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A high-tech light unto the nations

Putting humanitarian aims above commercial interests could turn Israel into a high-tech light unto the nations
Israel should embrace the 'prophet motive'. (Illustrative, Getty Images)
Israel should embrace the 'prophet motive'. (Illustrative, Getty Images)
Israel should embrace the 'prophet motive'. (Getty Images)
Israel should embrace the ‘prophet motive’. (Getty Images)

For young Jews today, there has always been an Israel. As a result, they are not always so sure why the world needs such a place. They see conflict there, some see oppression. They have likely heard that Jimmy Carter called it an “apartheid state.” They may even hear their college professors advocate a boycott of Israel. It seems a long fall from David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, who envisioned the new state as a moral and social beacon to the world — a fulfillment of the vision of the prophets. You don’t hear so much these days about Israel being “a light unto the nations.”

In fear that Israel will lose the support of non-Israeli Jews along with everyone else, some supporters are drawing attention to its accomplishments; in particular, its amazing prowess in technology, innovation, and commercialization. Israel’s success in these areas brings to mind Edison, literally a bringer of light to the world and known in his day as the “Wizard of Menlo Park.” But a wizard is not a savior– not a “light unto the nations”– unless, like Gandalf, he serves a moral vision. Can “Silicon Wadi,” Israel’s genuinely amazing equivalent of California’s Silicon Valley, put its wizardry to a higher good, becoming a light unto an increasingly wired world in which so many still suffer from poverty, oppression, illness, and loneliness?

This is no rhetorical question and the answer is yes, yes, yes.

Commercial Success vs. The Highest Good

What’s needed, though, is not just more technology, but technology with a higher purpose from the start.

Technology has always been a mixed blessing, though on the whole, the good seems to outweigh the harm. The flood of technology known as “high tech” has seldom been physically harmful, but it does produce social changes at a pace that outstrips our capacity to figure out what’s happening to us and decide whether we want those changes. And because high tech deals in wares that, to a large extent, don’t need to be manufactured and distributed in the old-fashioned sense, new things like Pokémon Go can become ubiquitous almost overnight.

The sorcerer’s apprentice has set the magic in motion but cannot control it. Can anyone, anywhere? For the most part, we have left technical innovation in the hands of, first, the individuals who enjoy it and have a knack for it and, second, those with the will and the talent to monetize what has been invented. Some of the inventors and monetizers are interested in the social good, but generally in that part of the social good that can be monetized, such as 3D printers and medical technologies.

Meanwhile, those of us who are not the inventors or the monetizers have to take what we get and make the best of it. But what if we as a society asked for what we really want instead of waiting to see what the inventors happen to invent? In particular, what if we asked for technology that would help us reach the collective goals that really matter most—health, happiness, justice, kindness, and so on? This is what I call “technology for society.” If some portion of Silicon Wadi dedicated itself to this kind of innovation, that could truly make Israel a light unto the nations.

What forms could this type of innovation take? Many creative well-executed apps help one to steer away from traffic jams. Still more ambitious apps try and help citizens to prevent tie-ups from happening by monitoring timed stoplights so that drivers spread themselves out more evenly than they would if left to their own devices (pun intended). There’s plenty to be said for these, but is avoiding traffic jams the most we can aspire to? Could some version of these technologies be used to prevent electricity blackouts, guide people out of natural disasters? Could they help people who had been separated in confusion find each other again? And could a person use it without finding out later (or never finding out) that his or her information had been sold to marketers?

How about a free high-quality website on which any immigrant or anyone planning to immigrate can learn their new country’s language in a fun, engaging way? Algorithms could connect people, even while waiting in an internment camp, with others at about the same level or, alternatively, with someone at a somewhat higher level, to spur learning. If Siri can tell you where to get off the highway for some Mexican food, she must have a sister who can chat with you in beginner’s Hebrew—or Arabic, English or Russian?

How about a website that allows all political candidates equal access to the public, thus removing some of the barriers to political participation and perhaps reducing the power of money in politics?

Not Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On

The idea of Israel as a bringer of light through technical innovation is not entirely new. Israel was founded with a mixture of motives. A safe home for Jews was of course one. But there was also an intense desire to bring something wonderful out of the atrocious context in which Israel was founded—the Holocaust. Beyond even that is a mystical theme that runs deep through the history of Jewish culture, quite independent of Zionism. This is the conviction that it is the Jews’ purpose to repair a wounded (or one might say, “fallen”) world—a wound that God suffers even as we do and that even God cannot heal without human aid. In this view, God promised to restore the people of Israel to their land, which will in turn cause the rest of the nations to open their eyes and look up to the people of Israel. Israel’s national symbol, the menorah, was meant to symbolize its role as a “light unto the nations.” In much the same way, American politicians like to speak of the US as a “city upon a hill.”

