On the Record with Nona Tepper: Unpacking Ethical Technology

October 27, 2020

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‘On the Record’ is a series where we sit down with our colleagues and friends who are often at the receiving end of our pitch emails – journalists. We will be tackling hot topics, learning and growing from their perspective and thoughtful advice.

For this ‘On the Record’ post, Kamilla Rahman explores what ethical technology is, the impact it can have on society and if it even exists at all. Social impact advocate and tech writer at Built In, Nona Tepper, had a candid conversation with Kamilla on her take on the enigmatic term.

Kamilla Rahman (KR): In your own words, how would you explain ethical technology and the importance of it?

Nona Tepper (NT): To me, developing ethical technology means thinking one step ahead and understanding the impact that deploying products, services and making investments might have on underrepresented or marginalized communities. It means questioning the effect, whether good or bad, it will have in all stages of development. None of us have a crystal ball, so it must go beyond this, too — brands must also be responsible for monitoring how their goods and services are used in the market. Developing ethical technology also depends on hiring workers from diverse backgrounds.

Also, I think more companies use the term “responsible technology” rather than “ethical technology.” The term “ethical technology” can sound overly intellectual or intimidating for organizations, making some shy away from its adoption since it sounds too far-reaching or unattainable.

KR: Do you think ethical tech is a buzzword or do you think it’s something people are taking seriously?

NT: I think it’s a bit of both. When companies hire someone to oversee responsible tech, it can be seen as PR, a crisis or even an HR move. However, the companies that are taking ethics seriously are the ones that give tech ethicists real power and influence over day-to-day operations and decision making.

Working in tech is a privilege and I think we’re increasingly seeing tech workers reflect on their own impact in creating responsible tech; not just waiting for the C-suite to join the cause. It’s great to see this increase on a micro level, but to attain responsible technology, the sentiment also needs to come from the top down. The C-suite needs to want to create responsible products and services, and create a culture where workers are empowered to provide their own insights on whether something could damage society or our environment or bring equity and advantages to a specific group. Essentially, workers have more perspective on the outside world than a single companies’ processes and procedures. Every worker has their own identity and background, and incorporating their input into how these products and services are carried to market could lead to a more inclusive world.

KR: As a tech journalist, I’m sure you hear people and brands talking about ethical tech all the time. What makes an initiative on this topic genuine?

NT: A genuine approach to responsible technology is three-pronged: A company must commit to a concrete and actionable plan, it must be public and they must be transparent in their progress and results, which should be audited by a third party.

Commitments to responsible technology should not be one-off. Companies need both short-term and long-term goals to ensure the move to responsibility is actionable in the moment but also consistent in the future.

KR: Do you think ethical tech exists?

NT: Yes, but I also think every organization or technology could be better. There are so many well-intentioned initiatives by organizations, and while that’s important, some businesses just fundamentally damage society. Instead of just making a one-off donation, companies should rethink how their business, product or culture impacts our society.

Responsible tech depends on responsible people. The bottom line is that everyone could do more, but we’re all still learning and implementing; responsible technology will always be a learning process. It’ll never be 100% perfect, but everyone in the industry should aspire to be responsible while understanding that readjusting and re-learning is key.

KR: Do you think ethical technology has the potential to really fix the problems we’re facing today?

NT: I think technology can contribute to a solution, but at the same time it’s also created, or exacerbated, a lot of those problems. Ultimately, it’s people that are responsible for fixing the problems we face today. In particular, those in power should commit to being a part of something bigger than themselves and that starts with looking at who they’re selling to and the structure of their businesses. However, responsible tech is also dependent on workers and end users. Corporations are beholden to many, many priorities so we shouldn’t just sit around and wait for companies to right their wrongs. End users also have the responsibility to reflect who they work for, buy from and how they spend their time.

KR: Do you enjoy reporting on impact topics like ethical tech, if so, why?

 NT: Yes! I learn something every day, which changes my opinion and outlook constantly. In my perspective, responsible tech sits at the intersection of business and politics, which is the reason why I went into journalism. I wanted to report on the power structures that are impacting our evolving world, so it’s truly an exciting time to be able to connect with all these influential movers and shakers.