The United Nations, created to maintain international peace and security, is failing at doing both of those things, Nicholas Negroponte told a room filled with engineers as part of a forum on Global Technology held by the National Academy of Engineering in Washington D.C.
"Disband the United Nations and start over again," the MIT professor and founder of the One Laptop per Child Association said in response to a question about how to secure consumer data in an increasingly globalized world. The post-World War II institution wasn't built to address the challenges of the digital age, he said.
"The opposite of global is national," said Negroponte, who was famously raised all over the world and is brother to John Negroponte, the former United States Ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush. "I look at nationalism as a disease." (And he has for a long time.)
While Negroponte started the One Laptop per Child program as a means to educate third world children that don't have access to books, let alone the Internet, he found, over time, that the bigger goal was to end isolation.
Though the forum had an impressive array of giants of technology, isolation was one of the few themes that emerged from an otherwise meandering event.
"I don't know what global technology actually means," said Charles Vest, president of the National Academy of Engineering, in opening the forum. Each of the seven panelists were then given five minutes for an opening statement.
Bernard Amadei, the founder of Engineers Without Borders, was quick to team up with Negroponte and steer the discussion toward poverty reduction and international development. "Innovation has addressed the needs of only about 10 percent of the world's population," Amadei said. Our job is to start "addressing the needs of about five billion people whose primary job it is to try and stay alive every day."
"We talk about Engineers Without Borders, but it's also borders without engineers, borders without nurses, borders without doctors," Amadei said. "Literally geography is dead and we have this new place called cyberspace," added Eric Haseltine, the former head of research and development at Disney Imagineering.
Technology in the digital age may be able to easily cross borders, but that alone doesn't solve problems. "Week after week after week we're losing 200,000 people unnecessarily" because of problems with water treatment, medicine and other basic areas that can be solved with existing technologies, Amadei said.
There are competing interests and tech alone doesn't reset basic social inequities. While Amadei and Negroponte focused on using globalized technology to solve problems associated with poverty, other panel members were more interested in keeping America on top. While some may see China's rising incomes and still-hot economy as a humanitarian success story, others worry we're losing our competitive edge.
"In Tom Friedman's terms, the world is flattening," said Ruth David, the former deputy director for science and technology at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). "It's not flat, but it's certainly flattening." While that assertion could spark hope in Amadei and Negroponte, David delivered it with a note of unease.
Haseltine followed: "I'm reminded of a Churchill quote," he said. "A strong commander ... must eventually consider his enemies."
With or without the institutions of the 20th century, Negroponte, Amadei and their organizations will continue to use technology to improve the lives of individuals around the world. For perpetual optimist Negroponte, technology still has that new hope smell.
"Uruguay is the first country to give every child between the ages of five and fifteen a laptop," Negroponte said. "All of them have wi-fi at home, wi-fi at school, an email address. And it's extraordinary: Children are teaching their parents and their grandparents how to read and write."
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