In Israel’s early years, even when there was austerity rationing, the government founded MASHAV, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs’s Center for International Cooperation, as a vehicle to share Israel’s creative solutions to its development with the rest of the developing world. That tradition continues today.

Meanwhile, something else has happened. Tel Aviv has become one of the world’s foremost entrepreneurial hot spots. Israel has more high-tech start-ups per capita than any other nation on earth—far more. It leads the world in civilian research-and-development spending per capita. It ranks only behind the United States in the number of companies listed on the NASDAQ. Israel, with eight million people, attracts as much venture capital as France and Germany, with their 146 million people combined. As Dan Senor and Saul Singer write in Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle, Israel now has a classic innovation cluster, a place where technology obsessives work in close proximity and feed off each other’s ideas. The success of the Israeli tech sector also owes something to the several decades in which Arab nations boycotted any trade with Israel. This was intended to weaken the country, but probably made it stronger by forcing it to develop products and services of value on the world market.

All this is impressive, but not inspiring to a young generation of American Jews. For them, this is the spirit of Wall Street, not Zionism. Israel would be more inspiring to them if it were known as the country that really uses its smarts to help the elderly, educate the young, assure equal access to legal justice, and lift up the depressed. That is, if “Israeli” meant “of service to humanity” the way “German” once meant quality and efficiency, and “Swedish” once meant progressive, egalitarian and enlightened.

Show Us What We Can Do

The point of being a light unto nations is to set an example that others can follow. Israel has, for obvious reasons, pursued technologies that make up for lack of water. One Israeli company is developing a toilet that needs no water and generates its own power to turn solid waste (even the used toilet paper) into a sterile and odorless fertilizer right on the spot. (It takes only 30 seconds, about the time you need to pull up your pants.) Urine is sterilized and used instead of water to flush the toilet. This could be a huge boon to public health, as 80 percent of human waste goes into rivers and streams untreated and 1.1 billion people don’t even have a toilet to use in the first place.

An innovation like this is a light unto others because it not only addresses a particular problem, but it sets an example of addressing very unglamorous problems that have very widespread consequences. It says to the world, “don’t forget how lucky you are to just flush the toilet and live in a clean, healthy environment. Shouldn’t everyone get a break like that?” The success of this product might inspire others to solve un-sexy but life-threatening problems. That would really shine a light in the darkness.

It follows that I am not suggesting a government-led program of technology for society. I’m not even sure the government should take a hand in promoting such innovations. Let them spring from individuals who want to do something for others; that’s the kind of example that anyone anywhere can follow, especially given high tech’s considerable freedom from the physical constraints of manufacturing and distribution.

To get true technologies for humanity Israel will have to develop mechanisms for diverse members of society (young old; wealthy, poor) to convey their wants, needs and wishes to inventors. It is not enough for our technology agents to be written by engineers, entrepreneurs and investors, only.

Small Enough to Do Something Huge

Israel looms so large in the news that we tend to forget how small it is: eight million people in about 8,000 square miles, or roughly the population of New York City in a country about the size of New Jersey. For that very reason, it has a chance to do something that the United States, certainly a technology superpower, may not be able to do. Israel could use its technological prowess to create a new kind of humane society, efficient not only in terms of speed but in terms of producing good results for people with a minimum of negative unintended consequences. You see a stray dog? An app lets you take a photo, tags your location, and within hours the dog is back with its owner. Not only that, but the information about who you are and where you were when you saw the dog is not collected and put to commercial use. Google doesn’t get to note in its profile of you that you are not only trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent, but also compassionate to animals.

I wouldn’t say that Israel is uniquely capable of distinguishing itself through technology for society. But it does have a particularly potent set of qualifications—a tech sector that is already a world-beater and a strong religious tradition of social service. To make the most of these gifts would be worth doing in its own right and, for that very reason, could make Israel inspiring again to young American Jews and, yes, a light unto the nations.

Todd Pittinsky, Ph.D., author of “Us Plus Them: Tapping the Positive Power of Difference” (Harvard Business Press), is a senior lecturer at Harvard University and a professor at Stony Brook University.

About the Author
Todd Pittinsky, Ph.D., author of “Us Plus Them” (Harvard Business Press), is a senior lecturer at Harvard University and a professor at Stony Brook University
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