Howard W. Buffett, director of agricultural development at the U.S. Department of Defense and grandson of businessman and philanthropist Warren Buffett, delivered a powerful speech at the Mashable & 92Y Social Good Summit. Buffett shared his reasons for why we need to redefine innovation and reintroduce humanity – taking a personal interest in, and action on behalf of the people and causes we care about.
To illustrate his point that technology is incomplete in facilitating philanthropy if its isn’t accompanied by humanity and action, Buffet shared an experience in which he communicated via e-mail with the eldest daughter of a family left without employment and subsequently forced to flee their home in Tajikistan.
Buffett recognizes that he was ‘busy and forgot to pause and reflect on what was actually happening’ – which we can surely personally relate to. It wasn’t until after he’d solved their immediate problem that he realized his focused attention to solving their problem within the parameters of an e-mail exchange didn’t fully grasp the struggle that the girl had to put into getting her e-mail messages to him. Her writing in broken English, walking to the internet cafe and payment for internet service to send each e-mail wasn’t necessarily visible in the e-mails that neatly hit his inbox. Technology – while convenient and oftentimes taken for granted by many of us in developed countries – failed to capture and illustrate the extreme effort and resources that this family put forth in order to communicate their plight.
We’ve selected some of the other key considerations and challenges raised by Buffett;
- The solution to bridging the divide between technology and social justice is to reconcile innovation with the human elements that drive it; we need to bring humanity back into the equation
- Technology has in recent years transformed human suffering into data – number of lives lost during a natural disaster, number of people left homeless, etc. Data and photographs associated with these situations have been so loosely broadcast and transmitted that they’ve lost the power to inspire action
- While technology has made it possible for people to give money, it has created powerful barriers to personal engagement
- Too many people ‘watch on a screen, when they should see with their eyes’
- We have tried to respond through technological innovation; but instantaneous communication and the ability to simply send money has abated our will to act
- Our faith in technology has led us to believe that we can remedy social ills by simply carrying a device, or that a phone can create massive change from within our pockets
- This model of philanthropy leads to short-term relationships during human crises – when the initial surge of media and public interest is over, we simply shift our attentions to the next crisis
- Technology satiates the idealistic need to get involved, but fails to create a sense of personal responsibility to facilitate true, long-term change
- We need to redefine innovation as not just the capacity to act, but include what it has directly accomplished; how many lives we’ve touched and people we’ve saved by Tweeting that ‘text your donation’ message
- Otherwise, we risk having our capacity for caring to remain stagnant, while technology expands
- Need more than just the ability to develop tools, but to empower people to commit their resources, time and actions to a cause
While we don’t know the exact answer, Buffett’s message is inspiring and clear; true, long-term and impactful social good is about more than just the short-term, idealistic satisfaction of texting a donation or donating a portion of your purchase – it’s about being moved to human, compassionate action and consistent involvement in solving a problem, be it local or global.
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