Talent is Not Universal

The movie Being John Malkovich features a wacky wormhole where people slide down a chute originating in a Manhattan office and end up occupying a portion of John Malkovich’s psyche (and later get dumped near a highway in New Jersey). The person who finds the wormhole is played by John Cusack, an aspiring puppeteer, who discovers that the wormhole allows him to enter Malkovich’s mind and experience what Malkovich experiences. Then, he finds that with effort, he can manipulate Malkovich’s behavior, as well. At one point, Cusack takes over Malkovich’s body and uses Malkovich’s platform as a famous actor as an opportunity to express his own puppeteering talents. At the end of the movie, though, Cusack’s character ends up “locked” in the psyche of a baby, whose experiences he has access to, but whose actions he is entirely unable to control. (The Jester thanks Christoph Derndorfer (@random_musings) for tweeting his appreciation for the previous movie-related post. Derndorfer may have created a monster for which the Jester takes no responsibility.)

The Jester felt a little bit like the trapped Cusack as he sat on a panel about ICT4D last week at UC Berkeley (audio available here). The panel featured Megan Smith (head of Google.org), Eric Brewer (head of TIER),  Wayan Vota (head of Inveneo‘s education efforts in Tanzania), and Kentaro Toyama (head occupied by the Jester). Toyama made a valiant effort to counter the surprisingly unrestrained technological utopianism of the rest of the panel, through his well-worn and by now utterly snooze-worthy claim that technology only amplifies human intent and capacity.

The Jester would have loved to jab at the more insidious claims being propagated by the other panelists, but he proved to be no Cusack in his ability to control Toyama. Toyama muffled this poor Jester. But, now that the Jester is back in his own mind, he’ll have his say!

Two statements stuck out for the Jester. First, Smith mentioned an old adage (apparently quoted in a recent book on social entrepreneurship by Rye Barcott), “Talent is universal; opportunity is not.” Then, Brewer followed up with, “Technology is what makes development possible.” These statements are remarkable for their clarity and their apparent truth. They seem unassailably true. And, they lead to a conclusion that working on technologies that deliver opportunity is the most sensible thing.

Yet, they mask complexity that if carefully disentangled, would suggest altogether different policies. Since both are huge Gordion knots, the Jester will save the second statement for another post, and consider just the first here. Appropriately, it addresses a theme raised by Being John Malkovich: Could every puppeteer have a successful career, if they could just have the opportunity to be John Malkovich? Is opportunity really the only thing that dollar-a-day people are missing?

When Smith mentioned the quote, there was a hush in the room. Everyone wants to believe that talent is universal. Smith went on to comment on the second clause, as if the first clause was obvious and to be taken for granted. Decades of progressive and politically correct thinking have pounded this belief into so many of our neurons, that no one questions it. 

The unfortunate reality, however, is that talent is NOT universal. There’s a tendency to take a truth that is meant to apply to whole groups — i.e., that no particular ethnic group has more or less talent than others — and apply it to individuals. But, people are not equally talented, by any reasonable definition of “talent.” Whether one believes talent to be fully inherited or sculpted by a range of environmental forces (including genetic endowments, nutrition, upbringing, education, social influences, individual efforts, etc.), talent is universal only in the same way that height is universal. Sure, everyone has some height. But, some people are taller than others.

Smith, as a VP at Google, is herself well aware of talent disparities. Her company goes to great lengths to hire people based on talent, weeding out anyone who cannot pass a few IQ tests or muster the many talents needed to impress interviewers. If talent really were universal, and Google.org were hoping to do something about equalizing opportunity, why don’t they randomly select people from the low-income parts of the world and hire them to fill out the team? Why waste the opportunity of a high-paying job on someone who needs the wealth less than another person of equal talent? Obviously, talent is not universal.

Obviousness doesn’t prevent us from wanting to believe the fairy tale that talent is universal, though. It’s romantic to believe we are all equal in talent. It aligns with traditionalists wanting to believe that outcomes are due to personal effort alone, and it jives with progressives who want to believe that we are all inherently equal. The fairy tale allows us to believe that we deserve what we have (convenient for readers, who are likely to have more than what 99% of the planet’s population has). It allows us to believe that meritocracies reward diligence, not luck. It allows us to believe that inequality is a purely social construct, and not dependent on a throw of genetic or geographic dice. But, none of this changes the fact that it’s still a fairy tale.

What’s the danger of believing that talent is universal? It leads to the foolish implication that we only need to worry about providing opportunity, and be largely unconcerned about developing talent. It allows ICT4Ders to believe that providing an online international market is a great service, because talent is universal, but the opportunity to sell to rich people is not. It allows ICT4Ders to think that giving out laptops with Internet access is necessarily an education, because the talent to learn on one’s own is universal, yet the opportunity to access Wikipedia is not. It allows ICT4Ders to pat themselves on the back for building mobile financial services, because the talent of business entrepreneurship is universal, but the opportunity to deal with formal financial services is not.

Unfortunately, though, exactly the opposite of these statements is true. As Smith noted, opportunity is becoming increasingly universal. (The Jester stresses “increasingly,” not “universal.”) But, talent remains as inequitably distributed as ever. The Jester tends to accept a view of talent that incorporates many factors, and under such a definition, poorer people, who generally have less exposure to good education and to social values that appreciate a broad range of talents, are at a great disadvantage in nurturing their own talents and that of their children. Sure, there are some poor families that counter this trend, but they do so exactly by fostering talent.

