The Role of Values in Big Tech

The Role of Values in Big Tech

The emergence of 'Big Tech' over the past 20 years has changed the way we communicate, work, shop and live. When the original big tech companies launched in the late nighties/early noughties they had lofty ambitions of 'do no evil' (Google), to 'connect the world' (Facebook) and 'to be Earth's most customer-centric company'...(Amazon). Google was just a search engine, Apple made computers, Amazon sold books and Facebook was a place to connect with old friends and post photos from your night out. As these companies have jostled for position in the market, clicks and active screen time have been prioritised at the expense of most other things. Fast forward to the present day and these companies are under fire for privacy concerns, unethical labour and business practices and the small matter of claims of perverting democracy.

Mehran Sahami, Stanford Professor and former Google employee, thinks the answer to Big Tech woes lie in values. He describes a world in which these companies focus on 'value-led technology'. In a recent HBR interview he outlines three key questions that big tech and emerging technology companies need to be asking themselves.

What problems are we trying to solve?

A good starting point is for tech companies and investors to ask themselves if we are focusing on the right problems. Do we need more food delivery apps or do we need solutions that support global challenges like climate change and water? Should billionaires be focused on going to space when we have so many issues on earth that need resolving? Governments can help by incentivizing innovation in the most pressing problems that we face such as clean energy, climate change and clean water access; and removing incentives from high polluting industries such as fossil fuels.

What metrics are we trying to optimize?

The things we focus on for optimization impact the solutions we provide and the outcomes for consumers and the world. Tech companies need to ask themselves what metrics are they measuring and are they focusing on ones that are meaningful and contribute to a better society? For example, flight websites mainly optimise on price, which could lead to a longer flight. What if it optimised for climate impact? Sahami shares, "[Technology design] pushes us to choose what is easy rather than what is meaningful and that pushes us further away from the values that we actually care about." The control lies in the tech companies hands to give consumers choices over the things that they actually care about.

What is success?

Success is usually equated with making a lot of money. When success for businesses is equated primarily with money it usually means that solutions are focused on the more affluent portion of society. In a market dominated by a few companies, this means non-affluent portions of the population are ignored, environmental and social problems are exacerbated. Some companies are challenging this, B-;orporations are companies that balance purpose and profit and operate a more conscious way of doing business.

So what can you do?

If you are a business owner:

  • Educate yourself - what issues in exist in your industry? What regulation is coming? What values are important to your customers?
  • Create Metrics - create metrics out of the challenges and values that are present in your industry and the values that your stakeholders have.
  • Build Incentives - incentivize people to optimize all the different metrics, not just financial.

If you are at middle management or an engineer or coder:

See your work and the impact it has - what you are measuring and what is the impact on unrepresented groups such as minorities or the environment? Challenge yourself and your organisation to do better.

If you are a consumer:

Use your voice - engage with apps or platforms where you agree with their values. Know your own values and what matters to you and follow that up with the choices you make in where you spend your time and money.

As consumers we can only do so much, Sahami argues that to level the playing field regulations are required to hold big tech accountable and ensure they build technology that has a positive impact on society, people and environment.