Ben Leiner writes about how technologists can protect democracy and build ethical products on The Ethical Technologist.
As you read this article, you are likely also resisting the temptation to look at your phone or switch to another app. In case you need the affirmation, no, that temptation is not your fault.
A Toxic Attention Economy
Broadly speaking, if you are a business practitioner in 2024 — or someone with a smartphone — you likely understand the fundamental battle marketers, content creators and digital platforms wage over your attention. You are also perhaps conscious of the toll this competition takes on your attention span and mental well-being. You are less able to focus on the things that are most important to you — your loved ones, your favorite movie, this Darden Ideas to Action article. Moreover, if you have a teenage daughter, it is now more likely than ever that she is reporting that she is anxious or depressed, likely because of social media.
It is natural to wonder how this toxic “attention economy” might change for the better. Experts have geared their analyses and recommendations toward three different audiences:
- Business executives who might change their business models
- Policymakers who might pass laws and regulations to force companies to change their behavior
- Individuals who might spend less time staring at their phones and more time “touching grass,” as my Gen Z colleagues would say
While these analyses are worthwhile, they are missing the audience perhaps most responsible for building addictive technologies: product managers and frontline technologists themselves, the ones who have just graduated from schools like Darden. It is these managers who decide whether to put a red notification badge in the corner of an app, send out a push notification or keep you doomscrolling in your news feed.
A Healthy Society
In my conversations with these managers — many of them my peers — I have heard that they do not want to be creating products that erode users’ attention and sense of well-being. These mid-career managers are seeking the skills and frameworks to help them set more ethical goals at work and build products that are more compatible with a healthy society.
It is for this reason that Professor Bobby Parmar and I built the Darden elective “Technology and Ethics.” Our desire is not to retread old narratives about evil Big Tech or Facebook’s failings in the 2016 U.S. presidential election — it is to equip students, many of whom seek purpose in their careers and desire to do the right thing, with the instincts and context to make tough ethical trade-offs as they enter a world awash with technology. No person is able to foresee all the negative consequences of applying a technology — especially something as powerful as generative AI — within the context of their jobs. But if we can encourage leaders to take a brief pause and consider ethical ramifications, they will not build features and products that undermine the civic fabric, propagate bias or erode our attention.
The Ethical Technologist
A bit about me, the “Ethical Technologist”: I am a Darden alum from the Class of 2019, currently working at SmartNews, a Tokyo-based news startup whose mission is “to deliver quality information to the people who need it.” Every day at work, I’m considering issues at the nexus of technology and ethics: algorithms, content moderation, filter bubbles, attention. Before SmartNews, I was thinking about these issues at LinkedIn and as the leader of an organization using technology to help low-income people vote on Election Day. I bring these experiences into the course I teach with Professor Parmar. Suffice it to say, I love this stuff.
I will be contributing posts to Darden Ideas to Action about the various ways technologists like me can build tech products that advance social good — or at least avoid the worst potential harms. If this series is successful, you will have gained some perspective on how you bring ethics into your everyday dealings with technology and encourage your companies to thoughtfully consider ethical trade-offs. I welcome questions you’d like me to answer, ideas on topics to cover and offers to be a guest on The Ethical Technologist podcast.
Ben Leiner (MBA '19) is a Darden alumnus and lecturer. He can be reached at [email protected].