Bringing Social Responsibility back to Tech

In recent years, research has emerged on how technology is inhibiting our ability to focus, encouraging smartphone and digital addiction, and enabling social isolation.[1] In addition to this research, news articles have come out about how tech giants have engaged in unsavory practices in the name of profit. This past year, Facebook underwent a senate hearing for allowing Cambridge Analytica to improperly access 87 million users’ data.[2] Meanwhile, Google received a $2.7 billion antitrust fine for “[denying] consumers a genuine choice” and biasing its search engine results.[3] These studies and news articles have only emphasized the negative externalities of technology and the “profit-at-any-cost” mindset of tech companies.

Google’s 2018 I/O keynote sought to change this narrative and portray technology in a positive light. In his talk, CEO Sundar Pichai explained that Google wants “to get the user experience and expectation right,”[4] and he reiterated the company’s mission of making information useful, accessible and beneficial to society. Pichai mentioned promising technology like artificial intelligence (AI), but he framed its potential through its ability to solve global problems like health care and accessibility. The keynote sought to change the perception of technology and tech companies from profit-seeking businesses to do-good social enterprises.

Both Google and Apple expressed awareness that users may be overconsuming their technology, and they introduced solutions to self-monitor and help. Google introduced its Dashboard, offering transparency and control into users’ “digital well-being,” while Apple introduced a similar functionality, “Screen Time Reports,” which summarizes users’ time spent on each app. Furthermore, Google Assistant’s new “Pretty Please” feature encourages users to make requests politely,[5] encouraging better manners and addressing concerns that home assistants are teaching children to be rude.[6] These new features mark Google and Apple’s attempt to ameliorate some of the downsides of their technology.

Both keynotes shifted away from simply pitching “Buy this new product” to offering to responsibly help consumers with their new products and features. This shift is a promising step forward for the tech industry, as it shows companies are increasingly aware of their products’ social and health implications and are taking action. Amazon has taken a similar step by having its voice assistant Alexa reward children who say “please,”[7] but it will be interesting to see if other tech companies, like Uber and Airbnb, follow suit to address or ameliorate the negative externalities of their products.





[4] Google I/O 2018 Keynote.





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5 comments on “Bringing Social Responsibility back to Tech”

  1. Hi, Claire! Great blog post! I agree that technology has the great potential to bring people together, but it can also make people feel isolated and allow people to create bad habits. I’ve too often found myself scrolling through Instagram, not realizing how much time has past and not appreciating my surroundings!

    Your blog post reminded me of a speech I watched by Simon Sinek, a well-known motivational speaker. Mr. Sinek talks about the “Millennial problem.” Individuals born in 1984 and onwards, called Millennials, grew up in a technology-centered world. We are used to things working fast, and getting immediate results. Mr. Sinek argues that when we get into the “real world” we sometimes don’t know how to act with patience because we are used to getting what we want. This isn’t our own fault; it’s an unfortunate result of the time we grew up in and the technology available to us.

    If you’d like to watch his video the link is:
    He starts talking about technology around 3:50 minutes.

    I’m glad to hear that technology companies are aware of their sometimes negative affect on us, and our making strides to better their users’ mental health, attitudes, and behaviors!

  2. It is also very interesting to see a small group of tech startups trying to use tech to solve these tech problems such as digital addiction and social isolation.

    A couple of recent examples* off the top of my head –
    1. IRL (In Real Life) – a social calendar app that encourages people to get offline and engage with others in real life. []
    2. Aconite – a VR/AR platform for people to experience immersive storytelling with friends and strangers alike in real life []

    *was fortunate enough to hear pitches from founders of both startups last quarter in MS&E 275

    Now, it is far from clear whether tech can use tech to address its most accused-of problems. At least with the conversation started, I would not be surprised to see more newcomers showing up with similar angles, or more tech incumbents making efforts in this regard to refresh their image.

  3. What a great post! This topic is extremely interesting and I am glad you brought it up.

    Nowadays technology is very deeply (and most likely will become even more deeply) integrated in the everyday lives of people. For example personal assistants, smart homes and autonomous cars may become essentials for a modern man one day. They are used to complete everyday activities on behalf of their users. In my opinion the development of these knew technologies increases the social responsibility of technology companies. They need to be aware of the possible side effects and controversies these technologies cause. The Pretty Please -feature is a good example of how to implement good will and positivity in a technological solution.

    A few questions from your headline “Bringing Social Responsibility back to Tech”. Was the social responsibility taken into account better in older technologies than in most recent technologies by the technology companies? Where did you derive this conclusion? I myself do not have that kind of understanding, that social responsibility had decreased compared to previous decades. For example, information technology industry survived the 2008 financial crisis better than other industries [1] in what comes to consumer trust. Do you only refer to the recent cases of Facebook and Google, and not further back in history?

    [1] Burson-Marsteller. (2011). European Trust & Purpose Survey 2011.

  4. Great post, Claire!
    With technology being embedded so much into our daily lives, it really has become important to identify how we can use it more consciously and responsibly.

    In addition, with the initiatives you mentioned, I have seen tech giants coming on-ground for other social initiatives as well like FB NGO Day various meetups to instill conscious use etc.

    With this, I guess as the vision to get the whole world in one place (i.e internet) is almost achieved for various tech organizations, they are coming back to the on-ground movements to bring social responsibility back to tech.

  5. Great post, Claire! I was also very impressed by this year’s time management features from both Google/Apple and the ‘pretty please’ from Google! It really shows their values of ‘customer focusing’, and even takes a step deeper into the humanity side.

    The fact big tech companies pay more attention on social impacts is inspiring. It’s a win-win strategy that both benefits the society and build up better company brand. But I feel to step into this field, it also requires lots of resources which more likely belongs to big companies. For example the that FB is helping building up to bring affordable access to less developed countries.

    I found it a good sign that these days more effort can be spent on non-profit areas from big tech companies’ perspective, that’s an indication of survival of those companies and even the IT industry. As they get more mature, and less pressured by marketing competition, more bandwidth is allocated on products beyond profit-earning.


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