By Mike Kubzansky, CEO of Omidyar Network
Since Omidyar Network’s founding in 2004, we have seen and enthusiastically supported many of the possibilities unlocked by digital tech. We have invested more than $750 million in tech start-ups aimed at improving people’s lives.
Along that journey, we learned a lot about how technology companies succeed and fail. We learned that disruptive innovation and “blitzscaling” can either reinforce or reform the undesirable aspects of systems we are working to change. Ultimately, we also learned that entrepreneurial investments and innovations at scale alone are not sufficient to change systems.
And now, we strongly believe that society must choose to govern the broader digital tech system with true intentionality to advance our society for good.
Today, we published “Our Vision for a Responsible Tech Future”, describing why democracy and society should drive digital tech (not the other way around), and philanthropy’s role in reimagining and future-proofing the system for healthy outcomes.
While others may propose tackling specific harms or solutions, we believe more focus should be on the overall tech system, its health, its institutions, its norms, and — importantly — its governing mindsets (which we tend to take for granted and don’t often inspect). We must lead by first defining the kind of society we want, and then asking how digital tech helps get us there.
Tech is woven into nearly every aspect of society, from helping us respond to global challenges to making public services more accessible. The system, however, has also left many in society behind — and people and communities have been hurt by disinformation, cybercrime, digital surveillance, algorithmic bias, unchecked monopoly power, and more.
We can apply lessons from other major tech revolutions, such as telecommunications, radio, and TV, but the unique characteristics of digital tech — like speed, virality, and scale — present distinct opportunities and challenges that require new structures, institutions, norms, incentives, and leaders.
We are often told that it’s too late, that trying to channel and guide digital tech — as we’ve done with other past technologies like biomedicine — would kill innovation, go beyond government’s capacity, or delay inevitable trends. We reject that set of claims categorically.
Although rebuilding a system that works for everyone is a daunting task, we must change our mindset that there is nothing society can do to influence digital tech’s path. It’s not too late to maximize the potential of tech and minimize its harms. As Carlota Perez elegantly illustrates, we’ve done it in the past. We have the ability — and the obligation — to steer, shape, and govern digital technology in service of society.
Six core elements for a healthy technology system
Advancing a responsible tech system requires a holistic approach:
1. Inclusive Participation
Tech companies and venture investors still employ only a narrow subset of the broader population they so deeply impact with their designs and decisions. A healthy system will require diverse teams, boards, and pipelines as well as de-concentrating who finances, creates, governs, and delivers digital tech. We must, for example, recognize women, young people, communities of color, disabled people, LGBTQIA+ communities, and rural populations as active stakeholders and partners in our vision for a responsible tech future.
2. Stronger Ethics, Greater Transparency
Society has built ethical frameworks for most tech developed in the 19th and 20th centuries — from nuclear energy and biomedicine to genetics and healthcare — and digital tech should be no different. A healthy system is one that prioritizes trustworthiness, ethical frameworks, new norms, and greater transparency. Much greater transparency is essential if society is to reckon with everything from AI explainability to interoperability and more open source usage. Tech companies and government should reckon with tech’s harms, shore up the safety and integrity of their products and platforms, and build incentives that reward responsibility.
3. New Paradigms
Tech is subject to the same mindsets that govern private markets, our culture, and government. The prevailing laissez-faire, over-deregulated economic paradigm has incentivized privatizing the gains and socializing the harms, and asserting there is no role for government in the internet. As we articulated in “Our Call to Reimagine Capitalism”, for everyone to meaningfully participate in our economy, democracy, and society we need a new economic paradigm that places individual, community, and societal wellbeing at the center of every decision. A healthy tech system, and the data economy specifically, requires new mindsets and new business models that are grounded in the public interest, fairness, and collective societal gain.
4. Meaningful Oversight
Ensuring that digital tech lives up to its promise requires a strengthened set of competencies, institutions, standards, and statutory authorities. While we are pleased to see some initial progress on competition, anti-monopoly, and privacy policies, much more work must be done to account for digital tech’s impact on speech, trade, banking, and licensing. A healthy system requires policymakers to help set clear rules and boundaries for powerful tech platforms, and consider new or revamped institutions with new mandates and capabilities, as well as new tools ranging from public options to tax to standard-setting.
5. Expansive Innovation
Our Silicon Valley origins drive our belief in the positive potential of digital tech as well as the importance of start-ups, competition, innovation, and resulting economic dynamism. Today’s tech system, namely the VC financing model, encourages growth and market capture at the expense of consumers, workers, and ethics. New private financing models with longer horizons are urgently needed to support technologists with different values and innovation that safeguards rights, promotes justice, and builds tech for social good. A healthy system also requires government funding, procurement processes, and design standards that incentivize digital tech in service of the public good.
6. Empowered Consumers, Responsive Makers
A healthy system requires that digital tech makers and owners purposefully engage and remain responsive to a broad range of stakeholders across the globe. To do so, technologists need more than the hard skills of coding, engineering, and data science; they need supportive work cultures and professional associations, ethics training, and soft skills that will enable them to openly collaborate, work with integrity, and put purpose above profits. Consumers and communities also have an important role to play in this relationship, sharing their lived experiences, advocating for and demanding better design, and embedding their needs in the design, deployment, and improvement of tech.
Building a holistic, integrated tech system is the ultimate multi-stakeholder task. It requires everyone’s participation — this means moral leadership and material commitments from philanthropists, technologists, entrepreneurs, policymakers, academics, students, consumers, investors, activists, and other industries that both affect and are affected by the digital tech system.
Philanthropy is uniquely equipped to support more responsible tech at a systemic level. We’re able to take the long view, bring experts together across sectors and disciplines, ask the hard questions, help finance new kinds of responsible tech, test new incentives and business models, and help inform business, government, and nonprofit strategies.
Our call to action is simple: Join us. Together, we can channel digital tech to meet its promise. It will require a fundamentally different, more systematic approach than we have tried before, or than lamenting one specific harm, whether in misinformation or privacy or children’s use of apps. It will require leaving behind outdated mindsets. And it will require action both now and in the long term. We invite you to join the many partners, including the more than 40 leaders who helped inform this point of view, already doing the hard work to chart the roadmap for a responsible tech future.
To learn more about these ideas and organizations, read “Our Vision for a Responsible Tech Future”.