Silicon Valley has a plan for saving the world from Silicon Valley

24 Feb Silicon Valley has a plan for saving the world from Silicon Valley

One of the best things about crippling global poverty… is the start of a sentence you don’t often read.

Let me rephrase that. Global poverty sucks. But perhaps the one and only good thing about it is that it might be surprisingly inexpensive to ameliorate.

“Surprisingly inexpensive” is, of course, a relative term. So let’s put a dollar figure on it.

According to one estimate by Laurence Chandy and Brina Seidel of the Brookings Institution, the cost to lift every person above the international poverty line is a mere $66 billion.

$66 billion!

That’s significantly less than Apple earned in just its last fiscal quarter, and “roughly what Americans spend on lottery tickets every year…” writes Annie Lowrey in a fascinating portrait on GiveDirectly in the New York Times (more on GiveDirectly in a minute).

Implicit in Lowrey’s comment is the idea that instead of just throwing our money away on worthless lottery tickets, Americans could simply pay the world’s poor to stop being poor.

[Thinking face emoji]

How would that work exactly? Would it work? And is it even logistically feasible?

Feasible—yes, thanks to technology.

In days past, writes Lowrey, “distributing cash aid in a country with little to no banking infrastructure outside major cities would have required an extraordinary amount of manpower, not to mention introducing the risk of robbery and graft. But dirt-cheap mobile phones with pay-as-you-go minutes began flooding into sub-Saharan African markets in the 2000s. Enterprising Ghanaians, Kenyans and Nigerians started to use their minutes as a kind of currency. In 2007, Vodafone and the British Department for International Development together built a system, called M-Pesa, for Kenyans to transfer actual shillings from cellphone to cellphone. An estimated 96 percent of Kenyan households use the system today.”

So we’ve got a working infrastructure, with a marginal cost of electronic cash transactions that’s essentially zero.

Now we just need the funds. Ready, Americans? Um… Americans…?

“American taxpayers might be perfectly happy to fund education for young women in poor countries or vaccinations for schoolchildren. But they might balk at the idea of showering money on poor, unstable countries. “The visual of putting a pill in a kid’s mouth is so much more attractive to people,” Said [public health and development expert Amanda] Glassman'”

In other words: cash distribution has a marketing problem.

And so… like any good marketer, cash distribution charities like GiveDirectly retargeted their fundraising efforts to focus on a market segment they knew would have an interest: Silicon Valley robber barons.

GiveDirectly may be a charity, but it speaks in the argot of Silicon Valley. It is a platform, connecting donors and recipients, that prides itself on low overhead and superior analytics. It disdains what it sees as the bloated, expensive, stuck-in-their-ways incumbents that dominate the nonprofit space. And it even has a privileged bootstrapping creation story, beginning with its 20-something founders batting the idea around in Harvard Square academic buildings and scraping together money from friends.”

Hmm… not convinced yet, robber barons? I didn’t think so. But then there’s this:

“Silicon Valley has recently become obsessed with basic income for reasons simultaneously generous and self-interested, as a palliative for the societal turbulence its inventions might unleash. Many technologists believe we are living at the precipice of an artificial-intelligence revolution that could vault humanity into a postwork future. In the past few years, artificially intelligent systems have become proficient at a startling number of tasks, from reading cancer scans to piloting a car to summarizing a sports game to translating prose. Any job that can be broken down into discrete, repeatable tasks — financial analytics, marketing, legal work — could be automated out of existence.”

Wait, did that say marketing? Things just got real…

Okay, so GiveDirectly made Silicon Valley an offer it couldn’t refuse—not just a chance to help the world’s poor, but a bona fide “proof of concept” for basic income. And by all accounts, the trial runs are working quite well.

But fast-forward a decade or two. Jeff Bezos owns and operates most of the world’s robots, and U.S. unemployment is passing 80%. Are mobile cash payments sustaining the demand for Amazon products in America, while keeping rioters off the Mar-a-Lago White House lawn?

We’ll explore this hypothetical in my next post, tentatively titled: “The day they started direct-depositing monthly wages into my Candy Crush account.”


Image from Business Insider/Tristar Pictures:


Jonathan Katz
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