A way tech companies could "save the world"
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Everyday, we hear tales of the ways tech companies make a difference. Apps that will somehow solve problems that big institutions couldn’t in the last 50 years; social networking sites that somehow spark revolutions that people themselves don’t… Many tech startup pitches would give high schoolers the idea that, in order to eradicate poverty, there’s no point learning about poverty itself; you just need to learn how to code.
This overly optimistic talk of technology (brilliantly called “solutionism” by Evgeny Morozov) not only makes false promises: it also takes focus from the things that tech companies could indeed do to make their businesses more socially responsible. And there is one crucial practice that hasn’t become common in cool (but adult-normative) Silicon Valley: proactively listening to youth’s views, fears and uses of technology.
Social media have given youth a space to do things that they can’t do in other contexts. They may not have the chance to be public offline, but certain public posts online will give them a taste of it; they may not get to control what information they can keep private from their parents offline, but they can decide who gets to see their status updates online.
Now: technologists aren’t social psychologists, and youth aren’t the only users of technology. What does this have to do with tech companies themselves? A socially responsible development process needs to contemplate youth and their needs when making design decisions that will affect them. Changes in Facebook’s algorithm for deciding what goes on top of news feeds, complexities in privacy settings – do they have special implications for youth who accept everybody in school into their friends’ lists? Age limits in online services – what will happen with users who are under 15?
Don’t get me wrong: technology isn’t the silver bullet for all problems related to youth and emotional and social intelligence. What I’m saying is that technology is giving them (us, really) a space to learn by practice; to have a taste of possibilities we don’t yet have offline.
Contemplating youth when your main job is to write code, or design web architectures (or, really, when your job is to make sure your supermarket will grow, or your clothing company will increase its sales) is impossible if you don’t reach out to youth as consultants to share what they know about their uses of your service. If you don’t reach out to social researchers who spend their lives interviewing youth and making sense of their responses.
After all, we all were young once; now it’s time to make things better for those who are young today, and those who will be young tomorrow.
– Mariel García Montes, 23, Mexico