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Unicorns Vs. Zebras: The Importance of Responsible Tech

What if tech was used for the collective good as opposed to individual gain?


The startup world, including the so-called "unicorns" in the tech space, are stereotypically founded on similar goals:

  • Exponential Growth
  • Exit Event with Liquidity
  • Monopoly

​The startup model and network that makes these end-goals possible, is infamously characterized by a high level of competition, exploitation of workers and users, emphasis on profit at all costs and generally predatory business practices. This approach emphasizes profit at all costs and provokes unicorns to play a zero-sum game of winners and losers, generally benefiting high-net worth investors at the expense of browbeaten labor and resources. The more an app is skewed toward speed, convenience and consumability, the more users feel they need the tech to keep up with the ever-increasing speed of their lives and the perceived accomplishment of their peers.

Make the users dependent on technology products and you win the game.

The cycle perpetuates. Producing massively profitable unicorns has been the end-goal of the startup world, that is, until a group of "zebras" came along with a radical new idea: 

What if tech was used for the collective good as opposed to individual gain? What if tech could be socially responsible?

With the launch of organizations like the  Center for Humane Technology and apps like Feedless, public consciousness is awakening to the importance of "reversing the digital attention crisis and aligning technology with humanity's best interests." Some of the issues at stake are technology and social media addiction in adults and children, political and social manipulation through technology, a general decline in patience, critical thinking, attention-span, as well as a rise in obesity and bullying.

As former Googler Tristan Harris publicly states, consumer technology is being specifically designed to be addictive, and in many case, to bring out the worst in us. In a recent article entitled How Technology is Hijacking Your Mind — from a Magician and Google Design Ethicist, Harris states, “The more choices technology gives us in nearly every domain of our lives (information, events, places to go, friends, dating, jobs)  –  the more we assume our phone is always the most empowering and useful menu to pick from.

Is it?

The most empowering menu is different from the menu that has the most choices. But when we blindly surrender to the menus we’re given, it’s easy to lose track of the difference.”

But Harris has been characterized as “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience” only because the mercenary pressures of the conventional tech economy make it very difficult for tech producers to align and act with their conscience. 

Is it true that apps and devices are consciously designed to be addictive? Yes.

But it’s not just what technology is being built (i.e. what kinds of apps with what kinds of features and functions) that’s important, but even how it’s being built that is consequential.

In order to catalyze change, those who design and build technology must be allowed to be accountable for what they are building and have a say in its production. When designers and developers are afforded the opportunity to develop emotional intelligence and the creative capacity for creating significant impact on the world’s seemingly intractable problems, the result is technology that helps make a positive difference, rather than simply technology that fulfills our addict-prone behavior as consumers. Environments and design processes that prioritize individual agency, collaboration, mindfulness and wellbeing, enable technology products that are more likely to be built for whole humans that prioritize these same ideals.

It’s not just the vision and intention for the technology we build that needs to be humanized. The way we educate and cultivate the technology industry and its workers will influence whether we continue to create technology and money-making machines that use us or tools that can be used by us for creating a more humane world. The industry is poised to reflect the desire for more meaningful work and products - something that workers and users increasingly demand. A more humane world will balance profit with meaning and harness the power of technology to genuinely improve lives.

The tech world has a great responsibility on its shoulders. Can we design and build tech companies that are aimed at solving real-world problems through collaboration, mutualism and inclusive thinking to regenerate communities, economies, environment, and families?

The answer is yes.

Technology should not exist just to fulfill consumptive and addictive needs. Instead, there is an opportunity to build benevolent technology to be used by “humans" and for humans, rather than by “consumers.” There is no time like the present to assume that responsibility and work towards a more responsible tech world.

Corey Kohn is founder, member-owner and COO at DOJO4, a certified B Corp and worker-owned co-operative that crafts technologies for purpose-driven companies to help make the world a better place. Kohn leads a team of developers and designers toward this shared mission at DOJO4: to connect rigorous minds with meaningful work, by changing the way business is done and cultivating purposeful projects, relationships, and environments. Their focus: handcrafted code and design for a better world.

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