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.
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 Schmidt commission should recommend New York adopt state-of-the-art privacy protections. The European Union rules could serve as the starting point. Without this, recommendations from a commission run by a former executive from one of data privacy’s worst abusers will be deeply suspect.
- All New Yorkers should have access to 5G Internet bandwidth at affordable rates. It should be free for the truly disadvantaged. Access should be rolled out first to rural regions and public housing authorities, not last, as typically happens with new technology.
- All recommendations must explain how New Yorkers living in or near poverty anywhere in the state will gain access to the relevant technology. A Chautauqua County patient of modest means ought to benefit from telemedicine as much as a wealthy Westchester resident.
- Recommendations for remote learning must include detailed blueprints. The role of teachers and other educators, the technology they will need and how the state will provide it cost-effectively must be described. Horror stories of teachers paying for basic school supplies out of their own income must not be replaced with tales of coerced purchases of expensive technology. Training must be provided for educators and parents.
- If remote learning is to take place at scale, ample provisions must be made for a range of services provided by schools: socialization, vaccinations and health care, nutritious meals, guidance counseling, athletics and team sports, music, theater, and other group activities, for example.
- Small businesses must have competitive access to technology, and we must not promote policies that create corporate concentration, a tendency particularly pronounced in technology-intensive industries that leads to monopolistic behavior. (See Microsoft, Google).
- The commissions should recognize that New York has an underachieving competitive corridor stretching from Albany to Buffalo through Syracuse and Rochester that possesses the elements for successful technology centers of excellence. The hardware, software, and related ecosystems the new world requires should be built locally. They can be with the right investments.
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: https://www.timesunion.com/opinion/article/Commentary-New-York-s-tech-transformation-must-15372261.php