Can an online course help Big Tech find its soul?

ByMike V. Cooper

Mar 11, 2022

The new course is intended, in part, to answer that question, speaking directly to rehabilitated technicians like Read. It contains eight modules and should take about eight hours in total, plus additional time for worksheets, brainstorming exercises, and optional Zoom discussion groups. Read, who binged the course, says he completed it in about two weeks.

For people who have spent years studying the harmful externalities of the tech industry, the course may seem insufficient. Yes, social media companies are exploiting human weaknesses – what’s up? But for those new to these ideas, it provides useful starting points. One module focuses on the psychology of persuasive technology and includes a “human design guide” for creating more human-friendly products. Another encourages technologists to identify their highest values ​​and how those values ​​interact with their work. At the end of the lesson, a worksheet invites them to imagine themselves sipping tea at 70, looking back on their lives. “What career are you looking back on? In what ways have you influenced the world? »

Subtle? Not exactly. Even still, Fernando thinks the tech industry needs a wake-up call so badly that these worksheets and journal prompts might give tech workers a moment to think about what they’re building. Suparna Chhibber, who left a job at Amazon in 2020, says the pace of the tech industry doesn’t always leave people room to reflect on their purpose or values. “People get paid a lot to get things done, and if you don’t, you’re fundamentally failing,” she says.

Chhibber signed up for the Foundations of Humane Technology around the same time as Read and found a community of like-minded people waiting to discuss the material on Zoom. (The Center for Humane Technology is leading the sessions and plans to continue them.) Read described these sessions as group therapy: “You get to know people you feel safe around exploring these topics. You can open up. Critically, it reminded him that while many people don’t understand why he left his prestigious position, he is not alone.

The Center for Humane Technology is not the first organization to create a toolkit for affected technicians. The Tech and Society Solutions Lab released two, in 2018 and 2020, designed to encourage more ethical conversations within tech companies and startups. But the center’s new course is novel in the way it tries to build community out of the nascent “human technology” movement. A single affected engineer is unlikely to change a company’s business model or practices. Together, however, a group of concerned engineers could make the difference.

The Center for Humane Technology says more than 3,600 technicians have already started the course and several hundred have completed it. “This is by far the biggest effort we’ve made to bring humane technologists together,” says David Jay, the center’s advocacy manager. The center says it has amassed a long list of relevant technologists over the years and plans to promote the course directly to them. He also plans to spread the word through a few partner organizations and his “allies across a wide range of tech companies, including many major social media platforms.”

If there was ever a time for the tech industry to regroup and reconstitute its values, it would be now: tech workers are in high demand and companies are increasingly at the mercy of their desires. . Yet the workers who attempted to raise flags have not always been listened to. It seems unlikely that these companies will shift their business incentives – away from profits and towards social awareness – without more pressures, such as regulation. Chhibber, who says he tried to infuse the principles of “human technology” into his teams at Amazon, didn’t find it enough to change the company’s overall culture. “If you have the business model behind you,” she says, “it will have an impact on what you do. »