Technology and all of objective science are caught in a crisis of reputation. From investigations into competition practices to legislative scrutiny over the application and safety of new products, innovators are facing a reckoning for their seeming absence of principles such as privacy, security, inclusion, transparency, and accountability. But it is possible to bend the arc of innovation toward overall public purpose.
Ash Carter, a former secretary of the US Defense Department, is the director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School, where he leads the Technology and Public Purpose project. He’s also an Innovation Fellow at MIT. Nicholas Thompson (@nxthompson) is WIRED‘s editor in chief.
We are behind in combining tech and public ethics. For decades, leading voices in industry and government had subscribed to a prevailing ethos: techno-optimism. According to this notion, technological progress would ineluctably benefit humanity. In 1996, John Perry Barlow published “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” which proclaimed the coming of “a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace. More humane and fair than the world [your] governments have made before.” That same year, AI theorist Eliezer Yudkowsky wrote: “Our sole responsibility is to produce something smarter than we are; any problems beyond that are not ours to solve.” Newfound access, connectivity, and freedom of expression were not only viewed as profoundly transformative, but inherently good.
But there were many harbingers of today’s techlash—and signs that tools designed to bring us together could actually tear us apart. Ten years ago, arguably at the height of our modern tech fever, Mark Zuckerberg dismissed privacy as a “social norm”; Uber was ordered to cease and desist operations in San Francisco; and Foxconn’s Shenzhen factory faced a suicide crisis over workers’ rights. The consistency and pervasiveness of these issues over the next decade became a testament to a growing cultural problem.
It would be a profound mistake, though, to caricature the tech industry as amoral or tech policymakers in government as ignorant. There has always been an active community of individuals and organizations striving to make technological advances more inclusive, safer, and fairer. To encourage this mission, we need to shine a spotlight on the many efforts that have been designed to address the dilemmas of technological change.
Take Mozilla and Brave, internet browsers that place privacy and consumer security at the forefront. The emergence of their businesses was driven by mission—an insistence on preserving digital rights. Likewise, the Algorithmic Justice League’s Gender Shades initiative ensures that the technology we develop and deploy protects values of inclusion in the same spirit. Other organizations, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Surveillance Self-Defense project and the Knight First Amendment Institute’s litigation, exist to promote accountability and effective governance. And congressional leaders are advancing legislation such as the Honest Ads Act and the Children and Media Research Advancement Act to promote greater transparency and safety.
At a time when we hear most about tech’s bad actors, these comparatively quiet efforts should be cheered. This is why the Technology and Public Purpose Project at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and WIRED are excited to announce the inaugural Tech Spotlight, which will recognize products, initiatives, and policies that embrace principles such as privacy, security, safety, transparency, accountability, and inclusion—and that aim to minimize technological harms.
We envision a future in which technology is transformative, but not at the expense of our values and social cohesion. By highlighting examples that protect our societal values, we hope to foster a broader tech culture that embraces responsibility for its inventions and actively works to secure the foundational values of society.
History has shown that technological progress cannot be stopped, but it can and should be shaped to protect public values. If we truly believe in the power of technology, it’s time to lead by example.
Nomination will be open until November 30, 2019 at 11:59pm EST. All finalists will be notified in early 2020 and invited to attend a recognition ceremony at the Harvard Kennedy School in April 2020.
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