“I thought we’re the good guys?”
No matter how good our intentions, people who work in tech will be seen as the new robber barons if we don’t start being more self-critical. Who’s going to step up?
This piece is part of my series about how we can move toward humane tech.
I was talking to a friend who had left one of the big tech companies, and mentioned that I’m increasingly focused on trying to critique and reform the tech industry. He’s a thoughtful young guy, and well aware of the many wonderful things that tech has done for the world, so he was a bit taken aback.
Why would I spend my time and energy criticizing tech? Don’t we have good intentions and cause a lot of good in the world? Or as he put it simply, “I thought we’re the good guys?”
“Guys” is of course very fraught here, in an industry that systematically excludes women and non-binary people. But even if we grant that the intention in that casual comment was to include everyone who currently works in tech, there’s a serious disconnect between how people in tech see ourselves and how the rest of the world sees us today, or especially, how they may see us tomorrow.
There are a few negative stereotypes around people in tech: the thoughtless brogrammer making trivial or meaningless apps, the rapacious investor who only funds the next generation of the Good Old Boys network, the powerful CEO who tramples on people’s privacy. And every few months, we see a beyond-caricature techie demonizing the homeless or advocating a private libertarian paradise island nation for the rich or using puppies as fuel for his yacht.
But overall? The technology industry, and those of us who work in it, are seen in extremely positive terms. We’re given a pass by mainstream culture.
Whenever a movie like The Social Network or one of the various Steve Jobs biopics comes out, there’s the requisite critique of these iconic founders, but ultimately they’re presented as cultural heroes. Closer to reality, politicians of every stripe rarely speak about tech companies and their creators as anything other than brilliant, innovative job creators who are inventing the future. Creating more startups, especially through the currently-fashionable VC-focused model, is treated as an unalloyed good. We have politicians on the national stage right now who are comfortable saying we need to watch out for greedy bankers or exploitativs big business CEOs, and yet none of them will say we need to be wary of tech titans. As techies, we’re lucky to have that kind of support. But there’s a striking contrast when we routinely hear leaders saying we need to hold executives in the oil industry or the legal industry or the auto industry accountable, and never hear the same about tech.
Even more effusive is the way tech products are treated. Product rollouts for new phones or devices are cultural milestones, and new apps or software features are reported on breathlessly and uncritically as breaking news by mainstream outlets with very little technical knowledge. Within the tech industry, criticism is typically limited to obsessive review of things like fonts or icons, with occasional flare-ups of serious issues like security or privacy treated as inevitable flaws, rather than reflective or larger cultural issues or faulty assumptions.
What happens when we don’t have a culture of self-criticism? Well, we can probably guess from every single other industry that got too full of itself: We’re on a path where we will no longer be seen as “the good guys” unless we make serious, meaningful changes. (And yeah, we’re especially not gonna be seen as “good guys” if “guys” stay in place as the overwhelmingly dominant force in the industry.)
An actual disruption
In a time of rising inequality, those who profit greatly while massively disrupting the stability of ordinary people tend to not be seen very kindly. The oil and steel barons of the past were seen as high tech innovators and valuable job creators for a while, until their excesses and abuses earned them a serious backlash.
But when major industries have been guilty of overreach in the past, the criticism and accountability has typically come from outside. Whether it was journalists or activists, the forces that drove real reform seldom came from a process of honest self-examination or reflection.
Now this is where or tech community could be truly disruptive. What if we try to be as innovative as we say we are, and we make today’s tech industry the first industry that chooses to reform itself before its abuses become unacceptably extreme? With such an unprecedented massive cultural and economic dominance, we certainly bear an outsized responsibility to step up.
So I’m asking: Where are tech’s reformers and critics? I respect the work of the tech trade press, but today we need far more entrepreneurs and designers and developers and coders inside tech companies to say, loud and clear, “We’re going to fix what’s wrong with this industry”. A few brave souls are speaking up, at great risk to their careers and reputations, but change is only going to happen if many more of us join them and say out loud that our industry needs to change.
For those who have good intentions but still sit on the sidelines: Are we just going to keep waiting, half-assedly saying to ourselves that we care about these issues, or are we actually going to step up and show what our values really are? Because we should know that the reckoning over tech’s place in culture is happening and if we don’t respond urgently, we’ll deserve every bit of criticism that we get.