Emerging Technologies

Why we need to embrace the tech backlash

A child climbs onto a giant mockup laptop keyboard during a promotion event at a shopping centre in Beijing, China July 28, 2016.  REUTERS/Thomas Peter     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY      - D1BETSEJXJAB

How companies respond to debate and foster public trust is the next big challenge for tech Image: REUTERS/Thomas Peter

Hilary Sutcliffe
Director, SocietyInside
Conrad von Kameke
Director, TIGTech
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Emerging Technologies

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

The tech backlash is upon us or so we are told. Citizens are said to be panicked and feel helpless and fearful of a future where technology runs amok and spirals out of control. It can certainly feel like that sometimes, particularly when the hype about what these technologies promise to deliver is at its zenith, as is arguably the case at the moment. But what if that’s not what we are looking at or certainly not the only way of looking at what’s happening?

The messy, loud, chaotic cacophony of voices airing concerns, views and competing visions for the future may be precisely the vigorous societal debate about our collective future which many rightfully call for. The challenge from the World Economic Forum “to proactively shape the change and not allow it to passively happen” is not going to be limited to just comfortable situations, like sparky debates on TV or dialogues with the public in a museum.

Individuals and organizations will share their views, hopes and fears in whatever form works best for them – whether that’s tweets, blogs and media, online petitions or more traditional direct actions and campaigns. They will also take more direct steps such as making changes in where they spend their money and their time. This is citizens standing up for themselves and their beliefs, but it’s not neat and easy to process and it is definitely not comfortable for the governments and businesses in the eye of the storm.

The current rebellion against the Silicon Valley mindset of ‘move fast and break things’, for example, may not be so much of a backlash against big tech, but rather citizens intuitively challenging this business model and pointing out where big tech is out of step and failing to earn the trust of society. This is good, not bad news, even for the technology companies whose whole licence to operate is being challenged. We predict they will ultimately be strengthened, even though they may not see it that way at the moment.

At the heart of all these debates, there appears to be a growing movement to challenge the techno-centric vision of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and demand a much more planet and human-centric destiny for the future of mankind. This movement challenges those incentivizing and creating new technologies to do more to respond to social and environmental challenges from the outset. It should not be, as it often seems, about a technology looking around for a home or innovators thinking only of the number of zeros that will be part of the company’s valuation in a few years´ time.

The ways in which organizations listen and how they respond to this sometimes very uncomfortable debate is critical to the development of technologies that society can trust. Central to this response is the need to design effective governance. But the concept of ‘agile’ governance advocated by the World Economic Forum and others may not be enough on its own, particularly if this agility is mainly designed to facilitate the speedier introduction of technology into society.

Governance must be built around its ability to earn the trust of stakeholders, including society, taking into consideration different values and agendas. This is not just about new technical ideas on governance design. Technology-centric and legal theories so often fall apart because they fail to consider, with empathy and respect, the human aspects and the underlying psychology of trust and mistrust. Exactly how the purpose and design of governance are shaped to earn trust and how its designers reflect the ways in which individual actors perceive its trustworthiness, is an area we believe the World Economic Forum and its global audiences must take seriously.

Naturally, technology governance is focused on safety, technical and legal issues, but we argue this focus is limited in its understanding of what is required to earn the trust of stakeholders. In particular, those crafting or striving to influence the purpose and design of governance have not made enough of an effort, in our view, to consider the science of human thinking to make governance more trustworthy.

In particular, for technologies that spark controversy and where the trust in the technology itself is feeble, governance designed with trust in mind may be a small, but important, step towards coming to appropriate and socially acceptable decisions.

Have you read?

There are no magic bullets to building technologies and underpinning governance regimes that are trustworthy. But our recent work exploring the roots of conflicts around technology and the contribution that human psychology can make has led us to wonder how other intractable disputes, such as peace negotiations, are conducted successfully.

There is a rich seam of knowledge to be explored, but we found three key factors which are important in earning trust both in technology and its governance:

  • A shared belief that the status quo is not working for all parties;
  • The smallest glimmer of a shared mission, which offers a connection to the greater good as well as everyone’s self-interest, will move things forward into a space that didn’t exist before. The Sustainable Development Goals provide us with much more than a glimmer of hope; they offer us a ‘go to’ agenda which can help shape technology and its governance to be more inclusive, responsive and focused on social and environmental goals - the very things that citizens clamour for;
  • Processes which are designed to embed respect for each other and earn the trust of diverse parties, with evidence of that respect being clear to all, are critical.

With these three factors in mind, we see much reason for optimism. All around are signs of a new, more inclusive and socially responsive approach to technology development and governance. Organizations which have been shocked by negative publicity into thinking again about their role in society are finding new ways of living up to their responsibilities and engaging with citizens in positive and constructive ways. Many are also taking inspiration from the Sustainable Development Goals to review their business strategy and focus on how they can make a uniquely positive contribution to society through the use of their technologies.

We believe it is critical that the political and business leaders at Davos grasp this opportunity to overcome past polarization and societal fracturing, and lead the way towards greater alignment of human and technological development.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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