When I tell people that I work for the New Economy, the response I often get is, “So is that, like, Google and stuff?” It takes a second for me to explain that the New Economy movement is about promoting the public ownership of wealth and that it involves a structural and cultural reorientation toward what’s good for stakeholders in the community, rather than corporations.
At the recent progressive “Take Back the American Dream” conference, my partner immediately lost interest when I said this. He leaned back and gave a disappointed, “Oh… so like co-ops?” as an answer. Indeed, compared to the exciting world of shiny tablets and nifty smart phone apps, the concept of public ownership is decidedly old hat. Municipally owned utilities, Employee-Stock Purchase Plans, and community development corporations have been around (and prospering) for decades. Looking at the evidence, public ownership is as established as the state-owned Bank of North Dakota and the public-investment Alaska Permanent Fund that they champion.
But his initial reaction got me thinking: Can new technologies become part of the new economy movement?
On the one hand, the tech market is hardly an exception to the typical oligopoly speculation machine found in other industries. Google and Apple control 82 percent of the smartphone market. Microsoft’s got an 88 percent share in operating systems, and in the United States, 82 percent of search engine operations fall under Google’s control, as well, allowing it to practically dictate privacy settings on the Internet. On top of unabashed monopolization, scandalous labor practices, such as those of Apple in China, provide little reassurance that these companies care much for what they do to communities. And the willingness to fuel bubbles evinced by Facebook’s Instagram buyout suggests a mindset as greedy and careless as that of any i-banker.
On the other hand, the culture of companies like Google and Zynga is decidedly more open to New Economy principles than traditional industries. Google’s “Don’t be Evil” mantra, and its occasional genuine willingness to forego profit for the sake of the common good — witness the China office’s decision to reroute through censorship-free Hong Kong — seem to suggest an open ear to end goals beyond profit. Its famous employee perks, no matter how instrumental for retaining talent, still equip workers with nap pods and free onsite childcare. And the concern with employee well-being extends to even smaller companies, such as Tagged, which gives its employees wellness allowance, yoga studios, and quiet rooms.
On average, high tech companies seem more participatory, less hierarchical, and more community–oriented than traditional industries. They also indicate a greater skepticism towards Wall Street bankers, the biggest opponents of the New Economy movement. Both Google and Facebook show a special concern for keeping control of their corporations in the hands of the founders. Finally, there’s also the inherent sympathy of Silicon Valley, a place whose success stems from the public research of nearby universities and government projects. Stanford-raised entrepreneurs should have no trouble understanding the New Economy’s emphasis on anchor institutions and rooted development.
Perhaps the ultimate answer is that the new tech sector offers an opportunity, if not an immediate slam-dunk, for the New Economy Movement. Chuck Collins, in his “99 to1” book on inequality, argues that Occupy should partner with the portion of the 1 percent that is sympathetic to the protesters’ goals. High tech is a great place to start. Less entrenched than finance and more oriented towards experimentation, Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs are more likely to consider a non- Keynesian-spending-or-austerity economic model. In a place where nothing-to-lose-by-trying start-ups are the norm, should find an audience willing to listen.
Thus, we should try addressing ourselves to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, to see if the language of Dilbert and Office Space can speak to the concerns of all of our communities.
Olga Musayev is a recent graduate from Yale University working to bring the principles of the New Economy Working Group to the next generation.