How do you run a business when it seems like everything is falling apart? What is meaningful when millions are protesting for the basic right to walk the streets of their hometowns without fear? Or when your colleagues are being assaulted by law enforcement while trying to do their jobs?
These are the questions that I have been asking myself as I watch police attack citizens and journalists with tools that aren’t even sanctioned for use during wars. On the podcast, as we tried to apply what we know to the history being made right before our eyes, Kevin and I spoke a bit about how the tools we discuss every week can and will continue to be used as a means to surveil and police unequally across racial and socioeconomic lines.
But I’m struggling to find ways to talk about IoT while my sense of America is being crushed. I’m struggling to find meaning in what I do as a journalist as other journalists are literally attacked by the enforcement apparatus of a nation that has been built on the idea of a free press.
Part of my struggle comes from feeling complicit in promoting technologies that are now being mobilized against other journalists along with protesters and anyone else deemed to be pushing back against injustice — most notably people of color.
Yes, when I write about technology I always try to bring up privacy concerns or the potential harm it can cause. I push the concept of privacy by design and try to highlight the harms that can arise from the indiscriminate adoption of technology, in particular the amassing of citizen data by companies that can share it with governments later on.
But I also give advice on how to use your Amazon Echo device even as Amazon pushes the adoption of its facial recognition technology by law enforcement agencies, or tries to promote its Ring doorbells by partnering with local police departments. I may call out the Rekognition service or question Ring’s motives, but I haven’t given up the convenience of Alexa.
I tend to view technology as a tool that can be used for good or ill. And it is a tool, but it’s an unwieldy tool that requires a lot of expertise to deploy. If I give a person a hammer, they can use it to smash someone in the head or build something useful; hammers aren’t hard to use. (Although I would argue that it takes far more expertise to build something useful with a hammer than it does to tear something down.)
But technology isn’t a tool the way a hammer is a tool. You can’t hand someone a sensor, a SIM card, and an Arduino and expect them to create a sensor used to track urban air pollution, for example. Tech requires people to build something that can then be used as a tool. And it’s past time we looked at what drives the people creating these tools and the types of tools they have chosen to build. Most technologies are not used to create social good, but to make money.
I’m not saying that making money is evil. But when you optimize for profits above all, you tend to build for the demands of the current world, not the world you’d like to see. And today’s technology is optimized for a world that millions are currently protesting — a world that’s built on systems of injustice and theft going all the way back to this country’s founding and beyond.
So while big tech firms are promoting Black Lives Matter and letting employees take time off to march in the streets, they are also tweaking their algorithms and building out easy-to-use cloud services that fly in the face of their marketing messages. That’s why it’s incumbent on those of us in the tech world to be honest with ourselves about how we’re promoting the status quo even as we take to the streets hoping to tear it down.
How do we build for a better world? How do we create businesses in which the technology we promote supports a future that atones for the past?
And what role do I play in all of this?
These are the questions I’m asking myself right now, as a human, as a business owner, and as a journalist at what is essentially a trade publication dedicated to technology. I don’t know the answers, and I think my progress will be uneven, but I’m hoping that out of all of this confusion and pain comes clarity. I’m also hoping that we stop giving tech a pass just because it can be used for both good and bad, and focus instead on how we currently use technology to maintain a society that is neither just nor fair.