Facebook posts and tweets won’t sew the tears in our social fabric.
Zoom meetings will similarly fall short. No form of modern technology can replace what’s needed to bridge divides that have deepened during decades of disruption in which few have prospered and many have languished.
What’s needed is a voluntary, but expected, national service program that allows people to walk a mile in another American’s shoes. This program — let’s call it the American Service Corps — would send eighteen-year-olds to another corner of the country for a year to live in a new community, complete service projects and interact with folks of varied backgrounds and beliefs. This pie-in-the-sky idea is required in these sky-is-falling days. And big tech can help make it happen.
The tears in our social fabric will only be mended by genuine, in-person connections. Tech can help facilitate those connections, but it cannot be the solution in and of itself. That’s because there’s something lost in transition when we communicate over social media or even Zoom. The inches that separate you from your computer camera introduce a slew of factors that diminish the quality of your connection with the folks on the other side.
There are distractions: notifications from your browser, disruptions, lags in communication that make you talk over each other and distance — you’re not truly with that person so long as there’s a screen between you. Social media is no better at connecting people. To the extent we all have friends and a community online, it’s no secret that those relationships are about as real as Trump’s tan.
The creation of the American Service Corps won’t happen through the federal government. The best bet at a federal solution is a long shot. Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) has proposed increasing service opportunities for young Americans by enlarging pre-existing programs such as AmeriCorps, Peace Corps and City Year. If Coons’ idea comes to fruition, 300,000 young Americans would be able to “enlist” in serving their community. So, even in the best-case scenario, the federal solution will amount to a single stitch in a tear that needs far more mending.
Our tech giants can jointly pull off the largest pivot in Silicon Valley history to start the American Service Corps. What’s more, doing so would align with their missions. Google wants to make the world’s information universally accessible and useful — well the most important information right now is learning how to empathize with diverse Americans as well as how to serve others. Facebook strives to move fast and break things — it’s time to move fast and break down our geographic, ideological and economic bubbles. Airbnb envisions a world in which you can feel like you’re home anywhere — many Americans don’t feel at home in their own country.
These three tech giants alone could create a platform unlike any other: A means for young Americans to identify a place to stay (Airbnb), an organization to help serve (Google) and a community to engage (Facebook). Of course, other tech companies should feel more than welcome to assist with the development of the American Service Corps.
This lofty idea may sound impractical, but it is within their reach. At the core of the ASC is the sort of decentralization and distributed trust that has allowed tech to thrive in the modern era. For the ASC to succeed, millions of Americans will have to open their homes or support those who are willing to serve as hosts, hundreds of thousands of organizations will have to identify meaningful service opportunities and thousands of philanthropic organizations will need to raise the funds required to feed, support and educate the young Americans that partake.
The distributed and decentralized approach to the ASC is also what differentiates this conception of service from options currently available to young Americans. Whereas the largest domestic service programs — such as AmeriCorps and YouthBuild — serve as middlemen between those volunteering and organizations in need of assistance, ASC would streamline that connection. By creating a direct connection between volunteers and organizations, the ASC would improve upon the current system in two meaningful ways: (1) by cutting out the middleman, a greater array of organizations, including far more private, for-profit entities, would be able to request assistance rather than having to go through some bureaucratic process to become eligible for volunteers; (2) broadening the number of organizations and service opportunities would attract more young Americans to seriously consider spending a year committed to service.
Young Americans should not have their service opportunities confined to teaching (Teach for America), building homes (a common task for AmeriCorps volunteers) or community construction projects (a frequent YouthBuild activity). These opportunities are important, impactful and educational but they are also limiting and fail to tap into the full potential of young Americans to serve their communities. For example, more than a few organizations could use a social media intern — the ASC would welcome this kind of service posting. The platform approach to service taken by the ASC would make such creative and untraditional postings far more common.
Furthermore, young Americans should not have to sacrifice in order to serve. Consider that an AmeriCorps member in a place as expensive as California might receive just $15,000 for a year of service. Senator Coons is rightfully proposing an increase in that rate — to $22,000, but even that amount will make a service year a nonstarter for millions of young Americans facing financial difficulties. The ASC, by being more flexible and amenable to private investment, can crowdsource greater financial aid for young Americans stepping up to serve others.
Even with private support, this program would not be cheap. After all, sending millions of young Americans to a new part of the country involves extensive transportation, coordination and operational costs. That’s why tech’s leading role in starting the ASC should be viewed as a short-term solution. Eventually, the federal government will come to its senses and, when it does, it can and must play a role in sustaining the ASC. But, right now, our nation sorely needs a minimum viable product of the ASC to see its potential to weave a tighter, more united social fabric.
Big tech, it’s your time to serve. Will you answer the call?