“Doing” digital technology

By Editor of SocialBusiness.org

“Digital technology” is something like a buzzword in social entrepreneurship communities. It’s a step up from “social media” (as a buzzword, not in reality) but it still carries some of the same resonances. Ok, but what exactly can digital technology really do for you? For your social business? For the world?

 Courtney E. Martin, author of Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists and Project Rebirth: Survival and the Strength of the Human Spirit from 9/11 Survivors, wrote a piece at the beginning of December for the Stanford Social Innovation Review called “Transforming Democracy Through Digital Technology: Five lessons from groundbreaking women,” which was essentially a delineation of what she learned from moderating a TEDxWomen conference panel called “Power of Technology to Transform Democracy.” Whether or not democracy can be “saved”  — and by technology no less — was the bigger question here. Martin broke it down into five easily digestible lessons from the panel: 1) “It’s not just you. No one’s got it quite right yet;” 2) “Don’t build it. They won’t come;” 3) “You are not the target user;” 4) “Data is where it’s at;” and last but certainly not least, 5) “Optimism is the technology we need most.” The point is that everyone is struggling and trying to negotiate digital technology with larger questions of democracy, civic action and citizenship. Martin’s last point, about promoting optimism, was echoed by the founder of Girls Who Code, Reshma Saujani. But the Girls Who Code ‘About’ page isn’t filled with optimism, really at all. Take a look at some of the stats:

Today, just 3.6% of Fortune 500 companies are led by women, and less than 10% of venture capital-backed companies have female founders. Yet females use the internet 17% more than their male counterparts and represent the fastest growing demographic online and on mobile, creating more than two-thirds of content on social networking sites. Technology companies with more women on their management teams have a 34% higher return on investment, and companies with women on technical teams increases teams’ problem-solving ability and creativity. 

The numbers speak for themselves. By 2018, there will be 1.4 million computer science-related job openings, yet U.S. universities are expected to produce enough computer science graduates to fill just 29% of these jobs. And while 57% of bachelor’s degrees are obtained by women, less than 14% of computer science degrees are awarded to women.

And yet. “Forget the bells and whistles—a lot of these entrepreneurs voiced that the most difficult hurdle they face is getting people to believe in the political and democratic process again,” Martin wrote. “All the websites and apps in the world can’t substitute for the fundamental power of people believing that a) this nation is still ‘perfectible’ and b) they are part of the solution.” And so, maybe the reality of it all is that technology isn’t the place for answers but a place to create more questions about how to innovate, which means, how to fail and push forward in light of whatever it is you want to do with social entrepreneurship.

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