Tech for good isn't a thing

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Because 'tech for bad' isn't a thing either

One of the frustrating things about technology built/deployed in capitalist systems is that any technology built in the public interest is called #TechforGood. It's shorthand for technology built focused on good stuff, not on bad stuff. Using shorthand here is very problematic.

There are 'Tech for Good' debates and conversations happening all the time, but these are often wholly separate from policy conversations: things like governance and questions of rights, as well as debates over how we should manage all of our digital systems in pro-social, anti-racist, and net beneficial ways.

There is technology built in accountable organisations, and technology built in unaccountable organisations. There is technology governed with legitimacy, technology not governed at all, technology governed poorly, etc.

Just because companies make money doesn't mean we should let them off the hook when they play fast and loose.

By focusing too much on the 'what', we miss the challenging and hugely consequential details of the 'how'. E.g. an app that focuses on youth civic engagement is a good enough idea, but how is it going to work? Just because you are trying to do something good doesn't mean you are forgiven for being sloppy. And just because companies make money doesn't mean we should let them off the hook when they play fast and loose.

We should raise the bar

We should expect, and demand, that all tech (is governed to) be good. Consider these different organisational structures:

  • Non-profit = will never make more than it spends. Its work will never be market-based.
  • Not-for-profit = can make more than it spends but will reinvest excess in the underlying mission.
  • For-profit = aims to make more than it spends so it can pay excess to shareholders.
  • State-run = designed and deployed by civil servants, policymakers, and procurement process. Funded by taxpayers.

None of these organisations should be permitted (legally, politically, or socially) to deploy poorly governed technology. But all of them can. And do!

By separating out 1) the mission, 2) revenue structure, and 3) legitimacy of governance we can have way more nuanced conversations about various implementations of technology.

Mission

It is very possible to set up a company that has a mission designed to benefit society. There are a lot of governance structures out there that don't optimise purely for shareholder profit, as per tradition. Interested? Check out the Zebra community which is made up of many businesses and investors growing companies of all stripes to benefit workers and society.

Revenue Structure

Prepare to be shocked: some companies take grants (!), some charitable organisations make a profit through service contracts or selling products (!), and some non-profits make investments (!). Thinking more dynamically about income is liberating and often independent of mission and technology governance.

Technology Governance

Technology can be built, managed, and governed in many ways. It can:

  • be developed in close (ideally remunerated) consultation with future — particularly marginalised — users
  • intentionally rebuke dark design patterns and extractive data practice
  • be explicit and straightforward about motivations and practices
  • develop and enforce acceptable use policies based on transparent values and consistent process
  • design and execute incident response mechanisms
  • set responsible growth targets and methods

Or it can be a hot mess of exploitation and extraction stumbling towards an unlikely unicorn status.

So, if you want to make tech that does good in the world there is a pretty clear recipe:

  1. Have a clear mission, with operational structures that serve it
  2. Hard code your values into your governance so it doesn't matter if you get hit by a bus or get acquired
  3. Be intentional and incorporate what you learn into the very fabric of the rules of your organisation

Instead of having a 'tech for good' kids table, let's join the grownup table and start a food fight. We want power and resource invested in systems that will make society stronger. We can't do that if we sequester ourselves semantically, financially, and politically.

I recently came across PIT Lab which is an organisation that takes a more systems-led approach to developing technology — it's a really good example of what I'm talking about.

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