Over the past two months, we have been honing our skills as a part of the freshest cohort of Canadian ‘Tech Stewards’, a program designed for undergraduate students from all disciplines across Canada to better understand and direct the trajectory of technology toward social good. Through this process, we have met with fellow students to integrate ethical and societal questions into technological development by adopting three core commitments: advance understanding, deliberate values and practice behaviours. Want to learn more? Well, keep reading! Take up the torch of holding technology to account and help us “bend the arc of technology towards good.”
So Curtis, what is the core commitment of Advancing Understanding?
If you were to ask someone about their thoughts on digital technology, you’d probably get a bunch of different responses! On one side of the scale belong the optimists like AI researchers, tech entrepreneurs, and blockchain enthusiasts. These individuals, relative to the average person, have a greater sense of optimism about technology’s potential to achieve progress and even solve complex human problems. Balancing out the scale are the pessimists - those who feel jaded by existing tech systems and see its advance simply as further concentrating wealth and power into the hands of a few at the expense of the many. These people point to racial biases in AI, the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and NFT artwork theft as evidence to back their claims.
When asked the question posed in the image above, there were a few people who self-identified as a 1-2 or a 9-10 on the scale - citing the benefits and concerns I identified above. However, most people (including myself) self-identified somewhere in the middle; I would hazard a guess that our test group is reflective of greater population trends. Most of us understand and appreciate the tangible benefits that tech development has granted us, but also feel conflicted about the observable harms it can have on ourselves and our communities. We may not feel like we live under the subjugation of killer robots - at least not yet! - but we also feel like the diplomacy depicted in Star Trek is galaxies away from our own.
And this is where ‘Advance Understanding’ matters; tech impacts everyone, and everyone has different interpretations of its effects based on their individual experiences. If we are ever to design and implement tech that serves the well-being of the collective, we need to pay attention to what our experiences and biases are - especially if they have the potential to cause harm to others. When we are more thoughtful about our past and present relationship with tech, then we find unique opportunities to be responsible tech stewards for the future.
What about Deliberate Values?
What do you stand for? What are your values? Just like how our values come into play in the decision that we make in our personal and professional lives, technology is shaped and scaled through our value systems. Our values help us decide to buy either the ergonomically designed — yet utilitarian style — running shoes or the beautiful — yet pain-inducing — heels. Which decision you choose is based on your values and the value tensions that you are willing to accept. Will you wear the beautiful high heels for the feeling of prestige while being willing to handle the pain or pick the runners to ensure your feet don’t hurt at the end of the day while accepting the less flattering style?
A fun example of deliberate values is from 'To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar' where the three protagonist drag queens have to decide between buying a stylish - and junky - convertible or a sensible, reliable Toyota Corolla. By basing their decision on their deliberate values as influenced by their identities, the Queens choose the erratic but stylish car whose eventual breakdown furthers the plot of the movie.
Wait, what are value tensions? They are groups of interdependent pairs — the both/and options, if you will — often called ‘polarities’ and while you may not notice that they are all around us and we interact with them every day. We tend to focus on one of the two interdependent variables and forget the partner to it, causing the forgotten value to turn into a negative consequence. For example, both Curtis and I run; if we ran every day without rest the value opposite the activity we are doing — rest — would suffer and as a result, we would most likely be injured and have to stop our running. Not only are we affected by the consequences of too much of the value of running — or activity — we lose out on the benefits that may have come with the value of resting.
But how does this relate to technology? Technology is created to be neutral, right? Not really, technology is shaped by our values just as our values are shaped by technology in a never-ending feedback loop of how our wants and needs affect our environment. Some common value tensions are outlined below:
Openness AND Privacy
Convenience AND Privacy
Centralized AND Decentralized
Efficiency AND Reward
Rewards AND Risk
Evolution AND Revolution
Near AND Far Term Benefits
Focused AND Societal Benefits
Information Sharing AND Information Security
Take the idea of “smart” cities for example; smart cities are built with a focus on openness - increasing efficiency and sharing more information with citizens. However, this often means forgetting the value of privacy. At what point is open too open? When do we draw the line about how much we want other people to know about our lives? What happens if the citizens’ data is leaked? Without a focus on both openness and privacy, issues like data security and data biases can slip by. So the next time you are faced with a situation where you feel you may need to make a trade-off — or feel as though it is an either/or debate — start asking the question, “what if we could focus on both?”
