The responsible tech space is growing rapidly. It touches on many seemingly disparate areas: privacy, security, human rights, hate speech, misinformation, deep fakes, data, AI, machine learning, social media, corporate accountability, humanitarian aid, international organizations, international law, domestic and municipal law, soft law, guidelines… the list goes on and on. And it will continue to grow as technology evolves and becomes even more embedded in our lives and communities.
Organizations are coming at these pressing challenges from disparate, siloed specialty areas and we risk talking past each other. We are in reactive mode, always feeling like we are catching up with the breathtakingly fast speed of technological advances. And these significant and systemic problems are only exacerbated when we continue to work in our siloes instead of coming together to collaborate on a collective solution.
Coming off of the success of the recent spontaneous collaboration of civil society actors in the responsible data space to put the World Food Program on notice that its agreement with Palantir threatened the data rights of the 90 million people it serves, the time is now ripe for further productive civil society collaboration to advance responsible tech. The WFP/Palantir collaboration provided a tremendous opportunity to amplify our voices and augment our relative bargaining power by working together. It demonstrated how much more we can achieve when we overcome our organizational differences and come together to cohesively and strategically work on common problems from our varying perspectives.
Talk, More Talk, and then Action
Some are concerned that there is too much talk and too little action in the responsible technology field. But talk is action when it comes to new ideas and approaches to difficult problems. We have to talk to raise awareness, not just among those creating the technology but also among users, politicians, and civil society actors. We have to talk to come to a common understanding of the most pressing problems, and of the best language for addressing them. Do we frame this as an ethics issue? Or as a human rights issue? Where are the connections, and opportunities? How do we hold technology makers to account? Are they truly responsible for the unintended consequences of the software they make? If so, how do we gauge that, and measure the impact of their efforts to incorporate ethics into their product development?
At the same time, there are some who are starting to take concrete steps towards practical application of responsible technology ideals. We at JustPeace Labs started with Ethical Guidelines for PeaceTech and are currently developing similar guidelines for companies and donors. Agile Ethics has recently launched and offers ethical training for corporations, and Doteveryone engages in similar work. The Responsible Data Community is full of practitioners working on responsible and ethical data issues in their day to day. Other organizations are actively advocating for ethical technology through different avenues, whether calling for a human rights standard related to information activities in crisis situations or vis-a-vis using video technology for human rights work. And then there are those who are promoting ethics as a part of computer science education, and many many others.
Towards Proactive, Positive Action
So there is action, and there is a developing practice of responsible and ethical technology. But we tend to work in closed—and unfortunately—all-too-often competing systems, compounded by a severe shortage of funding in these areas.
It is time to challenge our current approaches and challenge the status quo.
First, let’s start with a multi-stakeholder network. Through collaboration, we can map the forces and dynamics at play to better understand the challenge of responsible technology and the relevant stakeholders. Together, we can achieve more than we can as individuals.
Next, we should apply systems change thinking to ethical technology. We need to question hierarchies and the status quo, listen to a diversity of perspectives and build a new collective understanding of how we can ensure responsible technology becomes the new normal. Using this approach, we can support a collaborative space for increased awareness AND action.