Talent universalists like to tell stories of a clever village child they happened to have met who managed to build a solar-powered SMS-activated robotic hand-pump from scrap metal. Yes, such talented individuals exist here and there, and the Jester sees nothing wrong with catering to them and giving them an extra boost through opportunities, ICT or otherwise. (That still doesn’t justify any rhetoric along the lines of “devices for all” — why not just “devices for the self-starters” and save some cash for other purposes?)

The deeper problem of prioritizing opportunity over talent development, though, is that it doesn’t address the real question, which is… what does it take to nurture everyone’s talents? People with rare talents in otherwise talent-starved environments have often had subtle but unusual support in their upbringing, whether it was a grandmother who overruled parents to send a boy to school, or an uncle who secretly bought books for a girl to read at home.

If there is something that we can do to contribute to international development, it’s not to pretend that equal access to some technology will offer the opportunity for people to transform their life despite a 4th-grade education. It’s to confront the reality that what we really want “for all” is a universal nurturing of talent. If talent isn’t universal, can we make it more universal? Giving a person access to Google is a minor accomplishment; helping a person become a viable job applicant at Google is the real and meaningful challenge. And that takes a whole lot more than anything any current technology — or any techonlogy on the horizon — can deliver, Nicholas Negroponte not withstanding.

The Jester often hears, “That makes sense, but it’s a huge effort to educate a person. Shouldn’t we do something that can easily impact a lot of people, even if it’s a lot less effective?” Ay. It’s exactly this kind of reasoning that has led to trillions of dollars on foreign aid leading to so little result. The mad rush to broad impact biases us towards solutions that scale, not solutions that work.

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3 Responses to “Talent is Not Universal”

  1. pma4d Says:

    o jester,

    re: talent is universal. one can read it in the 99%-meaningless PC way, but i suspect this is actually meant in the bio-reductive sense that intelligence (whatever that means) is a gaussian and that the distribution is not skewed by race (whatever that means). in that sense, the clever tinker is just a trope, anecdotal evidence that smart people appear in all populations, even ones with severe environmental disadvantages. ramanujan would be another such example perhaps.

    if you assume that framing, then the real failure of the complete statement is that it does not unpack “opportunity” to include everything above raw genetics, from birth control and prenatal nutrition up to culture, education and access. by implicitly limiting the definition of “opportunity” to just education and access, it does (as you say) give the ICTDer the feeling that they are doing “what they can” and that what they do addresses the critical problem in “opportunity.” the dilemma that is obscured by this assumption is: investment in ICT may not be the best overall investment; it has opportunity costs in terms of attention as well as funding.

    imo, the elephant in the room was the rhetorical and values-based point you raise about helping all vs. helping some. eric brewer was the only one of your “foes” 🙂 who explicitly observed that what ICT does is amplify the “next billion” who are already in the best position to be helped by ICT. i can completely respect that position as a pragmatic one – as long as you’re clear on the group on which you’re trying to have impact, you may well have a good chance of impacting a lot of people in an effective way. the position that i question is when ICTDers bring up the folks who live in mud huts and talk about how awesome internet access is because it helps some of them with income generation. would it be better to fund prenatal programs or clean water and help the whole village, or put in VSAT and help the most entrepreneurial? that’s a values discussion, one that is mirrored by today’s american political discourse 😛

    leaving aside these definitional and values-based confusions, my guess would be that the more reflective ICTDers would argue that ICTD does not truly incur much of an opportunity cost at a global level, that it’s not zero sum in practice – that the big institutions (including the gates foundation etc.) will continue to spend most heavily in the big protons-and-neutrons problems, and if a few ICTDers round up additional investment in electrons-based problems, that’s ok (as long as you can grit your teeth and ignore the news articles about “mobile phone app solves poverty!!!” and such). i’m still not sure how i feel about that myself.

    • Jester Says:

      The Jester thanks you for your comment.

      The real issue with a simplified notion of opportunity is when it doesn’t even include education. Of course, if you believe like the Jester does (and you should!), that the deep issues of education in development require more caring, capable human beings, and less ICT (as expanded upon here: https://ict4djester.org/blog/?p=264), then any belief that ICT offers “opportunity” is a bad simplification, at least among the people who most need educational opportunity.

      The “next billion” are, the Jester agrees, more ripe for ICT amplification because that billion often has decent education and reasonable social ties into the top billion. But if that’s the focus, what are people doing in rural Rwanda, rural Ghana, and rural India? There’s some mismatch between rhetoric and demography.

      As for zero-sum-ness and whether some fraction of global aid dollars are forever locked into ICT, the Jester would love to see a diminishing in exactly that fraction (or at least, a rethinking of how it’s applied). Meanwhile, beneficiaries of that misguided funding should of course do the best they can. ICT can still amplify *their* positive intent and capacity. But, the impact will be primarily because of them, not their technology. The Jester would rather that one thousand Eric Brewers be scattered all over the world, than a billion of his wireless innovations.

  2. The Gap to Be Closed « The ICT4D Jester Says:

    […] The ICT4D Jester Questioning ICT for Development « Talent is Not Universal […]

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