Ethical Tech Is About People, Not TechJan 31, 2022
I've been thinking about ethical tech for several years now, but haven't yet gotten around to writing my thoughts down. This is due in part to being busy with the day-to-day activities of running Troo Co., the company I founded in 2020 to build an ethical social media platform. But it's also because this is how I sometimes work.
Over the years I've often let my thoughts percolate—for months or years on end—until I feel ready to start committing them to (digital) paper.
Recently, I decided it is time to start putting these ideas down to help me flesh them out, as I prepare to write a book on the subject by the end of the year.
Please forgive the lack of structure at this early stage. Also, if you disagree with something or feel I've missed something, please do reach out and share. Of course I cannot and will not address everything within this first blog post, but I feel it's important to share ideas and get feedback, and I'm open to all opinions. Thank you for reading on...
Long before I was even aware of the term 'ethical tech' I was thinking about this subject. Three years ago I closed most of my social media and other accounts out of frustration with how these companies were treating their users. I felt there must be a better way to run a responsible business in an ethical way, in a way that spotlights the needs and desires of its users. All of them, not just the young, tech savvy white heterosexual males in Silicon Valley.
Over the next year I did a great deal of research: talking to diverse people, reading a ton of articles and books, and defining the best path forward for what I was trying to accomplish. This led to me founding Troo Co. in March 2020, just as the pandemic began.
Since then I've been actively exploring the ethical tech community and connecting with people and organizations within. While there are many people out there with good intentions trying to change things for the better, I've noticed what I feel is a major misunderstanding about what ethical tech actually is, or at least should be.
Ethical tech is not about tech and tech solutionism. It is about people. Ethics is about identifying or collecting a set of principles that serve and protect people. Tech is only a tool. So when we speak about ethical tech, what we should be talking about is how to inform and educate those working in tech on how to be more ethical and consider the needs of all, and how to protect all—especially those they might not immediately be aware of or have an understanding of.
The main reason there is a need for ethical tech is that, traditionally, let's face it: tech as a whole hasn't been very ethical. The model that has been refined in Silicon Valley and exported to the world has been driven by greed, hyper-growth, and efficiency. Companies are encouraged to grow at all expense rather than become a profitable and responsible company offering real value to their customers.
I find it ridiculous to look through some of the tech blogs and see what companies are being funded, and at such huge amounts of money. Some of the "problems" these companies are solving are either entirely missing or banal, or it is obvious that the problem they're solving is that they want to get rich, so they find other greedy people to fund their ludicrous ideas.
Government regulation won't save us from this kind of behavior. Nor will tech solutions such as AI or the blockchain. Only a sincere and honest desire on the part of people who know what is possible can make the necessary changes happen.
In this post I want to briefly share my thoughts on two solutions to our existing tech problems, and why I think they fall short. I'll end with some thoughts on what we can do to do a better job.
There has been a lot of talk in the past year about regulation of the tech industry by the FTC and other national and international bodies, especially in the EU.
Looking back to the Clinton presidency, steps were actively taken to de-regulate the tech industry to foster economic growth. I'm sure Clinton and his cabinet had the best of intentions, but this led almost immediately to the dot com boom and bust, and the problems have grown and grown since.
Of course we need to regulate the tech industry, especially as new technologies are developed which have the potential to negatively affect people's lives. But the government agencies who need to be taking on this work are severely under-resourced, and are outmatched by Big Tech.
Therefore, although we must expect our governments to take steps to protect us from the most egregious harms done to us by these companies, we cannot rely on them fully to solve the current slate of problems. The fix(es) must come from within the industry itself.
Another topic everyone in the industry seems to be talking about these days is Web3. The idea that no one company should be controlling the technologies and our data has merit, but the way things are moving with decentralization doesn't seem to me to be the fix its proponents are talking about.
To begin with, the decentralized web is not actually decentralized. It is currently owned and controlled by a handful of companies.
Even if it were more decentralized, decentralization is not a steady state. Just look at our economy. Take any industry—automotive, airline, telecom—and you'll see the same thing. Market consolidation. As bad as it is for the consumer, as companies grow their market share, they have the tendency to consolidate—through acquisitions, mergers, and other means—to continue to grow, to cut costs, and to build further efficiencies.
This usually leads to an inferior product or service for the consumer.
Decentralization can only work in the short term, if at all.
ETHICAL TECH: A ROADMAP
What I propose is a movement of purpose-driven entrepreneurs who will solve real problems faced by real people, who will listen closely to the voices of a diverse group of people, and will build solutions which take the needs and desires of these people into account.
In this way, we can actually take on established market leaders by offering a better product and by centering our customers, not investors.
Many of today's Big Tech companies started off as 'disruptors' but seem to have lost sight of their mission to serve their customers.
We must do what we can to avoid this focus on investors and shareholders over customers. Unfortunately, we are severely lacking in resources to help these kinds of purpose-driven companies.
But that is starting to change. More options such as benefit corporations, coops, and ESOPs are available, and there are more and more purpose-driven investors open to new funding models that let companies hold onto ownership and governance such as revenue-based financing and redeemable equity.
Several years ago while working as a software engineer I worked part-time as a mentor. When my mentees would come to me with a problem, I encouraged them to think about the problem away from the computer first. "How would you solve this problem 'in real life'?"
By breaking the problem down into smaller and smaller pieces, it becomes much easier to write code that will solve the problem. But something to keep in mind—something that few in the tech industry seem to understand today—is that not every problem is best solved through technology.
Some problems that appear to be solvable through a tech solution simply create further problems—sometimes much worse that the original problem. We see this everywhere today.
Of the problems where technology is a good solution, most are easily solvable through relatively straightforward software and/or hardware solutions. Yet it has become popular within the tech industry in recent years to use AI and blockchain for everything.
This kind of thinking is what creates more problems than it solves. We all need to think smarter about what we're doing, and ethical tech can help us with that. We need to step back and see the bigger picture. We need to think ahead to how our solutions can be used and misused, and what groups or subgroups could potentially be harmed with our tech.
Of course this isn't easy, but if we begin by hiring for diversity of thought and listening to all voices, we can begin to make a real difference.
I'd love to hear your thoughts, whether you're in the industry or not. Please reach out and let's build a better future for us all.
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