SPEAKERS CORNER - Tech Founders Talking

A series by tech entrepreneurs, anonymous… or not

When The Bottom Line Is Human Dignity

I am not a tech entrepreneur, as such, but the use of tech has been central to the foundation and growth of my business ventures. Without the revolution in technology and communications that began in the 1990s, our then garage start-up could not have come into existence and competed effectively on an international basis with the then entrenched behemoths in our industry. We’ve managed to anticipate and ride various waves along the way to industry leadership such that the effective leveraging of technology (almost entirely developed by others) lies at the heart of our competitive proposition. However, I would argue that all sizable companies are tech companies, so I accepted an invite from the Liberty Project to contribute a piece to the Speakers Corner series.

I would also suggest that this summary represents nothing new, in that technology only matters when people apply it to practical purposes. Simply as one example, take steam power. Ancient Greek philosophers (see Hero of Alexandria) developed a steam engine. But it took Watt and Fulton to bring the concept to commercialization and to change the practical facts for people on the ground by providing cheaper access to power. That power made transportation by rail and water accessible, opening an age of mobility that changed millions of lives. Indeed, that power drove the industrial revolution, as businesses integrated steam and its implications into their models, creating tremendous investment capital, and raising standards of living on a mass scale.

At the same time, the Romantic poets decried industrialization as the passing of a simpler time. Of course, many of those poets were quite rich and enjoyed vestigial privileges conferred by feudalism (Byron and Shelley lived lives of relative ease). From that vantage point they lamented the loss of the natural soul of humanity, as if such humanity should have been bound to the soil and been happy about it. On the other hand, the mass migration of people from the country to the city, which continues to this day in industrializing economies such as India and China, reveals that people will gladly trade the vicissitudes of the land for the prospect of a more remunerative job created by technological advancement.

But the Romantics had a point: such advancement always comes at the cost of change and at the goring of the previous order’s proverbial ox. The saboteurs threw their wooden shoes into the cogs of industrial machinery. The British Luddites fought a five-year battle in opposition to the industrialization of weaving that rendered their personal skills obsolete. Indeed, their name still echoes as the term for those opposed to industrialization and new technology. Technological disruption has real effects on real people and elicits strong responses accordingly, regardless of whether the change brings long-term prosperity and better standards of living in the larger picture.

This dynamic tension between the human condition and technology remains a pressing topic, particularly as the pace of technological change accelerates. A previous contributor to this series pointed out thatgreed is good, in the sense that it provides motivation and a spur to creativity. One cannot argue the objective results, as the profit motive lies behind the applied technology that has increased human flourishing (at least as a function of things like life expectancies and standards of living) since the industrial age. On the other hand, there’s the dehumanizing element of technology in the tendency to reduce individuals to more specialized roles within a vast economic machine. Technologists openly speculate about the mass replacement of human activity on the basis of AI and machine learning, even to the point of requiring a universal basic income in place of the dignity of work. Huxley’s Brave New World, in which humans become mere outcomes of a breeding and conditioning process with preordained roles in a structured society, seems less and less like fiction.

Bringing this back to the scale of entrepreneurship, I would argue that we can find a guide for our behavior in the bigger picture if we consider the fundamental purpose of a business. For sure, a business must make money, else it will not exist. So, profit represents a sine qua non for business existence just as food, clothing, and shelter does for the existence of any person. But no one would argue that those basic necessities are themselves the purpose, or end, of human existence. And nor should anyone argue the same regarding business profits. On the contrary, a good business sits at the confluence of enlightened self-interest and the common good. When we run our businesses well, we solve problems for our customers and improve their lives (else, why would they transact with us in the first place?). When we run our businesses well, we provide growth opportunities for our employees as well as economic stability for them. And, when we run our businesses well, we provide the same opportunities for our own vendors and for their employees. In other words, a business ought to exist to increase human thriving through all aspects of its activity.

Human dignity lies at the heart of this understanding: the recognition that each person our businesses touch exists as an end in and of themselves. Customers are not some notional group of disembodied people to be segmented and marketed to in order to elicit Pavlovian responses, but rather actual people whom we touch with our business activity. Employees cannot be mere cogs in a machine to be optimized and discarded, but rather are individuals seeking both their daily bread and personal fulfillment through the work they do. Vendors cannot be viewed as opponents in a zero-sum game of profit, but rather are to be treated as partners in the co-creation of something meaningful. There’s a reason that Jim Collins’ research into the most successful business leaders (he calls them Level 5 Leaders) reveals the common trait of humility: great leaders (and great businesses) prioritize the dignity of others.

So, I would encourage us to remember this as businesspeople as we go about our daily affairs and as we engage in the public square. The intersection of technology and disruption is nothing new and, indeed, leads to great goods for great numbers of people. But we should remember that technology (just like our own businesses) should serve people and lead to human flourishing. When we prioritize the dignity of the individual, we will make decisions that lead to that outcome.