Many tech companies and their executive leadership publicly discuss how they have a desire for their business or product to change the world. What often gets overlooked in these discussions is clarity around the new world that we are trying to build. This inevitably leads to questions about power and politics: who holds the power to change the world in the first place and in what way? What communities or people groups are prioritized with that change and what role does power dynamics play in the implementation and sustainability of those changes?
These are incredibly complex and difficult questions given the impact their answers would have on the economy, social institutions, family systems, and more, which is causing businesses and executives to reckon with the reality of the political nature of these questions.
“Should we be political in tech?” is a question that all those companies are asking and we’re seeing their answers play out on a public stage. Some ban ‘political’ conversations altogether, while others are not as explicit but still adopt a kind of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy around politics when it comes to internal communications.
But to ask, “Should we be political in tech?” is the wrong question, because its core assumption is that tech as an industry is not political — and that is a false assumption.
Tech already is — and always has been — deeply political. Let’s take a look at four reasons why and what’s required of us.
Reason 1: Tech companies influence the political landscape directly.
Tech companies get directly involved in politics by using lobbying and other means to protect their interests and ensure their business models are not threatened by legislation. For example, when CCPA (California Consumer Privacy Act), a statute that aims to protect consumer’s data privacy in the state of California (US), was in the works, companies were actively fighting it via lobbying and financial contributions.
GDPR had to undergo similar pressure from Big Tech. Certain tech giants also try to enlist the support of lawmakers and regulators to help fight unionizing efforts by their workers.
Reason 2: Tech companies influence the political landscape indirectly.
Technology also influences the global political landscape in less direct but still very critical ways. One devastating example of that is how algorithms can insight incredible harm or how personal data can influence political agendas.
Reason 3: Tech provides various tools of control for politicians and governments.
Modern politicians and governments also rely on the tools provided by technology. These tools are used for different political goals, including control, policing, and surveillance.
From internet shutdowns by governments around the world becoming one of the main tools of suppressing unrest and hiding human rights violations to companies partnering with law enforcement to make surveillance footage and data available to them, technology provides the means to amplify some of the worst injustices globally.
Reason 4: Political and social issues are the root of many problems that technology is trying to solve.
A lot of technology is built with the goal of addressing different social, economic, and political issues. Crypto aims to help decentralize finance, and electric cars are supposed to help tackle climate change.
But it’s important to recognize that many of these issues are also influenced by a multitude of socioeconomic and geopolitical factors that technology by itself cannot adequately address; they also need to be paired with structural societal changes from governments around the world prioritizing the communities most affected by those issues.
What can we do
As an industry, we need to reckon with the fact that developing technology that we believe can help solve different social issues comes second to addressing the root causes of those issues. And while this particular topic may feel overwhelming and complex, here are three practical ways that you can take action today.
#1. Deepen our political literacy.
How aware are we, as tech workers, of the political realities of the world? When it comes to data protection and privacy laws like GDPR or CCPA, even if they are not perfect, understanding social issues caused by technology they seek to address is important in helping us build products that resolve those issues.
Working on developing and deepening our political literacy as professionals in the tech industry can be of utmost importance in addressing forms of oppression that might appear in our designs or our practices (e.g. ableism, sexism, racism, etc.).
#2. Establish a proactive approach to harm reduction and unintended consequences.
While the companies often don’t intend for their platforms to be used in such ways, we still must consider the impact of the unintended consequences. Unintended consequences do not equal unforeseeable consequences, so releasing products and features to larger audiences without active efforts to mitigate potential harm beforehand does not absolve the creators of those products of responsibility.
We need to introduce practices into our processes that focus on trying to diminish potential harm and misuse from the get go, instead of releasing the products first and then fixing the harm retroactively.
#3. Study and learn from current activists
Take a look at The Guiding Principles of #ProfitWithoutOppression that Kim Crayton, one of the most prominent voices addressing issues related to pseudo-political stances, has introduced as a great place to start with trying to be more intentionally political in tech:
- Tech is not neutral, nor is it apolitical
- Intention without strategy is chaos
- Lack of inclusion is a risk/crisis management issue
- Prioritize the most vulnerable
Ultimately the first step is about recognizing the limitations of our knowledge and ensuring that while the most underrepresented voices are included and centered in our political discussions, when things don’t go right, we have a strategy for prioritizing them and ensuring no harm befalls the most vulnerable.
We have a responsibility within our roles and industry to ensure that we’re being human-centered in our approach to the design and creation of experiences. We can only truly achieve this by understanding the influence and impact of politics on our designs and choosing to prioritize the humanity of our audience in the midst of it.
Anna Mészáros is a product designer with a background in graphic design and a master’s degree in philosophy of language and communications. Today their focus is in ethical and responsible design, digital accessibility, and inclusion in tech. You can find more of their work on Medium.