Technology changes the world. Whether it’s smartphones or quantum computers or internal combustion engines, tech is often a harbinger of great change. But that change can be co-opted—whether by corporations, lobbyists, or pundits— to bring about a future that leaves the average citizen out in the cold.
Last week, on the final day of events at Internet Week New York’s Manhattan HQ, a panel took the stage to discuss how digital technology is being used to achieve the surprisingly difficult goal of enacting positive social change. Inspired by the forthcoming release of The Internet’s Own Boy, a documentary about the life and work of the late programmer and hacktivist Aaron Swartz, the panel included representatives from organizations like WITNESS, Purpose, and Games For Change, along with the film’s director, Brian Knappenberger.
"This is really important," said Sam Gregory, program director of WITNESS, which uses video content to promote human rights issues. "Because otherwise things remain in activist ghettos."
Much of the panel’s discussion revolved around how to bring the social concerns of the tech world to the forefront of the mainstream developer world—to keep tech companies big and small from engendering an environment that prefers businesses over the individuals whose data they use.
Gregory held that the mainstream tech community needs to find a way of building a stronger concern for human rights values and ethics into its culture. "Because at the moment, a lot of this happens retrospectively or it's happening on the edge. We've got to think about that differently, because otherwise Snapchat, Facebook—all of these tools we all use—will not have the values we care about," he said.
The concern Gregory put forth is certainly one that’s at odds with the Silicon Valley mentality of disrupt first, ask questions later. Programming is often portrayed as apolitical—progress in tech is good in and of itself, and should never be impeded. But a post-Aaron Swartz world should know better, according to Brian Knappenberger.
"[Programmers] need to understand that their actions don't take place in an isolated room, by themselves," said Knappenberger, after the panel. "We all live online, and their acts and creations are helping to create the world that we live in. What kind of world do we want that to be? What kind of world do we want? What kind of Internet do we want?"
Barring the inclusion of any sort of formal ethical training when we teach programming languages, what should be the guiding principle of young startup coders and developers? According to members of The Guardian Project—a free, open-source initiative dedicated to developing apps and devices that uphold activist ideals—it’s all about a Tron-esque fight for the User.
"One of the primary 'ethical' considerations we base our work on is designing software around use cases or user stories that are usually ignored or not valued," wrote Guardian member Nathan Freitas in an e-mail. "Most of the time security software is designed with a corporate, government, or military mindset. Instead we start with regular citizens… and come up with our features and goals based on that."
While having user scenarios as a guiding principle during development is key, the Project’s members think it’s far from the only one. The tech world, according to Guardian Project member Hans-Cristoph Steiner, needs to dial back its positivity and introduce more healthy skepticism.
"One simple rule that is rarely applied is: Always discuss the possible negative impacts whenever discussing the positive," says Steiner. "As many satires of tech culture point out, there is frequent discussion of working on technology to change the world. That talk always implies that new technology will only bring positive change, which has been clearly proven wrong. If creators of technology consider the damage that they might create along with the benefits, then I think we will see much better, more useful technologies being developed."