The U.S. economy is in something of a boom period. Theories about the reasons abound, but it’s inarguable that the technology industry is playing a significant role in the healthy condition of American business. With high average wages and rapidly-expanding role possibilities, it’s no surprise that 34,000 tech startups were formed in 2017.
Furthermore, digital technology extends past those confines to influence every sector, enhancing how entire industries operate: automating what it can and easing inconvenience for manual tasks of all varieties. Even someone who avoids technology in their professional life with invariably accepts it for personal use.
But what can we make of the qualitative impact of digital technology on American business? Is it something to be wholeheartedly celebrated, or must we sound a note of caution? I have mixed thoughts — I’ll elaborate.
The internet as the grand American equalizer
America is a nation of extraordinary contrasts that have only become sharper in recent times. National law comes into conflict with state law. The GDP leads the world yet 40 million people live in poverty. Antipathy between Democrats and Republicans continues to spiral out of control.
Yet beneath all of this, and in spite of it, progress quietly marches on, often unnoticed. And for all the obvious damage that has been done using digital technology — the unbridled rage exposed through social media, the jobs lost through automation — it remains a powerful force for much-needed equalization of opportunity.
Not just through supporting vital causes through exposure, petitions, and fundraising campaigns, it bears noting, but fundamentally through allowing anyone with a modern computer and a decent data connection to pursue their dreams without needing support or even permission from anyone else.
For what is the internet but a starter kit for the American dream (in both of its forms), polished to a shine and made accessible at low cost? A virtual landscape in which anyone, regardless of their color, sex, background, qualifications or finances can achieve self-improvement and stake their claim for a patch of American-style prosperity.
Opportunities abound for digital entrepreneurs
As internet infrastructure has rapidly spread throughout the nation and become a staple, the fundamentals of business that have stood for so long have begun to shift. Rigid company structures are becoming malleable and contending with a surge in entrepreneurial spirit. If you want to leave the safety of the corporate ladder and strike out on your own, there have never been more tools for building an independent professional future.
Consider the rise of crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter, GoFundMe, and Indiegogo, plus the subscription-based support model that now allows content creators of all kinds to effectively draw salaries outside of the typical business structure through systems like Patreon. Even when the financial viability of monetizing YouTube videos was at its zenith, it never seemed sufficiently stable to be a long-term solution — but crowdsourcing is.
And the opportunities aren’t just for seasoned adults looking for reinvention. Over the last decade, college attendance in the U.S. has hovered around the 20% mark, a remarkable stat from a historical standpoint. However, this is also contributing to the perceived devaluation (whether warranted or not) of many formal qualifications, requiring each student year to achieve even greater results to keep up.
Consequently, a teenager today might well envision two possible futures: one in which they continue with the typical system, pursue numerous qualifications, and trust that things will work in their favor, and another in which they work independently to advance their interests by developing their skills, documenting their progress, learning to trade and invest, buying and selling businesses online, building connections, and becoming self-sufficient. With its freedom and creative potential, it’s hard to deny the potential of the latter approach.
Infrastructure must develop to withstand the rate of change
Despite the accessibility of digital technology, there remains a notable disconnect between the tech-savvy and those struggling to find a place in the digital nation. The barriers to entry aren’t merely financial or practical — they’re also attitudinal. Many people, particularly those from families negatively affected by automation, are reluctant to adapt, and many more lack the willingness to reskill later in life.
This isn’t a problem that can be overcome with any urgency, but it’s imperative that the educational system continues to pivot curriculums towards digital skills. Programming, AI development, machine learning, analytics, data-driven strategy: if business is to adapt at all levels, it will need a formidable baseline of understanding.
The growth of American business may be strong as we approach 2019, but this is no time for resting on laurels. The wave of innovation is largely global, and if the U.S. economy is to retain its lofty position, it’s clear that digital enterprise must become an even greater focus.
This article originally appeared on Forbes