In tech, an industry driven by venture capital, investors own and control companies to create financial returns. Their influence ensures scale is driven above all, pushing companies to “go fast and break stuff” as they race each other for market dominance in an emerging sector. It’s been incredibly successful at driving forward innovation – innovations that could be harnessed to do good – but not so good at creating ventures that focus on something more than generating returns for their founders and investors.
In recent years “Impact Investment” has emerged as a way to rebalance venture capital towards a more social purpose. It’s worked well at solving challenges that fit the mould of business – shifting solar panels at scale, for example – and less so at more nuanced challenges – like youth mental health. It’s not created any “Unicorn” sized solutions to our unicorn sized global problems yet – although it is early days.
This is why innovative, truly ethical tech ventures, require innovation in the way they’re capitalised first. Venture capital is an amazing innovation in deploying capital to beat risk – we need a similar breakthrough. One that gives social outcomes parity with financial returns. There are glimmers of hope on this. Social impact bonds (SIBs), for example provide returns for investors aligned to the delivery of social outcomes, although difficulties in giving cast iron guarantees of outcomes combined with the lack of confidence in the numbers generated in impact reports continue to hold SIBs back from the mainstream yet.
Dare we allow ourselves to think instead about what could supercede or complement venture capital, rather than just how we should restrict venture capital’s monocular focus on financial value?
Whilst Tech Ethics is leading the way in debating how tech could do less harm, the burgeoning “tech for good” movement is still consigned to the fringes, given limited resources and status as a separate branch of technology, suggesting that “mainstream tech” and “tech for good” are two separate endeavours.
We need to unify the two and take Tech Ethics back to its roots: in the philosophy of Ethics. A philosophy concerned not just with how to do no harm, but one that starts with the question of how we can do the most good.
Take Immanuel Kant, one of the central figures of modern Ethics, and his Categorical Imperative. It asserts that in order to be ethical we must never to treat others merely as a means to an end but always, additionally, as ends in themselves. Or not to treat users merely as a means to ad revenues, perhaps.
This is how we should be considering ethics in tech. Not as we mean ethics in ‘ethical’ coffee or ‘responsible’ gambling. But instead putting the human, and the improvement of life for that human, as the focus instead of trying to do as little harm as possible in the process of profiting from them. To do so we should take head of another of Clark’s Three Laws, the second: