How much responsibility do we have for the products and platforms we create? Image: REUTERS/Nacho Doce
It’s time for a tech renaissance. It’s time for us to bring morality, virtues and our humanity back into how we build things to help uplift the human experience.
Here's what Matthew Prince, Co-Founder & CEO of Cloudflare had to say about the way internet companies react to offensive material on their networks.
“My whims and those of Jeff [Bezos] and Larry [Page] and Satya [Nadella] and Mark [Zuckerberg] - that shouldn’t be what determines what should be online. I think the people who run The Daily Stormer are abhorrent. But again I don’t think my political decisions should determine who should and shouldn’t be on the internet.”
Why shouldn’t your political and moral views shape who you choose to serve as a client?
The recent Charlottesville incident has opened Pandora’s box and is forcing technologists, society and governments to have difficult conversations about how people are choosing to use tech products. Many questions are being raised by the shutdown of the neo-Nazi website by Twitter, Google, GoDaddy and finally Cloudflare, following intense social media pressure (ironically also powered by tech), and not necessarily by choice.
'I didn't pull the trigger'
Who gets to choose what platforms and products are used for? What is the role of morality and values in all of this?
In addition, there has been significant rise in suicide rates, terrorism and organized racism powered by the internet and social media. Is tech really neutral? Can it remain neutral when it takes an AI chatbot less than 24 hours to become a confused, angry bigot?
Do we believe the argument that creators have no moral obligation for the products we create? It’s kind of like the “I didn’t pull the trigger” argument. When we talk about guns, we can rationalize the need for guns and how individuals should have the right to own a gun, and make their own choices.
But guns were designed to kill. It’s not a neutral product. It never was.
So, who gets to choose how the gun should be used? We can say that government has some obligation to set regulations at a macro-level. But the truth is that the leaders – the creators, manufacturers and designers – of the gun company actually get to choose at the micro-level.
They choose who they sell to, how they market their guns, and how they distribute them. They make these choices based on their values. If they value profit above all else, they will sell to the highest bidder, even if they are terrorists and gangsters.
If they value national pride or the safety of young people more, they may lose those customers. The choices they make reflect what they truly value.
Values and intentions
On the one hand, tech founders often say they want to "make the world a better place". On the other, they create products and argue that tech is neutral when people get hurt using it.
How do we reconcile intention with moral obligation that is shaped by our values?
Prince made the decision to shut down The Daily Stormer. He was not forced to. He did it because he felt his values were being misrepresented. And, as the CEO, he had the right to choose who to take on as a client. He made a choice.
Imagine what would happen if we humanized these conversations and started talking more openly and honestly about our values and intentions for the products we create?
Perhaps we would be much more intentional about how we communicate our products and the way we want people to use them. We might be more thoughtful in choosing who to sell to, and how to distribute to different people in different ways.
We would make choices instead of waiting to be forced.
As founder of Gnowbe, a mobile learning and engagement platform where anyone can create content, I find myself asking these questions as we build out our platform.
What’s my point of view on who uses our platform, what kind of content should be on it and how should we market our platform?
A large part of the Renaissance was about morality and virtues.
Tech is changing how we live at a pace and scale we have never seen before, so the impact is much more significant than those of traditional products.
It’s time for a tech renaissance. It’s time for us to bring morality, virtue and our humanity back into how we build things to help uplift the human experience.
We need more people like Gbenga Sesan, who helps turn Nigerian scam artists into tech entrepreneurs by creating apps that help people.
The movement has already started with Facebook, Microsoft, YouTube and Twitter launching an anti-terrorism partnership.
But given that there are three new startups being formed every second -11,000 per hour - the tech renaissance must extend beyond the giants, to us, the individual founders and leaders, who are making choices every single day.
It’s time to have a point of view on how we intend for people to use our products based on our values.
All values have a cost. That may mean you may lose some customers along the way.
The tech renaissance is not about following a single point-of-view. It’s about having your unique POV and reflecting it intentionally as you design and build amazing technologies.
It’s not about waiting to be told what’s acceptable or not. I believe it’s time to rethink how we build our products and platforms, who we sell to and how we market them. We already do it implicitly and our decisions already reflect our values.
Now it’s time to bring this conversation into the limelight.
Note: I’m excited to formally launch the #techrenaissance at the upcoming Meta Conversations: Tech and Humanity Conference.
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.