Better Tech: Mind the Gaps ‘19

On tools for clairvoyance, reframing digital ethics as risk assessment, and a crazy sweet day.

On May 21, we met at Studio in Malmö, Sweden, to learn hands-on tools for building responsible tech, understand how to create products aligned with people’s values, and discuss digital ethics. How did it go? Glad you asked!

As tech grows, we crumble

It’s no news that digital tech contributes to a host of political, socioeconomic, and who-knows-what-other-kinds-of problems.

Recently, Center for Human Technology lead by Tristan Harris has presented a new agenda for tech. They started by grouping all the issues we’re aware of — increase in teen suicides, intensified polarisation, AI bias, aggravated attention struggles, etc. — under an umbrella term “human downgrading.”

Virtually everyone agrees we need to take this downgrading seriously and do something to fix tech. It’s this something, however, that’s so elusive and thorny: the financial model’s rigged, the incentives are off, the client doesn’t care, how do you measure this stuff, not to mention the unpredictability inherent to the humans at the core.

What to do?

Mind the Gaps was born out of this frustration. Frustration over the fact that we agree something needs to be done but don’t know what that something looks like. We knew we needed to get answers to questions such as:

  1. How do you advocate for responsible tech?
  2. How do you predict and mitigate unintended consequences?
  3. How do you build technology aligned with people’s values?

We gathered experts who’ve worked for long with the topics of ethics, unintended consequences, and how to steer the industry in a more reasonable direction. They presented their lines of thought, their frameworks and tools for more humane tech, their experience in this endeavour.

We were blessed with the most engaged audience I’ve ever seen, deeply caring about doing the right thing. The compact audience consisted of consultants, freelancers, people from large corps, the public sector, and activists joining to learn and discuss the heck out of it all.

What we’ve learnt

The day was a mix of keynotes, Q&A’s, and breakout sessions all revolving around how to design and build better tech, interspersed with passionate discussions during the breaks.

For me, the learnings have taken the following shape over the past few weeks:

There is a big difference between being aware of the detrimental impact of your services — e.g. knowingly employing dark patterns — and not being able to predict the consequences of your actions and decisions, Strava’s heatmap being the perfect go-to example.

Whether we’re talking ethics or unintended consequences, however, it might be an idea to reframe the entire discussion as “risk assessment”. Without losing substance, asking “what happens if we act this way / release this feature”, shifts gears from a philosophical discourse to tangible, business talk.

(Ethics pays is a fantastic argument to keep at hand at all times.)

Answering the “what happens if…” is no simple feat, but here are a few tools that might help you tackle the challenge:

(We’ll be back with a deeper dive into each of them.)

Once everyone understands this is not just about charity or some ambiguous good (#1), but we’re talking real consequences whose outcomes can be expressed in (a decline in) cash, trust, or business (#2), change should prove much easier to implement.

Just like you run stand-ups and demos on a regular basis, evaluating shifting risks that each new feature and service carries needs to be an integral part of your day-to-day. Designing Ethically developed by Katherine is one way to look at it, Human Systems has a different approach altogether.

What’s next?

For us, it’s evaluation time now — we’re looking hard at the feedback from everyone, figuring out ways to improve the future iterations of Mind the Gaps.

One thing is clear already: there’s no silver bullet, the challenges in the area are hugely context-dependent. This means that next time, there will be more hands-on sessions and even more diverse set of speakers so that everyone can pick & focus on what’s most relevant for them.

Stay tuned

We’ll be releasing some of the videos and summaries of the talks in the coming weeks, together with deeper dives into the existing tools and frameworks.

Join our Slack, follow us on Medium or on social media. Tell us your thoughts, what you’re struggling with at your work, what you’d like to see more of — interviews, deep dives into tools, workshops, you name it.

So far, the ride has been absurdly inspirational, and we are humbled by the marvelous speakers and fabulous attendees that made Mind the Gaps happen. Infinite thanks to you all.

Conference on building tech aligned with people.