Tech Can Do Good
As someone with a strong interest in tech ethics, and how to leverage tech to build a better, more fair world, it's really easy to fall down dystopian rabbit holes. Particularly, when venturing into the world of AI ethics and discrimination in technology, it’s easy to focus on the negatives and forget all the positive changes that technology has brought to the world. I'm not trying to discount the harms that these technologies have brought but instead share a sort of counter-argument to my speculative fiction essay, where all roads led to the dystopian world. AI and machine learning empower technologists to comb through large datasets efficiently. When unleashed with equity and diversity in mind, they can have immense power in reducing biases in the world. While technologies like AI and social media platforms have been shown to perpetuate biases, it isn’t time to give up on techno-optimism yet. Technology can be used to increase workplace transparency, reduce income inequality, support activist causes, and empower smaller businesses to reach a larger audience.
Income inequality and workplace discrimination have always been tricky issues to navigate. Employees may be hesitant to speak up about workplace discrimination because they feel their work environment may not be receptive to their feedback or fear retaliation. Tools like Blind, a workplace social media app, allow semi-anonymized users to candidly discuss work topics. Blind verifies users are employees of specific companies by requiring they sign in with their work email but does not reveal who they are within the platform. This platform has created a safe digital environment for employees to voice concerns and give candid feedback to executives and those in management positions of companies without revealing their identities. Despite its anonymous culture, Blind claims (as of 2017) only 0.17% of its discussions/posts have ever been flagged and removed by the community. While some social media platforms like Facebook have, in recent years, turned into unsafe online spaces, Blind is one example of how a platform increase equity and diverse perspectives in the workplace. Another type of tool that can help increase workplace equity is compensation sharing platforms. It’s a well-known fact that women and marginalized groups often get underpaid in relation to their white male counterparts. According to the Ontario Gender Wage Gap Strategy Steering Committee, women with the same experience, socio-economic and demographic background earn approximately $7,200 less annually than their male counterparts. Levels.fyi and OpenSalary.jp, anonymous compensation sharing platforms, are platforms that empower job seekers and employees to have better information about compensation levels. Salary negotiation is a common practice in tech companies that leaves many women and marginalized groups underpaid because they do not have the knowledge of what their roles are truly worth (amonst other systemic inequality factors). By empowering job seekers and employees with salary data, it can reduce income wage gaps by encouraging more candid discussions around compensation and equipping job seekers to negotiate offers that are on par with market value.
While mainstream social media platforms often get a bad reputation with respect to diversity, equity, and inclusion, platforms like Facebook and TikTok have also brought many positive changes to the world. TikTok popularized text-to-speech and closed caption in mainstream social media productions. Prior to TikTok, it was uncommon for content creators to proactively add closed captions to video content. With TikTok’s text-to-speech feature, it made closed-captioning a core feature instead of just an afterthought for many creators. Beyond user accessibility advancements, social media has also been transformative for small businesses to engage with customers beyond their local communities. Small businesses have been able to drive massive growth beyond their local communities through social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram. However, the growth and customer platform that many small businesses have created through social media platforms like Facebook are highly dependent on the platforms themselves. In October 2021, Meta experienced one of their largest outages causing subsidiaries including Whatsapp, Facebook, Messenger, and Instagram to be down for several hours. Some companies saw “their sales drop to one-fourth of what they normally [were]” due to the outage1. This poses an interesting ethical dilemma because while these large tech companies yield power over small businesses and their revenue streams, without these social media platforms, many of these businesses would not have been able to expand beyond their local spheres as easily. As small businesses grow increasingly reliant on social media platforms to drive their business models, it will be important for businesses to diversify the platforms they engage in to not be overly reliant on any single company for their business to succeed.
Most social media and messaging tools weren’t originally designed for activism and social impact but some have been repurposed by many activists to create communities and traction around their causes. In 2014, the ALS Association ran an ice bucket challenge on social media that raised over $115 million in donations. According to the University of Maryville, “the donation amount was transformative for the association, allowing it to invest in research and assistive technologies, as well as to increase access to healthcare and services for people with ALS”. The #metoo movement is another movement that has gained significant traction through social media, specifically through some high-profile actresses opening up about their sexual harassment experiences on social media. Movements like this harness the network effects of social media to create global traction for campaigns that would otherwise not be possible in a world before mainstream social media adoption. Privacy-forward messaging apps like Signal, an end-to-end encrypted messaging app, have also been used by activists to organize initiatives. Signal was a core tool that organizers of Black Lives Matters protests used in 2020 to maintain their privacy. It has gained so much traction in the activist space that Signal download statistics can be correlated with times of national anxiety and unrest with downloads increasing during events such as the 2016 US Election day, and the 2017 Women’s March. Moreover, Signal’s encryption algorithms are open-source which allows for updates to be community vetted. “Because there are so many eyes looking at essentially a worldwide, peer-reviewed system – vulnerabilities are spotted and fixed much faster than when code is sealed”3. The open-sourced nature of Signal keeps the technologists behind the algorithms accountable and enables the public to audit and decide for themselves whether to engage with the tool.
Despite all the news on discrimination and inequity encoded into algorithms and technology, it’s important to remember that technology can still be used for good. It's up to not only the technologists who build the tools but also the users to decide how to engage with them to pave the future of tech. Discrimination and inequity were introduced to technology by creators and consumers of it, but it is not too late to rewrite the narrative and redirect technology towards building a better, more equitable world.
This paper was written as part of a course I took in computing & discrimination.
- Navlakha, Meera. Small business owners reveal just how much the Facebook outage affected them
- Nierenberg, Amelia. Signal Downloads Are Way Up Since the Protests Began
- Knefel, Joe. The Privacy Protectors Won't Shut Up