It’s Black History Month in the USA, and I’ve been reading a lot of interesting articles about the history of Black Americans. I’m pretty well-versed on the history of my ancestors, but there are always new stories coming to light, something I didn’t know. I particularly love reading about slave revolts. When I read these stories, I always hope that had I been born into slavery (like my great grandmother), I would have been one of the ones who said “no more” and risked my life for freedom. Who knows? It’s easy to imagine yourself a hero in hindsight. I’m also interested in stories of the early abolitionists — people who, while imperfect, were trying to do the right thing, even in the face of a flood tide of wealth and greed that depended on the enslavement of human beings. What does it take to be that strong — to stand up that way?
The dynamic of those stories about slave revolts and abolitionists reminds me of where we are with the web. There is abuse online. There are systems of commerce built on top of those abuses. There are interactions and normalizing practices that strive to make people feel that the way things are is the only way they can be. Things are morally off-target — and yet the majority of us stay the course. Many of us who work in industry throw up our hands and claim that we have no power or control over the forces at hand, especially the dotcoms that push our world in directions that we aren’t sure we want to go.
Some of us say we’re trying to make it better, but we’re not. We buy the phones, build the apps, re-purpose the data for our businesses and clients. We’re still holding the reins of the cart taking us to fast money or an IPO.
Last year I gave the opening keynote at UXPA International, a talk called “Moving toward a Safer and More Compassionate Web.” While I did talk about my favorite topic, digital governance, in other ways it was unusual for me. I tend to be optimistic and usually try to find ways to move folks to a positive space when I give a speech. But this talk was critical of the audience in front of me. I wanted them to realize that whatever their intentions when they first started working with web-based technologies (for we older ones), or whatever they heard about the miracle technology that is the internet and web and what a great career path it is (for younger folks) — we needed to be careful. Those technologies are only as good as we are, and sometimes people don’t offer their best. Sometimes we take shortcuts, and amidst the requirements of life, avert our eyes from things that we know are wrong.
One of the things I said to the UXPA audience was:
“How bad does a thing have to get before we stop and take the time to fix it? The answer to that question is: pretty bad. Human beings in deeply industrialized countries have shown, over and over again, that we will push ourselves and others beyond the limits of widely accepted human rights standards in order to prove just how quickly and deeply we can deploy and profit from new technologies. Cotton gins, sewing machines, sugar, chocolate, the phones in our hands, and the growth of the web have all benefited from this tendency. It’s not one of our best traits.
Many of the artifacts that we cherish — temples and cathedrals, bridges, railways, some of our most grand accomplishments — are weighted down with a hard-to-hear backstory. They’re so hard to hear that we often mute them so that we can tell the good story — the story of the ‘winners.’
But extreme exploitation is not a necessary antecedent for technological progress. I can’t believe that. I won’t believe it. In order to grow the web, we don’t have to walk across another’s back.”
My talk was well received and, luckily for the participants, they got a dynamic closing keynote from Mike Monteiro a few days later. Mike’s great. We had a good talk with a few others at the local Waffle House after the event. We might each express it differently, but we agree about the culpability of digital makers. Each of us individually may not be the grand financial beneficiary of some negative digital practices, but we leech off the system.
I believe that in a global community of people engaged in a public and open online forum, there must be rules of engagement — or else you end up with messes. But I’m not quick to jump to grander conspiracy theories. I believe that the situation that we find ourselves in now with the web is a natural one. I think that there is a natural product development curve for any new technology, and there is always a really uncomfortable phase where dynamics can be dangerous. We are entering that phase now. How far will we continue down this path before we choose a new course? It’s up to us. A long-term negative outcome is not inevitable. We can always stand up and decide to do better.
That will take a moral commitment from individuals. The type of commitment that might require us to push against some strong forces and voices. We’ll have to be brave.
Your career path, the choices you’ve made, and the work that you’ve done are worth examining and understanding — like the past deeds of a country or a people. Take a moment and reflect on your work. Where can you be more ethical or find a less abusive path when you’re developing online experiences? Almost no one is clean in this digital game. Of course, we can’t go back and make a different choice about some of the technology trends and development practices that we’ve embraced in the past, but we can be honest with ourselves about what we’ve built. We can wake up tomorrow and take steps to turn things in a better direction.
Holding myself professionally accountable to the values I’ve been articulating will be the first step I intend to take toward building a safer and more compassionate web. What steps will you take to help abolish unsafe and immoral practices on the web?