Tech and Ethics — becoming responsible consumers and tech professionals
I believe technology provides humanity with some of the most promising solutions to its main current challenges. However, we need to be aware that it also creates or enhances some of the issues.
I recently watched The social dilemma, directed by Jeff Orlowski and available on Netflix. I intend to share here its main lessons and recommendations, from my point of view. I find them important from a technology consumer perspective and, extrapolating its core message, as a professional acting in the innovation sector.
A quick preview of The social dilemma
What do you think is the common factor between poor teenage mental health, political polarization, climate change negationism and rise of extremism? Does it sound like a tough guess to you? The answer is: social media fosters them all. By feeding all individuals with the information that better suits them, provoking emotional addiction and providing the largest available reach, social media proved to be a powerful platform to undermine both democracy and mental health.
I won’t give any more spoilers about The social dilemma docudrama, for I recommend to watch it directly. Indeed, testimonies made by former leaders of the very platforms they now denounce bear much more weight and authority than my writing.
What I intend to do here is to offer actionable tips on how to play your part on improving the situation, whether you are a tech consumer or a tech provider.
Let’s get to it?
What you can do as a social media consumer
As a user of social media, there are three categories of actions you can take, seeking to improve your consumption, form your opinions in an enlightened way and reinstate a more mentally healthy lifestyle.
Consumption optimization tips
“It is both an utopia and a dystopia”
- Tristan Harris, Design Ethicist, said about social media.
It is indeed quite easy to ignore the harm that is being done when you also experience the positive impact it has on short-term mood as well as its capacity to form human communities.
Here are simple and handy recommendations to improve your consumption style:
- If you can afford it (aka do not need it professionally), get out of some social platforms. Notice how people responsible for designing social media do not let their families use it.
- Try to make most decisions when you navigate these platforms. For instance, on Youtube, you can actively search for videos instead of following recommendations. This behaviour reduces the precision of your algorithm profile — in other words, it broadens your access to information, by avoiding to target your assumed interests.
- Turn off notifications on your smartphone settings, so as to give it your attention only when really required. You will experience that after a while, this practice also inhibits your FOMO feeling (Fear Of Missing Out).
Best practices of opinion forming
It is also important to think carefully about how our values and political views are being shaped.
To avoid being trapped into your own bias, it is valuable to practice:
- Open-minded attitude - Follow people you do not agree with, so as to keep receiving all points of view. Just because someone thinks differently, it doesn’t mean that he or she is wrong or right.
- Reference check - Prefer to get your news from legit, investigative, politically independent newspapers. Seek sources, preferably from different perspectives, and build your own opinions based on them. Also, when you think you already know something, try to remember where you got it from. Can you consider it mere data, in-process information or confirmed knowledge?
- Ego control - Embrace that sometimes, you do not possess enough reliable information to defend an opinion on some topics. Promote healthy debates around you and embrace differences, so as to avoid a rise of extremist and irreconcilable points of view.
In terms of lifestyle choices, there exists many ways of feeling fulfilled while avoiding the internet.
- Practice mindfulness - It reduces your stress and tendencies to addictions. We often check our phones only to feel momentarily good or to fill-in leisure time. Beyond yoga or meditation, this is about quality time, whatever it is for you (hobbies, time spent with loved ones among others).
- Morning habits - Spend the first hour of your day without consulting your email or social media. It is actually also a tip for increasing your work productivity, as it enhances your energy level.
- Education choices - as a parent, it is considered better not to allow access to social media until high school, so as to protect the children’s mental health — no one is ever fully prepared to receive public opinions on themselves, let alone teenagers.
More tips and courses of action are available in the Center for Humane Technology website.
What you can do as a tech professional
Now friend, if you are a tech professional (or in the process of becoming one), you do bear a responsibility for technology to keep serving a right purpose.
How can you make sure that your job impacts the world positively?
Make ethics a daily obligation
When making career choices, I believe ethics should be as important a criteria as salary or responsibilities, so as to never lose touch with what you are actually doing. I think having hard skills makes it simpler to draw your own path, as the market is always looking for developers and thus provides them with a rare currency: choice. This situation gives tech professionals the power to apply the right amount of questioning on every professional decision they make.
Concretely, what kind of questioning you may ask? For instance, it should be remembered at all times that a tool is designed to serve human beings and basically make their lives better, not worse. Users have to be in control of how and how often they use it, instead of manipulated into becoming addicts of it.
Also, it is critical to be aware of how business models can impact product design and to be able to draw a red line between what is natural in that process, and what is unacceptable. We agree that firms do need to monetize, but products still have to provide tangible value to its users.
Finally, it is important that we demystify prestigious career paths like working for GAFA (Google — Amazon — Facebook — Apple) as the unique successful model for a tech specialist. I do not mean to tell you not to work there, but you should understand just how many markets and initiatives are open to your skills so as to also feel free to pursue alternative goals.
Become a reliable source of information yourself
We mentioned it earlier: one of the biggest issues with social media is their distortion of the truth. Most of the time, truth is subjective. But sometimes, especially when tackling scientific issues, it is objective. Due to the abundance of data available on the internet, everyone gets to feel like a specialist, which has already proven dangerous.
This calls for trained professionals to have a voice and teach about their respective fields.
As much as I expect a scientist to keep alerting the public about environmental issues, I now expect from my peers to become a reliable source of information about how technology works, whatever their specialty is (software development, AI, data science,…).
You do not need to become a Youtuber or make this your life mission, but you could simply get pedagogical during family dinners or friends gatherings when called for.
Get inspired by valuable uses of technology
Let’s stop feeling gloomy and get inspired by exciting uses of technology!
Here are a few examples of conferences I gathered that make ethical technology their mission:
- The international Tech for Good platform aims at emphasizing the importance of responsible and social tech inventions.
- In Brazil, the Social Good Festival focuses on providing responsible data and technology methods.
- In Europe, Futur.es promotes sustainable technology.
- In the US, the South By Southwest Festival (SXSW) usually dedicates part of its programmation to positive impact technologies.
I previously knew these initiatives for acting myself as a social entrepreneur, but I am sure many other valuable sources like channels or podcasts are focused on that topic. I do accept your recommendations!
Center for Humane technology, co-founded by Tristan Harris;
I was able to create and publish the present article only by using the very media that are getting criticized — I am well aware of the apparent irony of it. I think a final valuable consideration here is to remember what these platforms are: tools, that should be waiting for us to use them as we see fit.
Hope it helps a bit,
Have a nice one!