As technologists, we rarely know the broader societal effects of the technology we build. As we build, we are taught to measure the impact of every change. We measure metrics like weekly active users, revenue and net promoter score to ensure we meeting user needs. But rarely do we spend significant time thinking broadly and critically about the effect of any product on society at large. As a product manager, I told compelling stories about how my products would bring positive change to the world. In social contexts, I spoke broadly about building a more data literate world. Or in my most idealist moments, I talked about how technology was building a more equitable world. However, I was never certain about the validity of these statements in real world.
Over the past couple years, more people have begun questioning the societal impact of technology. Since the 2016 elections, the tech industry has faced a reckoning. Scholars and activists have asked critical questions about the diversity of the tech workforce, the growing reliance on algorithms and the adverse effect of having ubiquitous technology. As prominent technologists like Mark Zuckerberg answered these calls for answers with evasion, I was more drawn to those types of questions. These questions became more and more important for me to answer because there was so little diversity that I was often the lone or one of the few voices articulating these sort of thoughts.
As a black woman building technology, I saw how technology was not built for me. My iPhone never recognized my face but recognized the faces of my white friends. The first iteration of Google’s photo identification misidentified black people as gorillas. Or more broadly, many government websites were not mobile-friendly. Thus entire of the rural populations and low income urban populations who do not have WiFi access couldn’t access these critical websites.
When I saw the TechCongress fellowship, I knew it was an opportunity to help policy makers think more deeply about those types of question.
As I begin my placement with Senator Tom Udall’s office, I’m excited to work with the team to ensure the very real benefits of technology are being felt by the most vulnerable in our society. And I finally get to ask questions like how does a growing reliance on machine learning impact many aspects of our life or how do we balance the rapid innovation of the tech industry with the slowness of policy.