How society can drive technology (not the other way around) in 2023

A man uses his phone to activate a Lyft Scooter in Washington, U.S., March 29, 2019

A man uses his phone to activate a Lyft Scooter in Washington, U.S., March 29, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

For years we have let digital technology become unmoored from any societal vision for it. Next year we can, and must, remedy this

Wafa Ben-Hassine is a human rights lawyer at Omidyar Network.

The mass layoffs planned at Amazon, Meta, Twitter, Lyft, Salesforce, Microsoft, and Stripe, will impact society as we know it. Why? First on the chopping block are the teams in charge of ethics, accountability, safety, accessibility, diversity and other vital issues.

For years now, we have allowed digital technology to become unmoored from any societal vision for it. We’ve waited until the damage is done to ask how society can remedy tech’s harms in part due to outdated beliefs about the economy, technology, and its inevitability. But also due to our tendency to think of technology as simply a “sector” rather than something bigger.

As 2023 approaches, big questions loom. What will happen with crypto currencies? How is AI going to affect worker power? Will dominant technology companies finally be held to account, especially in developing economies? Will the uptake of Metaverse-like technologies repeat mistakes of the past?

We need to take a broader look at how technology affects society. We must start by defining the kind of culture we want, then ask how we can use technology’s potential to achieve this goal. Where do we start? Many will be tempted to continue tackling specific and urgent risks related to abortion-related surveillance, AI bias, or the exploitation of children online or propose solutions that close the digital divides and shore up digital rights.

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But after years of fighting those fights as an international human rights lawyer, I see great value in collectively putting more focus on the overall tech system, its health, and its governing mindsets. Everyone who works to advance racial justice, equitable opportunity, jobs, a sustainable planet, and a healthy democracy has a stake in this. And there are six reasons and ways we must work together to ensure society drives technology (not the other way around) in 2023:

Inclusive participation

Tech companies and venture investors still employ only a narrow subset of the broader population they so deeply impact with their designs and decisions. A healthy tech system will require diverse teams, boards, and pipelines as well as de-concentrating who finances, creates, governs, and delivers digital tech. In the new year, we should all, for example, do our part to recognize and promote women, young people, communities of color, disabled people, queer communities, and rural populations as active stakeholders and partners in the vision for a responsible tech future.

Stronger ethics and greater transparency

Society has built ethical frameworks for most tech developed in the 19th and 20th centuries — from nuclear energy to biomedicine — and digital tech should be no different. A healthy system is one that prioritizes trustworthiness, human rights-centered frameworks, norms like open-source, and greater transparency. Stronger ethics and greater transparency are essential if society is to reckon with complex issues like AI explainability and mis- and disinformation. These important tools, and many of the experts that are now looking for work, are essential in helping tech companies reckon with tech’s social and economic harms, shore up the safety and integrity of their products and platforms, and build incentives that reward responsibility.

New mindsets

Tech is subject to the same mindsets that govern private markets, our culture, and government. The prevailing laissez-faire, overly deregulated economic paradigm has incentivized privatizing the gains, socializing the harms, and limiting the role for government in the Internet. For everyone to meaningfully participate in our economy, democracy, and society we need a new economic paradigm that places individual, community, and societal well-being at the center of every decision and weighs each set of interests against the other.

Meaningful oversight

Ensuring that digital tech lives up to its promise requires a strengthened set of competencies, institutions, standards, and statutory authorities. While some initial progress on competition, anti-monopoly, and privacy policies is welcome, much more work needs to be done to account for digital tech’s impact on speech, trade, banking, and licensing. A healthy tech system requires policymakers to help set clear rules and boundaries for powerful tech platforms and consider new or revamped institutions with new mandates and capabilities, as well as new tools ranging from public options to tax to standard-setting.

Expansive innovation

Today’s tech system, namely the VC financing model, encourages growth and market capture at the expense of consumers, workers, and ethics, with commerce as the primary driver for innovation. New private financing models with longer horizons are urgently needed to support technologists with different values and innovation that safeguards rights, promotes justice, and builds tech in service of the public good.

Empowered consumers and responsive makers

A healthy tech system requires that digital tech makers and owners purposefully engage and remain responsive to a broad range of stakeholders. To do so, technologists need more than the hard skills of coding, engineering, and data science; they need supportive work cultures and professional associations, ethics training, and soft skills that will enable them to openly collaborate, work with integrity, and put purpose above profits. Consumers and communities also have important roles to play in this relationship, sharing their lived experiences, advocating for and demanding better design, and embedding their needs in the design, deployment, and improvement of tech.

We all have the ability — and the obligation — to steer, shape, and govern digital technology in service of a more inclusive and equitable society. All of us: philanthropists, technologists, entrepreneurs, policymakers, academics, advocates, movement leaders, students, consumers, and investors have different, yet complementary strengths to contribute. It will require us to learn from each other, collaborate, and connect our individual work to the larger system. It will require a fundamentally different, more systematic approach than we have tried before. And it will ultimately determine if we force tech to improve society or allow it to continue to destabilize us.

Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


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