You might think it would be easy for Silicon Valley leaders and prominent academics to get their action items onto President Obama's agenda. But even the luminaries of the digital age have to exercise a lot of patience, think strategically, and build a groundswell of support.
With last week's publication of their Open Letter on the Digital Economy, these leaders took the first step in trying to build that groundswell. The first two signatures on the letter come from Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, faculty members at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Since their book, "The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies," came out last year, the authors have drawn attention to the digital economy's warts: the disappearance of jobs and the reduction in median family income.
All of which begs one question, for entrepreneurs: If you, too, lament income inequality and the disappearance of jobs, what can you do to make a difference? Inc. recently caught up with Brynjolfsson at a Harvard Business Review event and asked him.
The Responsibility of Entrepreneurs
Brynjolfsson's says the first crucial step for startup founders is to reframe your big-picture thinking about labor as a cost center.
"Too many managers and entrepreneurs look at existing products and processes and ask, 'How can I use technology to automate a piece of this and eliminate some of the labor costs?'" he explains. "That's not a bad strategy, and it can lower costs.
"However, the big wins come from a different question: 'How can I use technology to create an entirely new product, service, or process? How can I combine humans and machines in a way that creates value that's never been possible before?'"
Brynjolfsson and McAfee call this "racing with the machine," as opposed to "racing against the machine." In their view, that's how entrepreneurs and leaders "can do well and do good at the same time, since it tends to create shared prosperity," adds Brynjolfsson.
In addition to racing with the machine, Brynjolfsoon encourages entrepreneurs to join what he hopes will become a national discussion about the digital economy. He and the other writers of the Open Letter--which include venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson, Sun Microsystems co-founder Vinod Khosla, and Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff--hope to spark that conversation.
Starting a National Conversation
In order to even start the conversation amongst the group's own members, they first had to overcome their range of political beliefs and focus on points of agreement. Some are libertarians, some are liberal, and one member "characterized himself as a quasi-communist," says Brynjolfsson. The entire group agreed on the need to fuel a conversation about links between the digital economy and growing fiscal inequalities. In addition, they agreed on a broad list of potential public policy changes and new research initiatives.
So how did they work through their differences? "That's the great thing about Google Docs," says Brynjolfsson. "We pulled together this thing and kind of iterated. And that part was a little bit like herding cats. Because there were some people who said we weren't radical enough and other people who wanted to add some stuff back. So we had to kind of compromise a little bit here and there."
The key to the compromising was the recognition that the Open Letter was "not meant to solve all problems," he adds. The group recognized that even Obama can't get Congress to pay attention to a topic unless U.S. citizens are engaged about it, too. "So if we want to change what happens in Washington, we have to go the long route, which is first change the national conversation," says Brynjolfsson. "You can't just go to the top and say, 'Hey, this is important.'"
Though Brynjolfsson did try to go straight to the top. Last June, he was invited to the White House for lunch. He and other professors and economists, including Paul Krugman of the New York Times, spoke with Obama for two hours.
"Particularly on this topic around inequality and the role of technology, he seemed quite knowledgeable," says Brynjolfsson. The rub was Obama had no plans to take action. Still, Brynjolfsson is encouraged. He cites Obama's mentions of income inequality and the changing economy in speeches last summer and in January.
So why no action? "He can go out and make speeches, he can do an occasional executive order here and there. But unless Congress is also on board, there's sort of a limited scope of how much any one part of government can address this stuff," says Brynjolfsson. "He made that clear to us. He has made that clear many times. That it has to be a broader discussion--and a lot of people have to buy into it."