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Letter from the Editor

The Business Package

  • This letter appeared in the July/August 2015 issue.
  • by Jason Pontin
  • June 23, 2015

In conceiving the stories in this Business Issue of MIT Technology Review, we meant to do business journalism our own way. We chose stories about how new technologies are affecting companies and markets—stories that reflect our way of seeing the world.

Jason Pontin

That mode of perception is mostly concerned with how novel technologies allow people to do things they couldn’t before, but it is cognizant of the formidable challenges related to commercializing products and services that billions will use. We didn’t want to publish traditional narratives of public companies and startups (that debased and debasing genre), nor laudatory profiles of chief executives and founders (because such pieces shed little light upon the ventures and what they make).

This story is part of our July/August 2015 Issue
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Instead, you’ll read about the race by pharmaceutical companies to deliver immunotherapy for cancer (see “Biotech’s Coming Cancer Cure,” by ­Antonio Regalado) and about how Google and Apple are striving to own the operating system of our future cars (see “Rebooting the Automobile,” by Will Knight). You’ll find interviews with people of whom you’ve possibly never heard, like the head of OvaScience, a biotechnology company that adds mitochondria to women’s eggs to increase fertility (see “Slowing the Biological Clock”). The most conventional thing in this package of stories is our annual list of the 50 smartest companies in the world; but even here we hope the selection of businesses provokes.

One of the most dispiriting characteristics of much of business journalism is its relentless Panglossian cheerfulness: it can read like a form of propaganda. But all technological disruptions produce both winners and losers, and the impact of automation and digital technologies upon the most important market of all—labor—has been especially challenging.

In the Business Issue’s anchoring essay, David Rotman, MIT Technology Review’s editor, writes:

“It is notoriously hard to determine the factors that go into job creation and earnings, and it is particularly difficult to isolate the specific impact of technology from that of, say, globalization, economic growth, access to education, and tax policies. But advances in technology offer one plausible, albeit partial, explanation for the decline of the middle class.”

Lord Keynes described the “maladjustment” due to “our discovery of means of economising the use of labour” as “technological unemployment.” ­Rotman’s essay analyzes different prescriptions for technological unemployment and explains why they wouldn’t help (as would be the case with a guaranteed minimum income) or are promising but insufficient to the scale of the problem (like education to prepare workers for technology-intensive jobs).

Elsewhere in this package of stories, a congregation of technology luminaries and business school professors offer their own responses to inequality. They say the “evidence is clear” that the benefits of a digital and interlinked world “have been very uneven” (see “Open Letter on the Digital Economy”), and they “call on business leaders to develop new organizational models and approaches that not only enhance productivity and generate wealth but also create broad-based opportunity,” adding, “The goal should be inclusive prosperity.”

Or as Rotman glosses this approach in his essay: if the returns to capital have outpaced the benefits to labor in our technological civilization, then perhaps more people need to own the robots.

But write to tell me what you think at jason.pontin@technologyreview.com.

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