Global pandemic, racial tension and a hope for our tech decisions

  • Posted on June 12, 2020
  • Estimated reading time 4 minutes

Back in December, I wrote that digital ethics will only catch on if we change our conversations – that if we really want to change things for the better, we’ll have to start discussing ethical decisions all the time: when we interview job candidates, design products, set performance metrics, gather customer feedback, etc. And two months ago, I wrote about how much more these issues matter with the pandemic on the rise. Now, the urgency is even greater.

The COVID-19 pandemic and economic repercussions have already taken a vicious toll on communities and businesses around the world, disproportionately harming under-represented groups (including women, people of color, etc.) and leaving an uncertain path forward. Meanwhile, demonstrations continue across the U.S. and around the world over institutional racism, especially among law enforcement authorities, which most recently surfaced as the senseless death of George Floyd was caught on video. Many of us have been left angry, frustrated, struggling, yet hopeful we can find ways to come together for positive change. 

We’ve seen understandable cynicism and even mistrust about technology’s role in helping us fight these social ills (debates over content moderation, contact tracing, facial recognition and other surveillance technologies come to mind). Those of us in tech, regardless what technology we work with, should think about how decisions in the industry over the past decade may have led to this cynicism and mistrust. We should be asking ourselves how people a decade from now will talk about our current decisions. 

To be clear, technology shouldn’t be the first place we turn to solve any of these current social challenges – we need first to listen, then engage in dialogue with a sense of empathy, unity and collaboration. Following that, technology will come into play as a way to accelerate and codify change. It will help us shape how we communicate with loved ones, care for and educate our youth, keep our neighbors and communities safe, create and distribute opportunity, rethink our businesses and renew economies. 

As we all search for how to move forward positively, this is what I hope we’ll be able to tell the next generation about technology’s current role in our recovery.

We built technology that helped eradicate long-standing inequities and exclusions. Clearly, we shouldn’t allow AI and other tech innovation to exacerbate existing racial, gender-based or other stereotypes. But it’s not enough to simply avoid these biases; we need to interrupt them and correct the inequities they’ve created. We should be looking for ways to amplify the voices and power of people who have historically been denied opportunities, and help policy- and decision-makers make up for past failures. (For example, here’s an article explaining ways technology can help reduce racism.)

We brought real diversity to the design and development of tech. It will be impossible to fairly distribute the benefits of technology if the people building it don’t fairly represent the population of those it will affect. We should continually strive to recruit, hire, train and promote individuals in tech with the goal of diversity. Again, this isn’t about just removing bias from those processes, but correcting the inequities created by past biases. (Here’s a link to some relevant tools and techniques in Microsoft’s inclusive design methodology.)

We amplified voices of reason and suppressed misinformation. One of the most difficult challenges we’ve seen escalating around the COVID-19 pandemic and protests against racism is how tech is amplifying voices of violence, prejudice, conspiracy and division. Few of us would argue in favor of a central authority on “good” versus “bad” speech; however, we can do a much better job helping people understand the sources and possible motivation of information to which they’re exposed, so they can make more informed decisions. (Here’s a story out of India about an association of large tech firms to fight fake news and hate speech.)

We helped strengthen people’s mental and physical health. In the past three months we’ve learned to check in with each other and connect more personally through technology, while understanding the importance of personal downtime and time offline. We should be taking these early lessons and designing tech that fosters healthy personal connections as well as healthy technology disconnections. (Check out the Thriving Mind platform from Stanford Medicine, Thrive Global, and Accenture.)

We made real strides to correct environmental damage. If there has been any silver lining to the global pandemic, it’s been the early signs of improvements in air quality, animal welfare and other environmental factors as we sheltered in place. While few would say that our current situation is a viable long-term solution, we have already learned lessons about how tech can support environmentally friendly behavior like telecommuting and reduced travel. We should continue looking for other ways we can reverse tech’s harmful effects on the natural world. (Check out this article detailing how tech hurts and helps the environment and how that could improve.) 

We gave people control over their personal information. In the name of public health and safety, the past few months have seen incredible advancements in government surveillance and control. At the same time, we’ve seen policies and guidelines emerge that will help individuals control the collection and use of their data to counter government and corporate overreach. We should understand that public health and safety (not to mention marketing and user experience) initiatives will always push for more data, but we can still support innovations in these areas with principles that leave control in the hands of individuals. (For example, future mobile apps can follow the privacy, transparency and user control principles Apple and Google built into their exposure notification capabilities.)

We made transparency and oversight core to everything we built. Many of these ethical dilemmas don’t have a clear right or wrong answer. In those cases, our best option is to build transparency into our decision-making process so people understand what they’re dealing with (and can choose whether and how to engage) and oversight to make sure the tech we build yields the positive results we intend. For any technology with widespread impact, we should also insist on independent oversight. (Here’s an organization championing transparency in tech.)

We helped business and government leaders make decisions that favored long-term sustainability. The increasing power of technology is undeniable, and entities that wield it well will no doubt have awesome advantages. Yet we have also seen that in times of crisis, some of the most technologically advanced companies and governments struggle to protect themselves and their people, leaving certain minority populations especially exposed. So while we will still build technology that generates financial growth and prosperity, we shouldn’t lose sight of how that technology supports prosperity and resilience for all people and communities it touches. (Here’s what the World Economic Forum says about tech for post-pandemic resilience.)

I hope all who read this are healthy and safe and are looking out for one another. I hope we can continue this discussion about how we can have a genuine human impact and improve the world through technology.

As always, I look forward to your input, and if you’re looking for a more in-depth discussion or help on any of these topics, you can contact us directly or post a comment below.

Avanade Insights Newsletter

Stay up to date with our latest news.

Contact Avanade

Next steps

Talk to us about how we can bring the power of digital innovation to your business.

Share this page