New York’s Tech Transformation Must Serve the Public Interest

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s decision to rely on Eric Schmidt and Bill Gates to re-imagine how New Yorkers incorporate technology into our 21st-century economy and into the future of learning is smart and dangerous.

COVID-19’s painful disruption of business-as-usual across almost every aspect of daily life has blown up the status quo. Rather than rebuild the old world on the rubble, the governor has wisely recognized we have a chance to think anew.

Bill Gates (left) former CEO of Microsoft, Eric Schmidt (Right) Former CEO of Google
Bill Gates (left) former CEO of Microsoft, Eric Schmidt (Right) Former CEO of Google

Gates, the former Microsoft CEO, and Schmidt, the former Google CEO, are two remarkable technology leaders. Asking them to apply their imaginations to improving our classrooms, our medical clinics, and our businesses at a moment when progress-preventing inertia has been pummeled has merit.

Yet both are champions of Big Tech’s quest for big profits. In our new gilded age, the extraordinary degree to which our market economy favors the wealthy and leaves behind the poor has, among other crises, caused a democracy-damaging digital divide. Since the internet and the tech world it enables are now fundamental elements of life, the roughly 20% who struggle to afford access to it — nearly 4 million New Yorkers — are unable to act as full citizens.

Neither Gates nor Schmidt has demonstrated much concern about the impact of the digital divide they helped create. As leaders of private companies, the focus was elsewhere. As leaders of public commissions, it cannot be.

To temper the dangers of allowing billionaire businessmen to make policy, we must provide clear guidelines driven by the public interest. We should insist upon the following:

The COVID-19 catastrophe that has wrought such havoc in New York has also created an opportunity to accelerate transformations well underway that can improve people’s lives. For benefits to be broad-based, our elected officials must ensure that recommendations from commissions led by corporate chieftains truly serve the public interest.

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Originally appeared as op-ed with Albany Times Union on 6/30/2020:

#NewYorker, historian, author & believer in government & business working *together* towards a better quality of life for all.