For the past several months, news stories about the impact of technology on society have been front and center. From concerns about the addictive nature of smartphones from Apple and social media applications like Facebook and Twitter to the broader impact of technology on politics including the ability for the popular platforms to be manipulated or the possibility that gig economy tools like Uber and Lyft may not even pay their drivers a minimum wage, this is not the brightest moment for the technology industry.
In many ways this is a stunning reversal from the pedestal that technology has been placed on within society. Oftentimes, technology is described as a big net benefit to society because of the efficiency and productivity gains. In this blog post, we’d like to explore some solutions for the next generation of developing technologists to better position their development efforts on having a net positive impact on society.
Trending on Facebook/Twitter
From Ponzi schemes orchestrated by Bernie Madoff to large scale corporate fraud at Enron, industries that impact large numbers of people and generate large profits can be susceptible to bad behavior. Recognizing this potential impact, business schools incorporated ethics classes into their curriculum. The goal was to study prior examples of unethical behavior with the hopes that it would contextualize the potential for business to be either a positive or negative influence upon the broader society. While this coursework does not entirely discourage unethical behavior, I believe that it does at least give those who might bend the rules a framework for thinking about how their actions or those of their firm might be perceived. In addition, it also highlights that there is a lag between legal frameworks and business innovation meaning that models that push the boundaries may not be illegal at the time but a reasonable assumption is that one must consider is once discovered will this new approach be outlawed. One of the most memorable rules of thumb for most people who have formally studied business at the undergraduate or graduate level is the Wall Street Journal test – quite simply it is don’t do anything that could end up putting you on the cover of this storied news publication. The technology equivalent is don’t do anything that could end up having you trending on Facebook or Twitter.
Under a microscope
Over the past several decades, technology is becoming the foundation upon which innovation is being based upon. However, as we see from the news articles above, the technology industry has not yet had the microscopic scrutiny of the broader business world. As a result, innovation within technology has somewhat been unconstrained – if you can define a technical solution, you should. Much of this has to do with the inherent challenges of developing technology-based solutions. While we were busy figuring out how to write the lines of codes for these emerging hardware and software solutions, we didn’t yet add an additional lens. Perhaps we should have first considered, if this solution scales – what will be the impact on society? Similar to the business industry, we can expect a necessary lag in regulatory and legal frameworks for innovative technology solutions. We are seeing some of this play out real time in the disjointed and inconsistent approach to regulation within the cryptocurrency space. Unfortunately, that does not remove responsibility from leaders and emerging leaders in this space to thoughtfully examine the impact their inventions may have on broader society. We can already see the emerging research that some of these solutions may have societal impact (addiction and depression) that no one would be proud of. With some hyperbolic comparisons to technology containing similarities to tobacco, the proper recognition needs to be given to these research-based findings and the emerging narrative.
Leading by example
As we are educating the next generation of technologists, it’s the responsibility for those who are already paving the way to begin outlining the frameworks to chart our path forward. Instead of only considering the scale (number of users) or the utilization (time spent on platform) or the valuation (returns created for shareholders), we also need to consider are we helping those who are less fortunate improve their situation by paying a living wage or will this application disrupt the social interaction norms by making people more comfortable in virtual worlds than real life or is technology actually needed to solve this problem? These are not easy questions to answer. But, by taking a leadership role in outlining how technology can be a force for positive change within society by adhering to frameworks and viewing lenses will be a great step toward the overall sustainability of technology-based innovation & impact.