Privately-held startups valued at $1 billion or more are commonly referred to as unicorns — and the club is growing. Over 20 startups achieved unicorn status in 2017, almost all in the technology space. But most of today’s startups, including tech unicorns, were founded on similar goals: exponential growth, monopoly, and plans for an eventual merger or IPO.
The startup model — and the network that makes these end goals possible — is infamously characterized by a high level of competition, exploitation of workers and users, emphasis on profit at all costs, and generally predatory business practices. This approach prioritizes profit above all and provokes unicorns to play a zero-sum game of winners and losers, generally benefitting high-net-worth investors at the expense of exploited labor and resources. The more an app is skewed toward speed, convenience, and consumption, the more users feel they need the tech to keep up with the ever-increasing pace of their lives and the perceived accomplishments of their peers. Make the users dependent on technology products, and you win the game.
The cycle perpetuates. Producing massively profitable unicorns was the end-goal of the startup world — that is, until a group of zebras came along with a radical new idea: What if tech was used for the collective good as opposed to individual gain? What if tech could be socially responsible?
Zebras in a unicorn’s world
With the launch of organizations like the Center for Humane Technology and apps like Feedless, public consciousness is beginning to shift. People are becoming aware of the importance of the Center’s mission to “reverse the digital attention crisis and align technology with humanity’s best interests.” Some of the issues at stake are technology and social media addiction in adults and children, political and social manipulation through technology, and a general decline in patience, critical thinking, and attention-span, as well as a rise in obesity and bullying.
As former Googler Tristan Harris publicly states, consumer technology is specifically designed to be addictive and, in many cases, to bring out the worst in us. In a recent article entitled How Technology is Hijacking Your Mind, Harris wrote, “The more choices technology gives us in nearly every domain of our lives (information, events, places to go, friends, dating, jobs) — the more we assume that our phone is always the most empowering and useful menu to pick from. Is it? The ‘most empowering’ menu is different than the menu that has the most choices. But when we blindly surrender to the menus we’re given, it’s easy to lose track of the difference.”
The future of responsible tech
Harris has been characterized as “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience” only because the mercenary pressures of the conventional tech economy make it very difficult for tech producers to align and act with their conscience. Is it true that apps and devices are consciously designed to be addictive? Yes. But it’s not just the type of technology — the apps, features, and functions — that’s important. How our tech is built is also consequential.
In order to catalyze change, those who design and build technology must be allowed to be accountable for what they are building and have a say in its production.
In order to catalyze change, those who design and build technology must be allowed to be accountable for what they are building and have a say in its production. When designers and developers are afforded the opportunity to develop emotional intelligence and the creative capacity to significantly impact the world’s seemingly intractable problems, the result is technology that helps make a positive difference, rather than technology that simply fulfills our addiction-prone behavior as consumers. Environments and design processes that prioritize individual agency, collaboration, mindfulness, and wellbeing enable technology products that are more likely to be built for whole humans that prioritize these same ideals.
Humanizing the vision and intention for the technology we build is only the beginning. The way we educate and cultivate the technology industry and its workers will influence whether we continue to create technology and money-making machines that use us or tools that we can use to create a more humane world. The technology industry is poised to reflect the desire for more meaningful work and products — something that workers and users increasingly demand. A more humane world will balance profit with meaning and harness the power of technology to genuinely improve lives.
The bottom line
The tech world has a great responsibility on its shoulders. Can we design and build tech companies that are aimed at solving real-world problems through collaboration, mutualism, and inclusive thinking? Can we harness tech to regenerate communities, economies, families, and the environment? The answer is yes.
Tech should not exist only to fulfill consumptive and addictive needs. Instead, there is an opportunity to build benevolent technology to be used by humans and for humans, rather than by consumers for profit. There is no time like the present to assume that responsibility and work toward a more responsible tech world.
Corey Kohn is the CEO, co-founder and a member-owner of Dojo4, a community-based, member-owned agency that creates positive change through technology and design. She is also the co-creator of Antidote to Tech, a resource for technologists committed to thriving natural environments and genuine human connection.