre for Effective Altruism, where I work, exists to support. Philanthropists like Dustin Moskovitz, a Facebook co-founder, are turning to organisations like GiveWell, who are part of a movement inspired by the desire to use evidence and analysis to get the biggest impact they can from their donations. As Professor William MacAskill, a founder of the movement, writes in his book, the very best interventions can be hundreds of times more cost-effective than the average ones. Responsible philanthropists have a lot to gain from carefully selecting the best interventions.
Technology keeps changing the world, and so philanthropy needs to change too. That brings with it a challenge - as people with the good fortune to be able to give back to the world, how can we find the ways to do so as effectively as possible?