Technology Cannot Solve the World’s Problems

We need the world to solve technology first


The tech industry is one of the least diverse industries on earth. About a third of entry-level tech workers are women, worse than any industry except energy and mining. People from minority backgrounds are extremely rare; at companies like Google and Facebook they total less than three per cent of the workforce. Only around one in ten tech companies have more than five women or minorities in their technical teams. And it gets worse as you climb the ladder — executive teams in the tech industry are dominated by white dudes.
Of course, you’ve heard this all before. But it’s one thing to read these statistics in print, and quite another to experience it for yourself. Once you visit or live in the Bay Area the scale of the problem becomes apparent. It’s actually a pretty weird place, like living inside a strange, modern day version of Mad Men, with more coding, less fashion sense and no smoking. In the co-working spaces, at brunch, and over drinks after work the opinions on show are almost exclusively those of educated, libertarian men. Tech bros hyperventilate about disruption and eagerly parrot the views of their favourite authors on artificial intelligence and augmented reality. They tell you that blockchain is going to destroy the banking system and that robots are coming and that our brains are effectively just really fancy computers.
I think technology makes the world a better place. I’m passionate about that idea. Lots of people in Silicon Valley believe that too. They want to fix climate change, tame capitalism, end poverty and prevent reality TV stars from running for president. Thing is though, the people that are tasked with building these solutions don’t have any idea what daily life is really like for the 7 billion people who live outside their bubble. How are you supposed to build good, effective world-changing technologies when your team of 20 engineers only has two women on it, or only three people who were born and raised in another country, or only one person who’s ever experienced discrimination based on their sexuality or religious beliefs?
Big problems — the kind we need to solve to create 21st century societies that are fair, prosperous and life sustaining — are soft, social, anthropological problems. They don’t fit in boxes. They can’t be solved by a bunch of white guys engaged in groupthink, no matter how smart they are, or how hard they’re trying to correct for bias. If tech companies are serious about doing this stuff right then genuine diversity isn’t just a ‘nice to have,’ it’s a global economic imperative. Put even more simply: if you want to use technology to solve the world, then you need the world to solve the technology first.
This is hard. It means a genuine rethink of hiring practices. It means risking failure (something the tech industry prides itself on). It requires listening to different points of view. It means watching out for inbuilt tendencies to dismiss people because they don’t look like you or think like you or use the same language or assumptions. And these are just words. It doesn’t cost us anything to write them down in a newsletter. It’s easy to talk about good intentions in a company report, or to proclaim you’re tackling your gender problem by hiring one more woman to the leadership team. It’s a lot harder to foster create genuine diversity, with the kinds of thinking and perspectives that genuinely challenge your own. But if we can pull it off… then the reward is better financial returns, more robust systems, more democratic technologies and hopefully, the emergence of an economy that we’re all proud to be a part of.

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Thanks to Reggie Watts for this pic (and apologies for the blatant copyright infringement)