The rise of ‘Tech for Ungood’

Is it time to call into question the hype around 'Tech for Good' – asks Stephen Miller, research and evaluation manager at the UK's leading social entrepreneurs' network UnLtd?

In the US and UK, the Tech for Good movement has emerged to purposefully apply technology to social and political issues. The carefully chosen moniker signifies a belief that the net benefit of technology should be for the greater good.

Even Google’s Eric Schmidt has got in on the act, boldly declaring that it is not governments, not big corporations, but tech start-ups who will deliver the solution to economic inequality. Yet Schmidt is not talking about a niche within the tech sector – he earnestly believes all tech start-ups contain within them the potential for social change. 

Yet ‘change’ can take a variety of forms. If Schmidt is right, how do we differentiate between those entrepreneurs who are enabling bottom-up, grassroots change to emerge, and those are leveraging technology to impose the solutions they themselves want to see? 

Human technology 

It is all too common an error to assume that technology is neutral, objective and apolitical. Computer codes and algorithms don't write themselves (yet), and contain within them the biases of their programmers. The financial campaigner Brett Scott recently penned an interesting vignette of the contemporary tech entrepreneur or hacker which alludes to what these biases may be.

Such individuals are, Scott argues, largely driven by the belief that “I personally can do something [about x,y,z]”. As they grow in confidence, they also “become increasingly intolerant towards conventions [and] institutions”. 

An emphasis on both self-actualisation and intolerance of the status quo can manifest in a number of ways, some of it positive. Take for instance the School for Health and Care Radicals, set up by Helen Bevan to provide a virtual learning programme for existing health care professionals to “challenge the status quo and try something different in order to improve patient care”. 

Yet it can also manifest in ways which are less positive, such as US entrepreneur Travis Kalanick satisfying his motivation to ‘disrupt’ by creating Uber. This app has shaken up the taxi industry worldwide by cutting out the middle man and connecting you directly with ‘any qualified driver with an acceptable vehicle’ in your vicinity. In the process it has also stepped on a lot of toes.

Uber is a great example of how an individual’s outlook informs the codes they write and the technologies they create, and it seems to me that this contributes in no small part to ‘the cult of disruption’ – lots of entrepreneurs starting small companies to do something about x,y or z, and in the process shaking things up within a sector or amongst larger competitors. Yet there are a growing number of examples of how such motivations are leading tech entrepreneurs in to the political and social spheres.

Atlas shrugged, we all shrug

Uber has come under-fire across the world for operating outside the remit of regulatory authorities, and in countries such as the UK and India it has even ‘opted out’ of paying full taxes. This is not a side-effect of the ‘disruption’ process however, but a conscious choice. Take for instance Kalanick’s views on taxation:

“One of the interesting stats I came across was that 50% of all California taxes are paid by 141,000 people... If 141,000 affluent people in CA [California] went 'on strike', CA would be done for.”

This could well be a line from ‘Atlas Shrugged’, the libertarian novel in which leading industrialists withdraw their labour and retreat to the mountains to start a new civilisation. Peter Thiel, founder of Paypal and famously one of the first investors into Facebook, aims to do just that, and wants “to find an escape from politics in all its forms”: 

“The mode for escape must involve some sort of new and hitherto untried process that leads us to some undiscovered country; and for this reason I have focused my efforts on new technologies that may create a new space for freedom.” 

Whilst PayPal is not exactly the embodiment of this libertarianism, this philosophy guides Thiel’s investments and philanthropy. Most notably he has teamed up with Milton Friedman's grandson to create an island which will "give people the freedom to choose the government they want instead of being stuck with the government they get"

The rise of Tech for Ungood?

Whilst Thiel has bemoaned both the ethics of Uber and the focus on disruption in Silicon Valley, there is seemingly little difference between his brand of ‘objectivism’ and the cult of disruption endorsed by Travis Kalanick. Thiel and Kalanick provide visible indicators that tech entrepreneurs have personal (and sometimes very strong) political outlooks. It figures therefore that sometimes these will seep in to the codes and technology they create. 

For some this may be stating the obvious, particularly given the recent rise of social entrepreneurs using technology to address particular social issues. Yet these social entrepreneurs have yet to carve out their own space, and many readily subscribe to the cult of disruption so tainted by a particular branch of libertarianism.

What’s more, in doing so we are all helping to further perpetuate the idea that it is ok if we all do whatever we want first and foremost, and worry about others and the consequences later. Yet this is the exact opposite of what the Tech for Good movement is trying to achieve. 

As George Orwell wrote in the novel 1984:

"A word contains its opposite in itself. Take 'good', for instance. If you have a word like 'good', what need is there for a word like 'bad'? 'Ungood' will do just as well -- better, because it's an exact opposite, which the other is not."

I wonder if it’s time we also started talking about Tech for Ungood?


Photo credit: Christian Rondeau