12. No institution has the power to rein in tech’s abuses.
In most industries, if companies start doing something wrong or exploiting consumers, they’ll be reined in by journalists who will investigate and criticize their actions. Then, if the abuses continue and become serious enough, the companies can be sanctioned by lawmakers at the local, state, governmental or international level.
Today, though, much of the tech trade press focuses on covering the launch of new products or new versions of existing products, and the tech reporters who do cover the important social impacts of tech are often relegated to being published alongside reviews of new phones, instead of being prominently featured in business or culture coverage. Though this has started to change as tech companies have become absurdly wealthy and powerful, coverage is also still constrained by the culture within media companies. Traditional business reporters often have seniority in major media outlets, but are commonly illiterate in basic tech concepts in a way that would be unthinkable for journalists who cover finance or law. Meanwhile, dedicated tech reporters who may have a better understanding of tech’s impact on culture are often assigned to (or inclined to) cover product announcements instead of broader civic or social concerns.
The problem is far more serious when we consider regulators and elected officials, who often brag about their illiteracy about tech. Having political leaders who can’t even install an app on their smartphones makes it impossible to understand technology well enough to regulate it appropriately, or to assign legal accountability when tech‘s creators violate the law. Even as technology opens up new challenges for society, lawmakers lag tremendously behind the state of the art when creating appropriate laws.
Without the corrective force of journalistic and legislative accountability, tech companies often run as if they’re completely unregulated, and the consequences of that reality usually fall on those outside of tech. Worse, traditional activists who rely on conventional methods such as boycotts or protests often find themselves ineffective due to the indirect business model of giant tech companies, which can rely on advertising or surveillance (“gathering user data”) or venture capital investment to continue operations even if activists are effective in identifying problems.
This lack of systems of accountability is one of the biggest challenges facing tech today.
If we understand these things, we can change tech for the better.
If everything is so complicated, and so many important points about tech aren’t obvious, should we just give up hope? No.
Once we know the forces that shape technology, we can start to drive change. If we know that the biggest cost for the tech giants is attracting and hiring programmers, we can encourage programmers to collectively advocate for ethical and social advances from their employers. If we know that the investors who power big companies respond to potential risks in the market, we can emphasize that their investment risk increases if they bet on companies that act in ways that are bad for society.
If we understand that most in tech mean well, but lack the historic or cultural context to ensure that their impact is as good as their intentions, we can ensure that they get the knowledge they need to prevent harm before it happens.
So many of us who create technology, or who love the ways it empowers us and improves our lives, are struggling with the many negative effects that some of these same technologies are having on society. But perhaps if we start from a set of common principles that help us understand how tech truly works, we can start to tackle technology’s biggest problems.