Is this tech’s seatbelt moment?

Is this tech’s seatbelt moment?

Last year, when LinkedIn asked me what what topic to track in 2018, it was a no-brainer: ethics.

The story I am watching in 2018 is whether we will see a return of ethics to business. We have seen CEOs ousted and corporate boards shuffled, but what has fundamentally changed inside of the organization? How have its values shifted? And what resources are going to be put into place to ensure that the deployment of new technologies and ways of working take into consideration the potential for unintended consequences?

At the time, yellow flags were waving. In 2017, we watched as United, Wells Fargo, and Uber took hits when they failed to ask, “is this the right thing to do?”

By early 2018, the yellow flags had turned red. The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica affair, the first pedestrian death from a self-driving car, and the exposure of secret military bases via open data are just a few examples of the importance of imagining unintended consequences of the future we are programming.

So where are we today? In a recent conversation with Omidyar Network’s Yoav Schlesinger, he reminded me that we are in a Ralph Nader “Unsafe at Any Speed” moment — businesses are finally hearing the rallying cry for tech seatbelts, and key stakeholders are starting to develop and test new frameworks to usher in a new era of tech safety.

In June, we shared five things executives and innovators could do to educate themselves and build a greater capacity for ethics. In the two months since, we’re encouraged to see the conversation shifting to include strategies and planning at the organizational and community level. These five trends and conversations are gaining significant momentum:

    1. Oaths. Executives, designers, technologists, and data scientists are all proposing respective codes of ethics and encouraging their communities to pledge. It’s no coincidence that many draw on the Hippocratic Oath; this is one place where tech could learn something from health and medicine.
    2. Education. We now live in a world where it’s no longer acceptable to be an expert in any type of emerging technology without equal expertise in ethics. There are many ways for technologists top get up to speed. Casey Fiesler, faculty in Information Science at CU Boulder, crowdsourced an open list of tech ethics curricula and syllabi that now includes more than 200 courses. DJ Patil, Hilary Mason, and Mike Loukides have been dropping chapters on the need for ethical values. And it’s not just for data scientists — The Wall Street Journal has filed this serialized work on ethics under “what your CEO is reading.”
    3. Frameworks. Omidyar Network and The Institute for the Future recently announced their new Ethical OS, “a toolkit for helping developers and designers anticipate the future impact of technologies they’re working on today.” The framework identifies eight risk areas: truth, disinformation, propaganda; addiction and the dopamine economy; economic and asset inequity; machine ethics and algorithmic biases; surveillance state; data control and monetization; implicit trust and user understanding; and hateful and criminal actors.
    4. New business models. LinkedIn Editor Caroline Fairchild recently shared two tales of the gig economy. In the first, Susan Fowler details Uber’s explicit decision to push people down. In the second, Marcela Sapone shares how Hello Alfred made a conscious decision to lift people up by rewriting the gig economy’s “code.”
    5. Convenings. Tech ethicists are stepping into the spotlight to lead gatherings and organize convenings. As part of the 2018 Seattle Design Festival this September, Artefact is hosting a conversation on tackling the unintended consequences of technology. On October 20 in New York, All Tech is Human is planning a Summit on Ethical Tech. And on October 29 in San Francisco, UCOT intends to produce “the world’s largest gathering of influencers and game changers on the topic of the unintended and willfully ignored consequences of technology.” In January 2019 in London, Doteveryone is gathering 250 world-leading experts, practitioners, policymakers, funders, and technology leaders for Responsible Tech: The New Normal to share knowledge, skills, and best practices for pursuing “our shared ambition to make responsible technology the new normal.”

Convenings like these typically yield meaningful action. In the coming months, we’ll be watching to see what concrete actions organizations will take to meaningfully guide business decisions.


Sara Holoubek
Founding Partner and CEO