Many of us have chosen technology as a career – driven by its promise of offering a financially rewarding career and also by the belief that technology makes the world better. We do not tax ourselves every day by checking if what we are working on serves a societal need, but carry on with the assumption that technology is a force for the good.
Is this belief causing us to be unwittingly blind to creating technology that is useless or even harmful? The pervasiveness of technologies and the commercial dominance of a few technology companies makes it important for us to pause and think about this. What is the primary benefit of working on an algorithm that increases binge watching by finding the most suitable TV series? What is the benefit of working on cutting-edge semiconductor technology that improves how well shooting scenes rendered in video games for those who can afford it? Of course, there are other benefits, but surely we cannot ignore the large undesirable effects?
Are we, the employees of the global technology industry, assuming that we are positive contributors to society too easily?
Technology does provide benefits in all aspects of our life. As technologies emerge, companies and individuals find ways to create new value or improve how we do things. Naturally, the ideas that have the most commercial potential will stand the best chance of being nurtured and those individuals who are able to contribute will be rewarded. The spoils of such new technology will tend towards the lucrative ones, and this need not match exactly what would be best for mankind. Surely, commercial opportunities and societal needs have a large overlap but are not the same. Many areas of societal need, providing education to the poor children can benefit enormously with better technology but are not necessarily the largest commercial markets.
Many have raised this issue already and have called for us to be more careful in our application of technology, but most have targeted this advice to technology companies. I for one, do not think companies are the right targets for this message, but us, the technology workers of these companies. Companies do not think, but we, the workers, do. Companies follow the law, but workers follow laws and morals. Most of the technology activity that could be harmful to the society is perfectly legal and if there is money to be made, companies are obligated to direct their energy and resources to seek the same for their shareholders. So, it is incumbent that this question is dealt at the level of morality of individual technology workers.
As we start our work in 2019, I would humbly urge technology workers to pause and think if your work every day is still in line with your underlying belief in the power of technology. As we plan what we want to accomplish in 2019, I suggest that you consider the below:
- Can you identify and do one new thing in your everyday work that will use technology better for society’s benefit?
- What can you do in your work to avoid or reduce any harmful effects of technology?
- How can you use your knowledge and expertise of technology to help outside your work even a little bit – help a person or a group or an organization?
The harmful effects of technologies can get worse unless we address it. Why? Because, digital technology feeds on itself, and will lead to more and better ones. Barring any catastrophe, this fecundity will only grow. So, there will be more and larger commercial opportunities available. The growth of these opportunities will far outstrip the growth of human time, energy and ability to weight the consequences of their application on humankind.
It is impossible and unwise to stop the progress driven by technological innovation and we cannot retreat to be Luddites, but we surely can be more thoughtful in how we apply technology to benefit society in the long run.
I welcome you to share how you think about this issue. You can DM me on Twitter at @rajeshkan or enter comments below.
Wish you and your family a wonderful, fulfilling and prosperous 2019!