Why the Tech Worker Activist Movement Is Just Beginning —
And Three Big Ways the Tech Industry Must Change with It.
A version of this article was published in the Spring 2019 edition of Techonomy.
— Michelle Shevin & Lyel Resner
IN a world where technology is now routinely co-opted and abused in ways its creators never envisioned, where its development has brought alarming threats to the privacy, liberty and even safety of everyday citizens — from polarizing electorates, to supporting surveillance states, to encoding bias in social systems — the tech sector is facing growing public pressure to prioritize people over profits.
This is not the first time society has questioned the tradeoffs involved in the advances of technology. It has happened with calculators, automobiles, radio, and even the printing press — but our current moment is different. In a networked world in which technologies can have global reach, the work of specific individuals can influence industries and individual lives at a power, speed, and scale orders of magnitude beyond what most people even a short time ago could have dreamed.
As increasingly powerful actors in the mechanics of human civilization, many technologists are waking up to a new scope of responsibility — not just developing against requirements, but also grappling with civil and human rights. And a growing community of activists, regulators, artists, organizers, lawyers, and educators are working alongside technologists to help ensure that tech advances can create a more prosperous and just future for all.
Tech workers are beginning to vote with their feet and find their voice — which will require the C-Suite to prepare for a new operational reality.
The talent cares
Top talent is increasingly discerning about prospective employers’ records, on topics from gender equity to how they handle defense contracts. Tech workers are increasingly unwilling to work for employers whose corporate behavior they view as unethical.
Indeed, inside of tech companies, we are seeing a precipitous surge of collective action. Notably, Google pulled out of a deal with the Defense Department late last year after a large worker mobilization. Similarly, employees at Microsoft demanded leadership reject a defense department deal, and workers at Amazon started the ‘Tech Won’t Build It’ group in opposition to the company’s sale of facial recognition software to law enforcement agencies. The tech industry will have to contend with the impact of new platforms and organizing coalitions designed to enable change from within. Employee protest and activism is becoming systematized. Coworker.org, for example, is a non-profit platform specifically designed to make it easy for employees of a company to mobilize peers for collective internal action. Blowing the whistle is brave, but no longer rare. Tech workers are finding their voice.
Meanwhile, professional technologists are coming together inside and outside companies in groups to help advance the public good, under the rubric of “Civic Tech,” “Tech for Good,” and “Public Interest Tech.” Some are going to work for socially-engaged and non-profit employers like Amnesty International and the ACLU, which are scaling up their own digital efforts, while groups like Higher Ground Labs, Harmony Labs, and New Media Ventures are helping to provide infrastructure for a wave of socially-conscious startups.
What this means for the industry
1) Discourse over disruption.
Not everyone is enthusiastic about the development of tech. Not everyone is poised to benefit from it. Many communities have justified and reasonable concerns about the way technology has often historically been used (and still is) to surveil, police, target, marginalize, exclude, and criminalize low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. If tech is going to play a role in creating a more prosperous and just future, it is essential that technologists step outside of tech and engage communities likely to be affected or left behind, as well as domain experts in fields they are poised to transform.
Skeptics can’t simply be dismissed as luddites — it isn’t only markets and industries that are “disrupted” by tech; lives and livelihoods are what’s really at stake.
2) Create responsibly.
It’s no longer enough for technologists to just create and hope for the best. New systems are emerging to help them think more critically and methodically about the impact of their creations. Doteveryone in the UK has created a tool called TechTransformed which “helps product teams build with responsibility.” It aims to help developers map the values their product embodies, understand the context in which it will be used, anticipate its consequences, and demonstrate its social contribution. Similarly, the Ethical OS was created by a partnership between the Omidyar Network and consulting firm The Institute for the Future. It includes a risk-surfacing framework that tech teams can use to quickly consider how their product might jeopardize various human rights. Toolkits are only a starting point; in contrast to the classic “move fast and break things” ethos, conversations about values, rights, and systemic consequences should accompany every product sprint in order to properly account for these risks.
3) Companies face real risk if they don’t act.
There is a real business risk for companies that do not get ahead of these issues. They face an increasingly discerning workforce, new waves of worker organizing, changing regulations, and rapidly shifting consumer preferences. It is not enough to say “don’t be evil.” Ethical review needs to be elevated to an ongoing core business function. And as the recent dissolution of Google’s ethics advisory board shows, it will be increasingly difficult to put PR announcements ahead of thoughtful and meaningful structural change. Band-aids wont work: the very DNA of products and business models might need to change.
It’s time for tech to recognize its role in shaping the future and to invest real resources in ethical development. We need to move beyond the dogma of “inevitable change” and “disruptive innovation.” We need a new story about what success looks like, and about how we want to coexist on this planet. From the growing coalition organizing to take back the future in the public interest, the message to the tech industry is clear: Take these issues seriously or expect to be disrupted.
About the Authors:
Michelle Shevin is a Technology Fellow at the Ford Foundation, where she supports a portfolio of grantmaking on digital access, rights, and justice. In her role, Michelle researches the ethical and practical implications of the “algorithmic turn,” the ongoing transformation of business models and human dynamics implicated by the mounting collection and use of personal data. Her insights help to inform long-term strategy, advise grantees, and influence the philanthropic sector and social justice fields.
Lyel Resner is an entrepreneur, technologist, and advisor. He has worked with Google, the ACLU, Girls Who Code, Flatiron School, and The Rockefeller Foundation, among others. He is the Co-founder of Swayable, which uses data science to create more persuasive media for clients working in the public interest. He is also a Fellow at the MIT Civic Data Lab, and is an Adjunct Professor of Public Interest Technology and Social Innovation at NYU.