Posts Tagged ‘Google’

Talent is Not Universal

April 14, 2011

The movie Being John Malkovich features a wacky wormhole where people slide down a chute originating in a Manhattan office and end up occupying a portion of John Malkovich’s psyche (and later get dumped near a highway in New Jersey). The person who finds the wormhole is played by John Cusack, an aspiring puppeteer, who discovers that the wormhole allows him to enter Malkovich’s mind and experience what Malkovich experiences. Then, he finds that with effort, he can manipulate Malkovich’s behavior, as well. At one point, Cusack takes over Malkovich’s body and uses Malkovich’s platform as a famous actor as an opportunity to express his own puppeteering talents. At the end of the movie, though, Cusack’s character ends up “locked” in the psyche of a baby, whose experiences he has access to, but whose actions he is entirely unable to control. (The Jester thanks Christoph Derndorfer (@random_musings) for tweeting his appreciation for the previous movie-related post. Derndorfer may have created a monster for which the Jester takes no responsibility.)

The Jester felt a little bit like the trapped Cusack as he sat on a panel about ICT4D last week at UC Berkeley (audio available here). The panel featured Megan Smith (head of Google.org), Eric Brewer (head of TIER),  Wayan Vota (head of Inveneo‘s education efforts in Tanzania), and Kentaro Toyama (head occupied by the Jester). Toyama made a valiant effort to counter the surprisingly unrestrained technological utopianism of the rest of the panel, through his well-worn and by now utterly snooze-worthy claim that technology only amplifies human intent and capacity.

The Jester would have loved to jab at the more insidious claims being propagated by the other panelists, but he proved to be no Cusack in his ability to control Toyama. Toyama muffled this poor Jester. But, now that the Jester is back in his own mind, he’ll have his say!

Two statements stuck out for the Jester. First, Smith mentioned an old adage (apparently quoted in a recent book on social entrepreneurship by Rye Barcott), “Talent is universal; opportunity is not.” Then, Brewer followed up with, “Technology is what makes development possible.” These statements are remarkable for their clarity and their apparent truth. They seem unassailably true. And, they lead to a conclusion that working on technologies that deliver opportunity is the most sensible thing.

Yet, they mask complexity that if carefully disentangled, would suggest altogether different policies. Since both are huge Gordion knots, the Jester will save the second statement for another post, and consider just the first here. Appropriately, it addresses a theme raised by Being John Malkovich: Could every puppeteer have a successful career, if they could just have the opportunity to be John Malkovich? Is opportunity really the only thing that dollar-a-day people are missing?

When Smith mentioned the quote, there was a hush in the room. Everyone wants to believe that talent is universal. Smith went on to comment on the second clause, as if the first clause was obvious and to be taken for granted. Decades of progressive and politically correct thinking have pounded this belief into so many of our neurons, that no one questions it. 

The unfortunate reality, however, is that talent is NOT universal. There’s a tendency to take a truth that is meant to apply to whole groups — i.e., that no particular ethnic group has more or less talent than others — and apply it to individuals. But, people are not equally talented, by any reasonable definition of “talent.” Whether one believes talent to be fully inherited or sculpted by a range of environmental forces (including genetic endowments, nutrition, upbringing, education, social influences, individual efforts, etc.), talent is universal only in the same way that height is universal. Sure, everyone has some height. But, some people are taller than others.

Smith, as a VP at Google, is herself well aware of talent disparities. Her company goes to great lengths to hire people based on talent, weeding out anyone who cannot pass a few IQ tests or muster the many talents needed to impress interviewers. If talent really were universal, and Google.org were hoping to do something about equalizing opportunity, why don’t they randomly select people from the low-income parts of the world and hire them to fill out the team? Why waste the opportunity of a high-paying job on someone who needs the wealth less than another person of equal talent? Obviously, talent is not universal.

Obviousness doesn’t prevent us from wanting to believe the fairy tale that talent is universal, though. It’s romantic to believe we are all equal in talent. It aligns with traditionalists wanting to believe that outcomes are due to personal effort alone, and it jives with progressives who want to believe that we are all inherently equal. The fairy tale allows us to believe that we deserve what we have (convenient for readers, who are likely to have more than what 99% of the planet’s population has). It allows us to believe that meritocracies reward diligence, not luck. It allows us to believe that inequality is a purely social construct, and not dependent on a throw of genetic or geographic dice. But, none of this changes the fact that it’s still a fairy tale.

