Technology has never been neutral; its social, political, and moral impacts have become painfully clear. But the stakes will only get higher as connected cameras will watch over the city, algorithms oversee society’s most critical decisions, and transport, jobs, and even war will become automated.
But the tech industry hasn’t yet earned the trust these technologies demand.
For our first Leaders in Change event of 2019, we invited tech ethics consultant Cennydd Bowles to lead a discussion on the impact on technology on our social, political and moral world, and explore some of the principles that technologists can use to build a fairer future.
Cennydd kicked off the event with a story about the cobra effect in Delhi. To reduce the numbers, the British government introduced a bounty for every dead cobra. While initially a success, enterprising locals began breeding snakes for income. When the government realised what was happening, they scrapped the policy – and the local breeders began releasing their now worthless snakes into the wild, increasing the population far above previous levels.
This is just one example of how actions can have consequences beyond their intentions. As Paul Virilio put it very eloquently, “when you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck”.
We can all think of many examples of technology that have led to unintended consequences. As we continue to make strides in technological advancement, it’s likely these will have a growing impact on the world.
Technology was never neutral
It’s easy to see this as a new problem, but there are examples of bias impacting the shape of the world across history.
For example, Robert Moses, a New York planner in the mid-twentieth century, designed bridges between sections of the city. That may seem innocent – until you learn that he engineered these bridges to be too low for a bus to travel under. This effectively blocked lower-income people from entering certain areas of the city.
Anything built by humans carries the weight of its creators, and the people who engage with it, either directly or indirectly.
Widening the net of user centred design
So, how can we better understand and anticipate unintended or negative consequences of our work?
We love the idea of user-centred design – and this is important. But as an industry, we can be guilty of focusing too narrowly on direct stakeholders.
For example, there's been a proliferation of companies who can help people rent out their homes, and have been very successful in building a powerful connection with their users – those with spaces to rent, and those wanting to rent those spaces.
But this model can have a big impact on the neighbourhoods in which they operate, driving up rents and negatively impacting the community. While unintended, it's an example of a company looking at the impact of their product through too narrow a lens.
Cennydd talked about the importance of anticipating all stakeholders to explore how groups may be impacted by a product or service and anticipating how a persona non grata may take advantage of an opportunity for their own ends. You should consider finding a ‘designated dissenter’ who can challenge assumptions and question decisions.
Putting ethics to the test
Cennydd talked us through some of the ‘big questions’ that can help those in digital explore the wider consequences of their work.
- What if everyone did what I’m about to do?
- Am I treating people as ends or means?
- Am I maximising happiness for the greatest number of people?
- Would I be happy for this to be front page news?
Cennydd was quick to say that these aren’t definitive – but they are useful starting points in unpacking the ethical implications of your work.
Embedding ethics into an organisation
The same goes for embracing ethics at an organisational level. Here are some of Cennydd’s suggestions:
Hire diverse teams. Diverse teams build better products and services. Simple as. They are powerful early warning systems and can bring a wider perspective that can help your organisation make better decisions.
Embed ethics into your core values. Core values, as long as they are specific and well-adopted, can be a powerful north star for everyone in the business.
Reward ethical behaviour. As a leader, you need to show that you expect and reward ethical behaviour, as well as commercial results.
We are at an exciting juncture as tech becomes increasingly politicised. As individuals working in digital, we exist as creators, as voters, as consumers. We have power – but we need to make sure we’re using that to create a fairer future for everyone.
It can feel like a challenging exercise to look at your work with an ethical lens. The secret to success is in being patient, to keep learning and questioning – and above all, remember it's a journey.
If you'd like to talk more about the future of ethics or find out more about future events we're running, please get in touch at email@example.com, I'd love to hear from you.
Cennydd Bowles is a London-based designer and writer with fifteen years of experience advising clients including Twitter, Ford, Cisco, and the BBC. His focus today is the ethics of emerging technology. He has lectured on the topic at Facebook, Stanford University, and Google, and is a sought-after speaker at technology and design events worldwide. His second book, Future Ethics, was published in 2018.