Finally, what are Practice Behaviours?
Bringing everything together into action is what ‘Practice behaviours’ is all about. When we move away from ‘either/or’ dichotomies and open ourselves to ‘both/and’ conversations, hopefully, you can start to create space where tech development and tech stewardship exist in equilibrium. This work is done in practice and allows us the agency to shift from passive observers to active contributors in the myriad ways that tech shapes the world around us. There are 4 steps in this process, outlined below:
Recognize value tensions in your work (this takes time & practice!)
Name and describe these tensions (try to remain impartial!)
Reflect critically on purpose, responsibility, inclusion, and regeneration
One of the most powerful ways to fully engage with tech stewardship is to adapt your experiences into a story! Begin with describing the situation: who, what, when, where? What was your experience with the problem, and how is it related to any or all of the tech stewardship principles? Finally, what opportunities for action might be available based on your analysis?
Here’s one example: Last year, I was involved in a project where we looked at Alberta’s energy transition to renewable resources. We interviewed community stakeholders, government representatives, industry actors and non-profit organizations to get a holistic picture of the work being done in the space - unsurprisingly, we quickly found conflict between these different groups! We focused on tech solutions to make houses more energy-efficient and more efficiently provide for energy needs during periods of peak usage but ran into issues with making these changes accessible and affordable for the average homeowner. Moreover, we ran into greater difficulty including renters and rural communities in our solutions. Moving forward, we could potentially increase support for our initiatives by better understanding the diversity of energy use across a wider spectrum of housing setups - from urban apartment complexes to rural farmhouses.
This story may not win a Pulitzer Prize, but it has made me more aware of the importance of diversity and inclusion when it comes to approaching changemaking initiatives in my work today!
What are our key takeaways?
Being a tech steward means active participation throughout the development process, from ideation to prototyping and pilot. Advocating for processes that are regenerative or representative of the communities that tech is supposed to serve from the start ensures that these considerations are actively embedded into the work rather than tacked on as an afterthought. This is incredibly important because when we recognize our own biases and how they might clash with the people around us, it becomes easier to acknowledge these tensions and find ways to compromise or push for action that will lead to better communal outcomes. It takes work to develop this intuition, but formally studying tech stewardship ensures that our best judgments don’t get clouded over when we inevitably run into these tensions at work.
While we will always have more to learn about being tech stewards, this program has taught me to value the questioning nature that I have been surrounded by and actively a part of for years. Understanding value tensions and practising the steps to move from passive observers to active contributors is something that those of you in the social impact space has practiced without a mind to the “why,” it is just what you do. I think the tech industry has a lot to learn from social innovation, and I can’t wait to see how we shape technology to be more favourable for everyone.
Finally, our challenge to you is to never stop learning and reflecting on how we can shape a better world. In social innovation, we are constantly seen as the “both/and” people — choosing to make a social impact AND run a profitable business. Be proud of the work you do because it does and will change the world. You are setting the groundwork for all sectors to become not only more socially aware but active participants in creating a more equitable and healthy society for the future.
Want to learn more about Tech Stewardship, check out their website here: https://techstewardship.com
Curtis is a recent MRU graduate, having completed a minor in Social Innovation. He is especially interested in applying systems sight to language, culture & popular media to expand our capacity for empathy. He recently competed in MRU's Map the System campus final, exploring the Cantonese language as a complex global system. Feel free to mention 'Turning Red' or 'Everything, Everywhere, All at Once' as his favourite movies (so far!) of 2022.
Megan (she/her) is an accomplished professional with a diverse background in hospitality, data management, criminal justice, and situational crime prevention. As Interim Lead for the Centre for Social Impact Technology, she utilizes systems thinking and multidisciplinary approaches to address complex problems. Megan’s expertise in public interest technology has been recognized, and she has published research on cult practices in social media and Indigenous parole conditions. With a BA (Hons) in Criminal Justice and numerous accolades, including the 2023 Centennial Gold Medal, Megan is actively involved in community initiatives, particularly focused on homelessness and vulnerable populations.