What’s the danger of believing that talent is universal? It leads to the foolish implication that we only need to worry about providing opportunity, and be largely unconcerned about developing talent. It allows ICT4Ders to believe that providing an online international market is a great service, because talent is universal, but the opportunity to sell to rich people is not. It allows ICT4Ders to think that giving out laptops with Internet access is necessarily an education, because the talent to learn on one’s own is universal, yet the opportunity to access Wikipedia is not. It allows ICT4Ders to pat themselves on the back for building mobile financial services, because the talent of business entrepreneurship is universal, but the opportunity to deal with formal financial services is not.

Unfortunately, though, exactly the opposite of these statements is true. As Smith noted, opportunity is becoming increasingly universal. (The Jester stresses “increasingly,” not “universal.”) But, talent remains as inequitably distributed as ever. The Jester tends to accept a view of talent that incorporates many factors, and under such a definition, poorer people, who generally have less exposure to good education and to social values that appreciate a broad range of talents, are at a great disadvantage in nurturing their own talents and that of their children. Sure, there are some poor families that counter this trend, but they do so exactly by fostering talent.

Talent universalists like to tell stories of a clever village child they happened to have met who managed to build a solar-powered SMS-activated robotic hand-pump from scrap metal. Yes, such talented individuals exist here and there, and the Jester sees nothing wrong with catering to them and giving them an extra boost through opportunities, ICT or otherwise. (That still doesn’t justify any rhetoric along the lines of “devices for all” – why not just “devices for the self-starters” and save some cash for other purposes?)

The deeper problem of prioritizing opportunity over talent development, though, is that it doesn’t address the real question, which is… what does it take to nurture everyone’s talents? People with rare talents in otherwise talent-starved environments have often had subtle but unusual support in their upbringing, whether it was a grandmother who overruled parents to send a boy to school, or an uncle who secretly bought books for a girl to read at home.

If there is something that we can do to contribute to international development, it’s not to pretend that equal access to some technology will offer the opportunity for people to transform their life despite a 4th-grade education. It’s to confront the reality that what we really want “for all” is a universal nurturing of talent. If talent isn’t universal, can we make it more universal? Giving a person access to Google is a minor accomplishment; helping a person become a viable job applicant at Google is the real and meaningful challenge. And that takes a whole lot more than anything any current technology — or any techonlogy on the horizon — can deliver, Nicholas Negroponte not withstanding.

The Jester often hears, “That makes sense, but it’s a huge effort to educate a person. Shouldn’t we do something that can easily impact a lot of people, even if it’s a lot less effective?” Ay. It’s exactly this kind of reasoning that has led to trillions of dollars on foreign aid leading to so little result. The mad rush to broad impact biases us towards solutions that scale, not solutions that work.

Schadenfreude for Google

January 31, 2011

The New York Times published an article titled “Google Finds It Hard to Reinvent Philanthropy” (the Jester thanks Bill Thies for forwarding). The Schadenfreude in the title permeates the entire article, and the Jester will join in the Freude. Not so much because an entity with deep pockets failed to do something good for the world (that would only merit Traurigkeit), but because that entity started it all with so much hubris… perhaps the greatest sin of international development. Larry Page wanted Google.org to “eclipse Google itself in terms of overall world impact,” and to somehow do it with only 1% of its profits.  

The Jester Googles just like anyone else, and has few doubts about the company’s smarts as a technology company. The Jester’s previous employer viewed Google as a competitor, and so he had reason to keep an eye on Google’s attempts to engage the poorer parts of the developing world.

The Jesterial conclusion is that Google’s strength as a Silicon Valley juggernaut is exactly its weakness in the developing world, and this is a lesson not just for Google, but for other technology companies. Google has a tendency to see everything as a technology problem. Lawrence Simon, a Brandeis professor who is quoted in the NYT article, puts it perfectly: “They were looking for something like a new algorithm — but there isn’t any algorithm that’s going to eradicate guinea worm.” Google, however, persists in the illusion: The title on www.google.org reads, “Technology-Driven Philanthropy.”

Anyone (that may include the reader) who thinks the differences between the developed and developing world can be solved through engineering is overlooking a very obvious flaw with that thesis: The world already has all of the technology it needs for the developed part of it to be developed. The problem isn’t that poor people need culturally appropriate climate control systems. The problem is that the ability to acquire, produce, support, and capitalize on technology is unequally distributed in the world. It’s not a technological challenge, any more than the uneven distribution of gold in the world is an alchemy challenge. (And, the Jester hasn’t even mentioned physical and infrastructural problems, which are decidedly not challenges of bits.)

