Technology is pretty great, but it can come at a cost. Attention spans addled by screen time and that unreachable star known as multitasking; privacy invaded by web trackers and facial recognition; finances depleted by cybercriminals; essential software designed for only a subset of the population, leaving out the poor and disenfranchised.
On Saturday, about 150 tech workers pressed pause on the steady march of their work to think about where this is all going and how technology should be designed — not for profit but for the good of all of us.
The All Tech Is Human: Seattle event, held at Artefact’s design studio overlooking Elliott Bay, included presentations by two dozen technologists, ethicists, designers and activists. Organizers said the summit was a response to an increasingly loud call for thoughtful consideration of tech’s “unintended consequences.”
“I love technology — and it is a false dichotomy to say that innovation and social good for technology cannot coexist,” said Shankar Narayan, Technology and Liberty Project Director at the ACLU of Washington. “They can, but it is also indisputably true that we are not doing a particularly good job of getting it right.”
All Tech Is Human was founded by David Ryan Polgar, an ethicist, tech writer and speaker who is one of the creators and co-hosts of the New York-based Funny as Tech podcast, which features a live panel discussing difficult technology issues.
The first All Tech Is Human event was held in March of last year as part of the Grand Central Tech startup residency program in New York. It took place in the midst of Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, which underscored the need for a focused, united force advocating for ethical and diversity-driven tech, organizers said.
Polgar began bringing technologists, students, activists and others together with the hope of spreading a renewed sense of “How should it be done?” across a tech business driven by “Can it be done?” and “How do we profit from it once we’ve done it?”
Topics at Saturday’s event, which was organized with the Omidyar Network, a think tank addressing technology and social issues, included how tech can improve citizen’s access to government information and services, ethical uses of AI and AR, and “regaining control over tech” in a culture that has become obsessed with it.
Delaney Ruston, a physician and Fulbright Scholar, spoke about her film, Screenagers, which chronicles a generation of teenagers whose lives take place increasingly on their phones. In a clip from the film, one of her subjects had this to say about the false promise of multitasking across various apps: “Even though you’re doing worse and worse at everything, you feel like you’re doing better and better at everything.”
Solutions to these problems are not easy to come by, of course, and many are predictably incremental. Amie Thao, a civic designer with the City of Seattle, described her efforts to craft an “affordability portal” for the city’s online services that emphasizes accessibility so people can more easily find the resources they need to keep their homes in an expensive city.
Steve Schwartz, Tableau Software’s director of public affairs, described how his company applied its technologies to visualize the city’s data, making information easily and quickly available to journalists, politicians and citizens.
There’s “no magic bullet for fixing the unintended consequences of tech,” but he said creating better tech that serves everyone will mean bringing a more diverse group of people into the design and creation process.
“There are no good or perfect solutions,” Schwartz said. “There’s only the best decision you can make.”
Artefact spokeswoman Amy Wales said the design firm was chosen to host Saturday’s event because Seattle is a major tech hub and Artefact has taken an interest in ethical tech.
Earlier this year, Artefact released a white paper titled “Can Social Be Saved?” which called for a “systems thinking” — or a relentlessly holistic and multifaceted approach — to get at the “root causes” of social media’s ills.
“Now is the time to slow down and ask important questions of our work,” reads a headline on the Tarot deck’s website, which also may as well have been the tagline for Saturday’s summit.
In addition to Saturday’s event, All Tech is Human will host summits in San Francisco and New York later this year.