Why the tech industry needs to return to its founding principles

Original article was published by Ben Pattie on Artificial Intelligence on Medium

Why the tech industry needs to return to its founding principles

Blog series exploring the impact of technology on our modern society

When Sir Tim Berners Lee was asked about the origins of the World Wide Web he proclaimed: “the original idea of the web was that it should be a collaborative space where you can communicate through sharing information.” Thirty years on since the birth of the Internet, many other technologies have been created based on similar principles. But as technologies rapidly evolve, are they contradicting the very premise on which they were founded? And more importantly, are they still making a net positive contribution to the world we live in?

Having recently watched Netflix’s docudrama, “The Social Dilemma,” it’s hard not to think that technology is fuelling the rise of some of the biggest problems in modern society. The film presents some revealing data and testimonials from former employees of Google, Facebook and other technology experts to explain how social media platforms are negatively impacting mental health, data privacy, online bullying and the promotion of hate speech — to name just a few examples.

These are not new arguments. The so-called ‘big tech’ companies have been receiving increasing public criticism from politicians, mainstream media and other sections of society for many years now. In fact, recent US consumer research suggests that negative views of technology businesses amongst Americans have almost doubled in the past four years.

One commentator featured in The Social Dilemma calls on users to delete their social media platforms all together. However, according to its most recent quarterly report, the number of Facebook accounts used daily (1.6 billion) and monthly (2.4 billion) each increased by 8 per cent since the last quarter. Meanwhile, the most recent social media platform to take the world by storm, TikTok, reached almost 800 million monthly users in just a few years.

Whether we like it or not, the technology giants are not going anywhere fast. And with billions of global users their influence is likely to continue to grow. But with great power comes great responsibility. In order to rebuild the public’s trust, social media and other technology firms should be more transparent about the way they operate and not resist calls for greater regulation.

While its important to hold the technology companies and their leaders to account, we should also recognise that not all tech firms are bad. There are many ways the tech industry makes a positive contribution to society. According to the most recent Tech Nation report, the tech sector added £149bn in economic value and 2.9m jobs to the UK economy in 2019. And technology has undoubtedly helped to transform industries to be more productive, creative and globalised.

Having worked in technology PR for over ten years now, I’ve come across countless examples of tech companies that are helping to make the world a better place. For example, financial technologies are helping millions of unbanked customers gain instant access to financial services such as the ability to transfer money to family members on the other side of the world. In education, VR and hologram technologies are enabling students in Africa to receive guest lectures from leading university professors based thousands of miles away. And Artificial Intelligence is now able to diagnose some cancers more accurately than human doctors.

I also believe that technological innovations have a big role to play in tackling some of the world’s biggest problems. During the current global pandemic, we’ve relied on technology to work remotely, stay connected with friends and family and keep us entertained. We’ve also seen how technologies such as big data and analytics have helped health officials and governments to gain a better understanding of the virus, monitor its spread and in some cases prevent further loss of life. And as we look to find a way to beat COVID-19, we are turning to science and technology to come up with solutions.

Although Coronavirus continues to dominate the news agenda, a potentially bigger existential global challenge looms on the horizon — climate change. So far, technology such as research drones, underwater monitoring equipment and data modelling is helping us to gain a greater understanding of the impact of climate change on our planet. And good progress has been made with innovations in areas such as renewable energy and electric vehicles. Nonetheless, humans have a long way to go in building a more sustainable future that will significantly slow the negative effects of climate change. But if there is one group of people I would bet my money on to be the catalysts for change, its technology entrepreneurs. After all, entrepreneurs and innovators are some of the world’s best problem solvers.

All things considered, it’s important to not make the debate around whether technology companies are inherently good or evil so black and white. Like most industries, there are many practices the tech industry could improve. But we should also acknowledge the benefits that technology companies and the products and services they create bring to our everyday lives.

Facebook is a good example of this paradox. The company’s corporate reputation has suffered due to a series of high profile allegations against the type of content it publishes, the mismanagement of user data and who it allows to advertise on its platform. Notably, the Cambridge Analytica scandal exposed many of these flaws and also raised questions about how Facebook’s platform and the data it harvests could be manipulated to influence the results of important political votes.

But we also shouldn’t overlook how Facebook’s platform is being as a force for good. From linking blood donors in India, to encouraging more people to get out and vote, and reuniting lost family and friends around the world, Facebook’s best socially responsible projects focus on utilising its platform to connect people. Again, this is the very principle of which the company was founded upon.

So perhaps the time has come for technology companies to take a long hard look in the mirror and remember why they were created in the first place. Rather than focussing on maximising advertising revenues and profit, they have the opportunity to use their power and influence to promote a more democratic, tolerant, connected society, with a greater sense of community spirit.

In an ever-changing world, there’s lots of room to manoeuvre. When reflecting on the latest iteration of the Internet, Sir Tim Berners Lee recently said: “The Web as I envisaged it, we have not seen it yet. The future is still so much bigger than the past.” If any industry is able to move fast and pivot, it’s the technology industry. But in many cases, radical change is not needed. Technology companies simply need to remember the principles they were founded on.