“We shape our technology; then technology shapes us.”
This article first appeared on doteveryone’s Medium page.
It’s time to make sure we’re building technology that’s responsible.
By Sarah Drinkwater, Director of the Tech and Society Solutions Lab, Omidyar Network
Churchill famously said we shape our buildings, then they shape us, but I think the same could be said about the technology we use. From relying on our mapping apps over memory, to how texting has shifted which finger we use to switch off the light (if you’re under 30, it’s likely to be your thumb not your index finger), there are so many ways both big and small that our lives are influenced by tech.
Those two examples are comparatively benevolent, but in the last few years, we’ve seen a tidal wave of crises in the spotlight, from declining attention spans due to the black mirrors in our pockets, data being used to reflect the worst of human biases back to us, to digital illiteracy causing further inequality.
Growing up with a developer dad and computers always in our home, I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t excited about where tech progress could take us, of the intoxicating promise the early years of the internet held for deeper human connection and democratised access to all the knowledge you could possibly want.
Simply put, tech can and should help us do and be more; too much of the time right now, it’s not.
Having spent years working with founders and product teams, and as an optimist by nature, I don’t believe that most products are dreamt up with bad intent. Our understanding and perspective of how technology has influenced our lives, our elections, and our systems is shifting dramatically and many of the challenges we face now were unthinkable even a few short years ago.
The most important thing to remember is that, like buildings, tech is built and shaped by humans. Whilst control is still in the hands of too small and similar-looking a group, we, both as consumers and as individuals, have more power than we think. It’s encouraging that we’re seeing more articles in mass market press debating complex responsible tech issues, the emergence of phrases like “time well spent” and products launched at F8 and beyond that are aiming to help us to stick to our own tech usage goals. But there’s so much more to do.
It may be the roll-up-your-sleeves entrepreneur in me, but we need to focus more on developing practical solutions, even if we don’t have all the answers yet. That’s why I left my wonderful last job, heading up a space for entrepreneurs for Google, to join Omidyar Network, a Silicon Valley-based investment firm with a long history of betting on positive returns, to work on this exact problem with the Tech and Society Solutions Lab.
One insight we’ve had is that technical students, our future builders, often don’t spend any time during their education considering ethical dilemmas. That’s why we’re working with partners in academia and beyond to reinvent how we educate the next generation of coders. We want to embed ethical considerations into the core of their education, and expose students to new ways of thinking about their role in building product.
For product owners already deep in building and tweaking mode, they need to have practical processes they can leverage to help their teams ask the right questions before deciding on a course of action. We’re excited that we’ll soon be able to share our EthicalOS toolkit which will help product teams ask the right questions and more effectively identify potential harm. We’re also encouraged to see practical, useful toolkits entering the market from the ODI, Projects by IF and Doteveryone.
And within those product teams, who’s in the room matters. We all know how much more there is to do in terms of diversifying tech leadership, whether gender or ethnic background. But, beyond that, how do we make sure teams aren’t all from the same geographies or have the same educational background?
Then, from how you staff up and treat your team, to how flexible you are with tweaking products that are already live, so much comes back to business models: how companies make money and how they’re funded. We’ve seen the increased diversification of funding models in Europe in the last five years, including the rise of equity crowdfunding and even initial coin offerings (ICOs) that give the founder greater control. But for startups with an eye to scale, the road still leads to venture funding. This means founders need to be more thoughtful about what they measure, and ensure they pick the right partner from early on who’ll be open to flexibility.
We need to urgently explore alternative business models that take us away from MAUs and adverts. And it’s not just about shareholders but stakeholders. I love Salesforce’s Marc Benioff recent comments that include his employees, customers and the communities in which they all operate. I’d love to see a major venture capital fund come out and state that supporting responsible growth is one of their core goals as an investor -something that’s in line with BlackRock’s 2018 investor letter on the need for companies to have a stronger social purpose. Ultimately, responsible tech comes down to ethical leadership and that’s leadership from tech executives, employees, policymakers, media and the many supporters with so much at stake here. Think of the moral courage of Kairos CEO stating that his company won’t sell to the government as the technology is still too volatile and he’s concerned it could be exploited to reinforce racial bias.
Technology is an ever-shifting and complex landscape. That’s why simple answers don’t win but open mindedness and a commitment to working together to test and adopt solutions will. The time is now. We have to ask ourselves: what do we want to build and how will it shape us?
Sarah’s Director at the Tech and Society Solutions Lab at Omidyar Network. Prior to Omidyar Network, Sarah headed up Campus London, Google’s first physical startup hub, created and led a global Google Maps community team and worked with early-stage European startups.