Why businesses should fight against the ‘techlash’
In the same week that it emerged that Chinese schoolchildren were working overnight to make Amazon Alexa, and that knives were being sold on Facebook without any age verification whatsoever, there was some good news in the world of tech as well.
First, the UK’s National Health Service announced that up to 8,000 people would benefit from a new digital scheme involving wearable tech. The technology will give those at risk of contracting type-2 diabetes access to their activity level, health coaches, educational content and peer-support groups, among other things.
Meanwhile, in the US, advocacy groups have turned to technology to help Mexican migrants better navigate the perilous journey north and the complex immigration system that awaits them.
It’s no surprise that we pay more attention to the news that shows tech in a less-than-favorable light. For a long time, companies like Facebook and Amazon were exclusively seen as agents of positive social transformation. These were benevolent organizations with the power to connect the world and make our lives more convenient. After a raft of scandals, this is no longer the public perception. In fact, by the end of 2018, Edelman and other companies and pollsters were reporting that the ‘techlash’ was very much set to continue.
Recognizing the positive impact of technology
It’s important that we scrutinize the most powerful tech companies properly, and that we understand the nuances of data transfer and our rights as users. It’s equally important that we know what effect our internet consumption and social media use have on our well-being. But in order to do this— in order to criticize tech effectively and understand its place in the modern world— we also need to point out where tech is going right. Otherwise, we simply lose perspective: things are either good or bad, and we leave it up to others to decide which it is.
There’s one stand-out example of how tech can be a force for good that struck me recently. My business, CleanCloud, was lucky to be included in the long-list for the London Tech 50, which ranks the most exciting tech businesses in the capital. We didn’t make the final, 50-strong shortlist, but it was fantastic nonetheless to be featured alongside household-name companies such as Monzo and Deliveroo.
The company that took first place in the London Tech 50 was one I’d never heard of before: Andiamo. It’s an ‘AI and 3D printing platform for the orthotics industry’, but that doesn’t really do it justice. Samiya and Naveed Parvez lost their son Diamo to complications associated with cerebral palsy when he was just nine years old, and during his life they were constantly struggling to get him the braces and splints he needed to support his body. Their business uses a 3D body scanner to create lightweight orthoses quickly. It can take months of waiting for casts, splints, and braces; within a year, Andiamo had reduced the waiting time to two weeks. In a BBC report on Andiamo from 2017, Samiya said that she and her husband “could have avoided so much in pain our lives if the technology had been available.”
The Andiamo story is one powerful example of the positive difference technology can make in people’s lives. That’s to say nothing of how digital tech can bring education to the uneducated, friends to the friendless, jobs to the jobless. And though to some this might seem obvious, it isn’t the way we currently talk about tech.
By reminding ourselves of its virtues as well as its vices, we can talk more intelligently not just about how tech shouldn’t be, but how it should be as well.
3 April 2020