Paula Goldman
Vice President and Global Lead, Tech and Society Solutions Lab

How to Solve the Disjuncture between Tech… and Everybody Else

At the Tech and Society Solutions Lab, we’re focused on what’s happening in tech, and thinking about how we best anticipate and prevent the ways tech can go sideways. In other words, maximizing tech’s contributions to the world and minimizing future regret.

As part of this effort, we recently commissioned research firm Protagonist to study the narrative landscape around responsibility in tech. We wanted to better understand the ways in which the industry is viewed, from both inside and out. Protagonist poured over 25,000 digital conversations — in mainstream media, tech media, and in online forums of tech employees and insiders (including Reddit threads, Y Combinator boards, etc.). They used natural language processing to spot trends–starting in January 2017 and into early 2018.

The findings show a large gap between the media discourse and how tech insiders interpret the same series of events. If we’re going to find productive solutions to these important concerns and ways out of these crises, we need to change that. We share a summary of findings as a call to action.

Findings
  • The conversation is accelerating. It will surprise no one that the volume of conversation on tech responsibility increased exponentially in the last year. To be precise, it increased 10x between January and December 2017 — and is on an even greater pace into 2018. Of course, the volume rises with major events and scandals (e.g., there were spikes around Charlottesville as concerns grew that tech platforms were being used to propagate hate, as well as around the departure of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick) and falls when they dissipate. But just because Facebook’s stock price has gone back to normal doesn’t mean new crises for tech won’t cause even bigger media stirs. The trend is growing, not going away.
  • There’s a deep disconnect between the most vocal critics and tech employees. While journalists (both mainstream and tech) have written numerous pieces on topics ranging from algorithmic bias to tech addiction and job loss, some tech employees have created and engaged in active counternarratives that have had far more impact within their own circles. For example, the “homo deus” narrative (almost entirely propagated by tech employees) basically argues that the ends of disruption via tech justify the means. The “algorithms don’t lie” narrative argues that algorithms are not biased — they just reflect the reality of differences between social groups. These narratives may not represent the majority of tech employees, but they do represent an important voice.
  • Diversity appears to be a key wedge issue. In some cases, the tremendous critique around the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley has led to steps forward like new investments in apprenticeships. But no other issue has generated quite as much backlash from tech employees. Conversation threads are full of resentment and narratives around reverse discrimination. “…When it comes to hiring for a company, hire the best candidate. I have often seen less deserving candidates being hired just because the managers have to meet diversity quotas,” read one comment on Reddit. We also know that this is an area in which opponents of diversity are actively organizing.
  • Some tech workers don’t feel they can speak up without losing their jobs. Another common thread was that it was unfair to expect programmers — or others for that matter — to make the hard decisions that were seen as management responsibility. “If you want teeth in ethics, make it the right of programmers to refuse, not their responsibility to refuse,” read one comment thread on Y Combinator. “If instead you make it so they can’t lose their job over it, then we’d be talking.”
What to do about it?

We know that when conversations are this divided they can become explosive. We are at a critical juncture to advance approaches to bridge this divide and make responsible approaches normative within tech. While these are by no means exhaustive and represent only a small piece of what’s needed, here are some suggestions for what we in tech can do to promote a solutions-oriented response to the crisis in our industry:

  • Give employees ways to overcome the dissonance between “I care about this” and “There’s nothing I can do about it.” A number of tools are on their way to help technologists better anticipate and prevent unintended consequences from the products they develop — from new dashboards that measure in real time the impact of specific technology in the world to toolkits that help product managers anticipate future risks. To make real progress, however, employees need to feel they have a voice and agency in the decisions around the tech they’re being tasked to build. If you’re an executive at a tech company, find ways to publicly praise and welcome those in your ranks who spot ethical risks and possible solutions–before such issues hit the press.
  • Call out the good as well as the bad. When Google recently announced a suite of new tools, they got criticized for masking an AI voice as human, but praised for modifications to YouTube to limit user addiction. These two sentiments can co-exist but usually they don’t — we only hear about what’s gone wrong. The net of this is that companies taking risks to do the right thing (and I hear about many, but only in private conversation) do not share their learnings because the environment is so toxic that they anticipate only downside for doing so. Critique is invaluable. We also need to shine a collective spotlight on what good looks like to inspire more creative risk-taking and progress towards that end.
  • Strengthen feedback loops between people affected by tech products and those designing them. Lots has been said about the importance of diverse hiring to increase empathy for how users are affected. We agree. We also think it’s super important to see firsthand how users are affected by tech products. One of the reasons that the attention crisis has captured the attention of technologists is that we’ve personally witnessed how smartphones are affecting our kids, and us. Let’s replicate that kind of exposure on other issues in our product design loops.
  • Help us find a name. The vast majority of technologists want to do the right thing. A growing number would take material risk to move in that direction. But how do they find each other and inspire those on the fence to come along for the ride? Like all other movements, we need a name. All suggestions welcome. Seriously. DMs are open (@pdgoldman).
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