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Tech Companies Must Be A Force For Good

Global technology companies enjoy immense power, they should use it wisely.

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Global technology companies enjoy immense power, they should use it wisely.

Opinions

Tech Companies Must Be A Force For Good

Global technology companies enjoy immense power, they should use it wisely.

Share this article

Technology offers society the greatest opportunity of our time… doesn’t it? So why do the headlines suggest it’s our greatest threat – cybercrime, loneliness, job losses, threats to democracy, the erosion of truth?

The more we ostracise technology the more we risk missing out on how it can solve some of our greatest challenges.

How we communicate, trade, date, shop, navigate, book accommodation, choose restaurants, choose our career are all, or will likely be, driven by technology and AI. However, from a societal perspective, the values underpinning every person across the globe are shaped by many factors – our parents, schools, influencers, friends, community, brands.

Given seven of the ten largest companies in the world are now technology firms and 51% of the global population uses the internet, the power of global digital brands is immense and having significant influence on our values, society and culture.

In March 2019, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter were judged for their ability to keep the New Zealand terror attacks offline.

Two months prior, in January, Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England wrote an open letter accusing Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, YouTube, Pinterest and Snapchat of losing control of the content on their platforms following the suicide of 14-year-old Molly Russell.

It reflects a systemic issue, that social platforms often don’t see themselves as arbiters of content. As Apple’s Tim Cook put it recently in a speech, “the belief that [digital platforms] can claim credit without accepting responsibility”.

So we must ask ourselves: do we want them to? With 1.7 billion people using Facebook, 186 million using Snapchat, almost 5 billion YouTube videos being watched every day, digital media has serious influence on society.

It’s not just digital media, but also products and tech. We use technology to speak to and message each other, but also ignore each other. We use it to support one another, like through crowdfunding, but also destroy each other through trolling.

We use tech to get healthy with apps like Strava and Zwift, wearables like Fitbit, Garmin and Apple watches as well as wearables to manage diabetes.

Yet technology also enables a sedentary lifestyle where we ‘ask Alexa’ questions from the sofa, order in food deliveries from an app, have a robot do the hoovering and fight in epic virtual battles without breaking a sweat. This inactive lifestyle is being linked to rising obesity and social isolation.

These are all real issues and there is a growing industry of academics and practitioners trying to understand them and write the new rule books. There are also real opportunities and advancements that need celebrating.

Tech can facilitate a more inclusive society. For instance, one that enables the environment to be accessible to those with visual impairments through an app like Be My Eyes, GiveVision’s goggles or through a ‘smart’ walking cane.

In an ageing society, the internet of things is enabling people to live independently for longer and be ‘monitored’ remotely. In the world’s most vulnerable environments, such as refugee camps, blockchain offers the chance to have an identity.

The opportunity to ‘leave no one behind’ in areas such as education are abundant. The classroom no longer needs to be the only place to learn; teaching and learning is less limited to childhood, let alone limited by language restrictions and geography. The opportunity tech gives society is unbounded.

This is the fourth industrial revolution that society has experienced, and as before we will figure out how to come out on top.

It’s natural to fear the unknown. But to thrive, not merely survive, we need to help tech companies and technologists understand what ‘doing good’ looks like, and how to achieve it – or at the very least what ‘doing bad’ looks like and guard against it.

It’s likely that Mark Zuckerberg did not know what Facebook would become, like Tim Berners-Lee did not know what the internet would become. Albeit, Tim is more forward in his desire to make amends.

We gain little from vilifying the likes of IBM, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Tencent, Apple, Alibaba and Amazon, but can gain a lot from helping them determine their ultimate role in society and ensure, as Tim Berners Lee puts it, that “they do more to ensure their pursuit of short-term profit is not at the expense of human rights, democracy, scientific fact or public safety”.

These firms have resources to invest in better understanding the consequences of their activities – intentional or not. It’s their responsibility to us. Just because technologists can develop something, certainly doesn’t mean they should.

Our responsibility, at organisations such as Nesta, DotEveryone, The Omidyar Network and MIT Media Lab – to name a few – is to research and promote where tech solves, rather than creates, problems and keep pricking their social conscience.

Society can thrive in this era, not merely survive, and we need to ensure that’s what happens. There is a very real need to guard against unwanted and unintended consequences. Technology is not inevitable, but responsible technology needs to be.

With great power comes even greater responsibility to ensure that the values of the future are aligned with the kind of humanity we want to see.

Kate Adams is director of Nesta Challenges.

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Tech Companies Must Be A Force For Good

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