Thanks to Emily, Ang, Ryan, Matthew, and more who have joined in these foundational conversations!
When you think about ethical tech, what comes to mind? For me, I think about ‘moral panic’ headlines like ‘social media notifications are rotting our minds’ and ‘robots are going to put us all out of work!’ I think of artificial intelligence, the digital divide, planned obsolescence, tech companies too big to fail, facadebook, server farms, predictive marketing, sentencing algorithms, the list goes on. This list makes me feel dismayed. Powerless. Defeated. Terrified. The exact opposite of how I usually feel about solving tough tech challenges. I usually feel … creative, empowered, curious, optimistic, connected to a community of practice. Sure, ethical tech is daunting, but it’s not impossible.
Lo and behold, when my Spreadsheet Soulmate asked me to co-present at the Nonprofit Technology Conference about building an ethical oath for nonprofit technologists, I immediately said YES!
Quickly in our discussions, I realized that when I talk about ethical tech, I am quick to point fingers at every company/institution/cultural norm except… my own decisions. It’s easy for me to be bombastic about what everyone else should do, which is a sure fire way to feel disempowered. Good job, self! While I do think corporations are mostly to blame, it’s been transformative to find a “way in” to the conversation that rests on my own values and my ability to live into them. Today, I want to tell you about the methods that we are developing. Please engage with this post and let me know what resonates with you!
Emily and I began with setting up juxtapositions of ethical or technical tradeoffs. For example, “stay on current system” versus “transition to new system.” Then we boil the dilemma down to the values at stake, like “stability versus flexibility” or “efficiency (soon) versus slow down and change (now).” From there, we realized that some orgs are going to lean on one side and others to the other. Neither option is objectively more ethical… it’s all a question of context.
Let me tell you … as a self-proclaimed Opinionated Do-Good-er (that’s the nice way of saying it), coming up with an answer to an ethical dilemma with … “it depends” was both incredibly unsatisfying and incredibly liberating at the same time.
In the months that we have been collaborating on this project, we have challenged each other to articulate… WHAT DOES IT DEPEND *ON*? The answers to this question range from personality to circumstance to budget to culture to mission to capacity … even to plain, old preference.
Looking back, now I’m like, OF COURSE it depends !!! (pounds forehead) Having these conversations about how we use tech, about our goals and dreams and desires, about our embodied experience of typing away at a screen, about our memories of shame, impostor syndrome, or deep frustration, about how we compromise within an organization to share data, about how we balance competing priorities (money, time, creative energy, ambitious goals, bad options, etc etc etc), about who we listen to, who we are accountable to, heck, even WHO decides… THIS is the work of ethical tech! Whether the decision is about a spreadsheet, a hardware replacement warrantee, or implementing a new multipurpose software product, we need to be aligned around our purpose and goals.
Articulating our values and applying them to our tech is a serious building block to having a larger, public conversation about ethical tech acceptableness. Many times, it is THE building block to engaging vendors directly about the consequences of their decisions. And if enough of us do that … okay, okay, back to the show.
Today, Emily and I had a debate about whether an organization should prioritize simple versus complex tech solutions. This is one of the many tradeoffs we’ve given ourselves as an exercise in identifying what is most at stake in our work. This is how we deduce values and commitments.
We’ve called this exercise “binaries,” “spectrums,” “tradeoffs,” or just “debate.” We haven’t settled on a name yet – this blog post is more about process than product.
I argued for complex. My reasoning is that simple tech experiences are the result of or result in (ya see what I did there??) complexity. For example, let’s take data collection. It’s easy-peasy to collect data through a Google Form. Most people in my life can create one pretty easily. But if you have an org where everyone is making Google Forms all the time, then how do you consolidate all of that data into your Annual Report mailing list? It’s sure possible, but not simple! Alternatively, if you put the complexity first and you create a multipurpose registration system where anyone can create a custom form, but the form is “smart” enough to combine duplicates and store registration data in a common system… well, it introduces complexity behind the scenes but it may “seem” just as simple when it meets the eye. I don’t think we can avoid complexity. Instead, I think we should be proactive and transparent about it.
Emily came back with a different perspective. For them, simplicity is all about putting people first, and centering their needs and experiences interacting with tech and data. When nonprofits are dealing with competing priorities, staff transitions, etc etc, tech is one thing that can (should) be simple. Hands off the Google Forms, Shain! I appreciate how Emily brought a strengths-based perspective to the convo, and heaps of empathy for form-filler-outers and form-inviters. Too much of the time, they are forced to cope with bad or overly complex forms. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone!
I came to the realization during this discussion that behind seemingly simple tech there is always complexity. We shouldn’t have to choose between them. What we need is to strive for transparency and communication between stakeholders, so that everyone can be on the same page about simple/complex requests and seeing the work that goes into collecting/using/building these systems. I mean, how many times have you thought up a tech request that you thought was hard, but turned out to be easy, or vis versa? (Me: too many to count!) Having productive conversations about requests and problem solving animates the simple/complex divide. Imagine someone brainstorming, “how hard would it be to …?” Those are some of my favorite conversations. They demonstrate a true collaboration of epic proportions, and a glimmer of mutual appreciation of strengths, dedication, and compromise between tech-users and tech-builders.
We went down through the layers and we came down to core values of transparency, communication, and integrity. When faced with this spectrum, and looking for the ethical implications, we ended up seeking a conversation like…
- What do you need?
- How hard is it to make?
- The truth about the technology is …
The ethical imperative here is to listen, appreciate, reflect, commit, and tell the truth.
In every tradeoff that we could think of (and we’ve been through quite a few!), we can distill the spectrum into values and commitments to act on those values. We even created some commitments and tested them on tough decisions to see if they would help us come to a conclusion (so far, so good!) – but that’s a topic for another blog post.
try it at home
Here are some spectrums that we have been chewing on – think about if you fall closer to one side or the other, and why? If you can’t decide between them, think about what circumstances would align with one pole versus the other. You might realize that the thing that’s most important to you isn’t on the spectrum at all – and that’s ok!
- One System To Rule Them All <——————> many task-specific systems
- Dedicate most/all time to org solo mission <——————> collaborate with user groups and contribute extensively to community tech or program collaborative ecosystem
- Hire technical staff in house <——————————–> contract with “expert” consultants
Emily and I are taking the show on the road to the Good Tech Fest (May 18-19) and a follow-up #EthicalTechChat on Twitter (schedule TBD). You can join us at the conference (for our session and other wonderful sessions!) with the following free access code: FriendOfTheNerd