The corollary of Google’s techno-fetishism is that the company abhors paying for non-creative-class human labor. Google has succeeded in the developed world largely by hyper-automation, by removing or avoiding human labor as much as possible. It all started with Page Rank, which brilliantly recognized that people’s ideas of webpage importance were already embedded in the hyperlink structure of the web, and that that knowledge could be automatically crawled and analyzed. This inclination also explains Google’s beta-itis, where products are left in trial state for centuries. What better way to keep customer service costs low? Even when it does have to pay humans, like the ones who monitor illegitimate content on YouTube, it does so with shame and secrecy.

In the developing world, though, this tendency is the exact opposite of what is required. Google’s attempts to win more eyeballs in poor rural areas, for example, consistently try to bypass intermediary human beings in the communication chain, whether it is delivering health information by SMS in Uganda or setting up rural announcement boards in India. But, as readers of the Jester know, information isn’t the bottleneck! (As proof of that thesis, note that Google’s one attempt to work with live human intermediaries was a telecenter project. If the world’s supposedly smartest company can’t be bothered to learn from the vast critical literature on telecenters, then what chance does an undereducated wage worker have with information dribbling in over SMS?)

Even where information is immediately helpful, it still requires human mediators in the “last mile” who can establish trust relationships, work the human-computer interface, manage cash if necessary, and possibly even provide a little education. That would mean hiring human labor, though, and Google doesn’t want that line item. (Meanwhile, a clever service called “Just Dial” in India uses a variation of Google’s revenue-sharing business model, but over voice calls and with a human-operated call center. Just Dial has turned it into a useful, lucrative business.)

As a result of its developed-world attitude to solving developing-world problems, Google has taken to offering what the Jester calls “thin technology” in the vain hope that just putting good software in the cloud will transform the developing world. Thin technology is technology that isn’t thickly integrated into a working institution. It’s mobile search without trained healthcare workers who can interpret medical information for undereducated patients. It’s Google apps for schools without any attempt to support teachers, administrators, or students. It’s crisis response tools without crisis response teams. To the extent that thin technology is for a world that uses Google and Gmail, some of it might be useful. But, that’s not the vast majority of the developing world.

So, what should Google, or any technology company, do? Strategically, here are the Jester’s recommendations:

  • Ringfence resources, so that the company’s primary business considerations don’t influence what is done. Specify the budget up front, then don’t touch.
  • Allow for a separate goal and strategy. In another technology company the Jester is intimately familiar with, one DotOrg-like group couldn’t decide whether they were philanthropy or business or PR or incubator. Pulled among different objectives, they had difficulty achieving any of them, and the group folded.
  • Disregard mumbo-jumbo about fortunes at the bottom of the pyramid or eradicating poverty through profits. If revenue is the goal, don’t bother with the poor world. Even if revenue flowed in, it will be by profiting from poor people. Is that the real intent? (For more, see the Jester’s post on the BOP.)
  • Emphasize impact over scale. Scaling something with impact makes sense, but shooting for scale before impact is confirmed is pointless, and possibly evil in development, where resources are scarce.
  • If any of the above don’t appeal, stay out of the game. Match employee donations, sure, but don’t pretend to do good while “increasing shareholder value.”

Next, more tactically…

  • Recognize that a technology company’s biggest asset isn’t its technology. It’s its people. What the world needs is more people nurturing, and less technology to solve their problems. Send out engineers to train engineers, managers to mentor managers. Etc.

The Jester doesn’t believe that providing technology solutions is effective in long-term development. In the end, it’s just another kind of charity — instead of giving money, it’s giving technology. However, the Jester is fully aware that technologists desperately want to prove their ingenuity. (Why they aren’t excited about mentoring others to be brilliant is beyond the Jester.) If this is the case…

  • Find organizations that are already effective. (Note here that “well-known” doesn’t necessarily mean “effective.” Any fool can have good PR.) Partner with them in the full, messy sense of the word. Thoroughly understand what they do and see whether anything can be done to contribute to their goals. Technology amplifies existing intent and capacity.
  • Set up (pro-bono?) consulting services for any tools built. Free software is useless to most non-profit organizations unless it comes with training, engineering, and support.

Not a lot to excite a profit-maximizing CEO, alas, but any CEO with real intent in philanthropy should consider pulling a Bill Gates: drop the technology job and move to philanthropy full-time.


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