Increase Your Options: A talk at Digibury Weekender 2015

Last month, I was invited by Deeson to speak at the Digibury Weekender in Canterbury, Kent. I thought it was an interesting premise – the theme for the talk was ‘technology for good’ – and I really enjoyed the day – thanks to the organisers. I’ve been meaning to upload my talk here for a while, so here it finally is.

I spoke about the contrast between my role at a media agency, working with startups focussed on making advertising money, to what I do with the Other Valleys and Ada’s List.

By and large, I believe that technology can be absolutely a force for good, depending on the people who put it to use. By itself, technology isn’t good or bad – it is the people who use it who make it so. Let’s say Facebook is good, because it helps families and friends connect across geographies, it helps build relationships – social capital, in essence, which for anyone who has Robert Putnam’s seminal work in the 70’s ‘Bowling Alone’, is crucial to maintaining a society. So let’s say Facebook is good. But Facebook, as a result of being heavily invested in its business model, which relates to advertising money, has its dark patches. The research project they conducted last year, that manipulated people’s feeds to test how negative status updates affect people’s tendency to use Facebook was a case in point. 

“Ultimately, we’re just providing a layer of technology that helps people get what they want,” Chris Cox, chief product officer of Facebook, said during an interview in February about changes made to the news feed to show more news articles and fewer viral videos. “That’s the master we serve at the end of the day.”

…which to me sounds a lot, and I’m pretty sure Chris Cox said this completely unwittingly – it sounds a lot like what Kevin Kelly says in his book ‘What Technology Wants’:

As a practical matter I’ve learned to seek the minimum amount of technology for myself that will create the maximum amount of choices for myself and others. The cybernetician Heinz von Foerster called this approach the Ethical Imperative, and he put it this way: “Always act to increase the number of choices.” The way we can use technologies to increase choices for others is by encouraging science, innovation, education, literacies, and pluralism. In my own experience this principle has never failed: In any game, increase your options.”

(Emphasis in both quotes above is mine).

Except for one key problem: the Facebook tweaks were not done to increase the number of choices for Facebook users. It was out of a concern that ‘that exposure to friends’ negativity might lead people to avoid visiting Facebook’.

Every single decision that a person makes while creating technology has to be a considered one, because of the impact that it could have on thousands, even millions of people. Even design decisions.

So, then, how is technology actually being a force for good in parts of the world that perhaps many of us are not familiar with? Some of my favourites include Project Mudra, Gravity Light, Literacy Bridge and Nextdrop.

These are all examples of technology being used in a very considered manner, to ‘increase the number of choices for people’ as Kevin Kelly says.

Technology also connects people in ways that I find it very difficult to put a value on. Ada’s List started 2 years ago as an online space for women to ask questions, hire other women, get advice – things that many of us in an industry dominated by men don’t always have access to. And it is making a difference. To many of our members, it helps them stay connected to a larger community they didn’t have access to before. 

I’m particularly glad that this conference is examining technology as a force for good because we’re doing so in an environment where billions of dollars in venture capital investment is being poured into startups every single day, many of them not really acting as a force for good – or positive action in any way. Instead it’s become all about the money. A couple of months ago, a VC called Maciej Ceglowski wrote an excellent thesis on why this might be, and these words in particular are really relevant to this conference. He said:

Investing has become the genteel occupation of our gentry, like having a country estate used to be in England. It’s a class marker and a socially acceptable way for rich techies to pass their time.

Gentlemen investors decide what ideas are worth pursuing, and the people pitching to them tailor their proposals accordingly.

The companies that come out of this are no longer pursuing profit, or even revenue. Instead, the measure of their success is valuation—how much money they’ve convinced people to tell them they’re worth.

There’s an element of fantasy to the whole enterprise that even the tech elite is starting to find unsettling.

That’s pretty worrisome. And it means that all of us sitting here today, as men and women working in technology, need to think about this seriously. If it is so easy to make unmindful things, we need to commit – strongly – to using technology as a force for good. To ask for this from the people around us, the people we work for and with. And ultimately, to help create a society that works better for us, and for our future generations.

Thank you.

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