The responsible tech movement is held back because we don’t know what to call it

The technology industry is broken. Regular people like us–or users, as tech calls us– know this. Government knows this. People working in tech know this. Omidyar Network knows this, and that’s why we’re funding a diverse group of thinkers and doers focused on various paths to improve the industry.

A core challenge of trying to build a better tech industry is that it’s easier to name what we don’t want than it is to describe what we do want, or need. How can anyone other than the few who made their billions from tech want companies that actively push alt-right hate, oppress their workers, reduce our rights as individuals and communities and sell us out?

Because it’s much harder to determine, collectively, what we do want, we haven’t rallied around language that identifies the ecosystem we’re working towards and the products we hope we build. And without a rallying cry, how can we rally?

Recently, I asked this question on Twitter:

The conversation that followed was one of the most curious and thought-provoking Twitter threads I’ve ever been part of, and I wanted to document some of the themes that emerged.

In the last few years, a few contenders have emerged: ethical tech, humane tech, responsible tech. But while ethics is a highly established function of a thousand-plus years standing, sometimes the various ethical models applied in the context of technology can seem theoretical or remote rather than actual (that’s certainly what I’ve heard from friends building companies). Sometimes the phrase doesn’t resonate, and if we don’t see ourselves and our work in the language, it prevents us feeling like we’re on the same journey together.

Besides, ethics and responsibility are the processes we follow along the way, not the destination.

And all three descriptions center “tech” as a shorthand when we shouldn’t center the product, but rather the benefit it brings to the people and societies that use it. Increasingly, when I hear someone say tech, they really mean Facebook or Google, and I know we can dream bigger than that.

But why does naming matter? Isn’t it better to just get out there and build the thing?

We need to do both at once.

When we name things, we explicitly move on from “business as usual”. Look at the difference it made to various interrelated environmental harms when we clustered them together under the term “climate change.”

When we name things, we say they’re important.

When we name things, we can know where we’re going (and bring others with us on the journey). You can march for something that’s named.

And there’s brilliant thinking out there on frameworks and phrases.

One small tweet came up with these interesting suggestions:

  • Principled (although of course this depends on whose principles..)
  • Restorative, regenerative; I really liked Sara Hendren post on repair
  • Progressive tech, which nicely and, I think, rightly suggests there is more innovation to be had here
  • Equitable, just, accountable, inspired by Sacha Constanza-Cook’s Design Justice
  • Tech for the public interest (I’ve always seen this as rooted in govtech but that could be just me)
  • Society centred design, led by Projects by IF
  • Flip to more strongly label current dominant platforms as what they are; extractive, reductive, etc. After all, why does only the responsible or “for good” thing have to be named?
  • Mintech as in minimising harms, with the Small Tech foundation as a great resource

But a few things struck me on this Twitter thread.

We don’t start from the same place.

Having worked in philanthropy, Big Tech, small startups, advertising agencies, journalism and for arts organisations, I follow and am followed by a diverse group on Twitter. We have tons of different interests but one shared one; we care passionately about this topic of reimagining the technology that serves us. But we come to it at different times and with different lenses. Language that’s loaded in one country or environment isn’t in another. Different geographies tend to feel the benefits and harms of tech at different times. There are incredible academics, activists, ethicists and thinkers who have been sounding the alarm for years but, for better or worse, many tech workers’ interest in questioning their own power is new. So it can cause problems that we use different words to mean the same things.

Tech workers can be an optimistic, future-facing bunch; if we want to bring the builders with us on the journey — which I think is critically important given we’re working against a whole system in full steam — the vision for where we’re going becomes even more important.

What to call this is personal and political.

My version of “good technology” isn’t yours. You can see some of my biases in the original tweet, and the headline; attributes like fairness are important to me. I have an assumption this needs to be collective; a movement or movements of people working from their different positions and perspectives to push forwards. And, on balance, and even knowing we need to aim for so much more than this minimum, responsible technology is my preferred phrase for now.

You might entirely disagree with me. Given the pickle we’re in because a mere few people got to design and benefit from systems that impacted billions, it seems unwise for us to ignore other perspectives. Specifically, as the industry has been so rooted in a white male Californian existence, we need to more strongly center the interests and opinions of the marginalised communities most harmed by the industry as it is now in any language.

And we’ve been burnt before with language getting co-opted

Tech for Good is a useful example. Back in the late Noughties, “tech for good” was a phrase we used to define companies who put their benefit to society first. They were often, but not always, non-profits and, at least in London, there was a good ecosystem of startups, funders and programs that identified with this phrase.

But, as the phrase became more widely used, that meaning got more diffuse. When companies like Goldman Sachs launch their Tech for Good initiatives, it’s clear the phrase has lost the teeth it needs to set itself in opposition to many of the more conventional “growth at all costs” companies.

Any language needs to be broad enough to be inclusive but specific enough to carry momentum and energy. Which is a challenge given technology itself is so very broad and the needs of those working on this vary; perhaps the better solution, suggested by Rachel Coldicutt, is that these range of terms co-exist under a wider umbrella of responsibility.

Maybe it’s a good thing that language outlives its purpose; when the thing we used to strive for simply becomes business as usual. But until doing what’s best for more of us becomes the default, we all, especially tech workers new to this field, need common stories, identities and languages to look up to. So perhaps I’m being dramatic with the headline; there is more urgency and energy in this fight than ever. Just think how much further we could go if we coalesced around our destination.

What perspectives or potential language am I missing? Please, add your suggestions in the comments; I’m sure there’s so many framings or considerations not included that we should consider.

Thanks to Erin Hart, Rachel Coldicutt, Abiah Weaver and Stuart Waterman for their feedback on earlier versions of this

Director @OmidyarNetwork's Beneficial Tech. Ex-head Google's @campuslondon. Into communities, London, looks and books.

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