Tech’s Reckoning: Society Demands A Say

by Liz O’Sullivan and Susannah Shattuck

Last week, hundreds of Google workers shocked the world by announcing their unionizing efforts to the public. To those on the outside looking in, the fact that Google employees are organizing to make demands might be surprising — what could they possibly want, with their high salaries, free meals, and cushy perks? To many of us in the industry, however, the Alphabet Workers’ Union is just one part of a long-overdue reckoning for tech — I quit my job at AI company Clarifai almost two years ago for some of the same reasons that the Alphabet Workers’ Union is forming now. The Alphabet workers seeking to unionize aren’t looking for better wages or fewer hours for themselves; they’re doing it in the name of bargaining for the benefit of society, on behalf of their temporary and contractor counterparts at Google, and in the name of human rights around the world. They’re demanding more of a voice in the decisions made by executives behind closed doors.

In the absence of enforced regulation, tech giants enjoy an outrageously large influence on the daily lives of all of us. Technology touches everything from news exposure to healthcare to local policing. Most recently, tech companies’ decisions in the last week to deplatform President Trump offer a particularly salient example of the types of decisions that have an impact far beyond the glass walls of Silicon Valley conference rooms. Tech executives are effectively adjudicating on the limits of free speech online.

When answering fundamental questions about how we want our society to be structured and run, there must be representation in the discussion among all of the relevant stakeholders, including society itself. Alphabet’s new union is an example of how workers (and the public) might successfully demand to be represented in discussions about these huge societal issues. But even if they win and are voluntarily recognized, there is much more work to do.

In the last few years, the public has grown increasingly wary of Silicon Valley, and for good reason. From creating tools that help spread misinformation to censoring search results in China, technology companies have repeatedly failed to make ethical decisions with society’s best interest in mind. Up until very recently, the tech industry was largely sheltered from government regulation and oversight, leaving executives to their own devices to make decisions that end up affecting billions of people. Take one look at those executives, and you’ll see that they’re not representative of all of the people impacted by their technologies.

The lack of diverse perspectives in decision-making positions at tech companies is a critical roadblock to building technology that works for everyone. Teams without sufficient diversity create products that reflect the needs of only the people who resemble the creators. This weakness is particularly obvious when it comes to building AI systems; an all-white, all-male development team is less likely to think of asking whether their facial recognition models might be biased against Black female faces, or whether their healthcare prediction models prioritize people who are white.

How do we fix the tech sector’s myopia? Improving racial and gender diversity in the workforce alone will not solve this crisis. In order to truly “make the world a better place”, impactful decisions about what gets built and who gets to buy it must be made collaboratively, with input from not just tech executives, but the communities who stand to be most affected by the decisions made at the top. If tech companies truly wish to be “ethical” as so many of their PR attempts seek to brand them, they must listen to the voice of the public who have grown tired of unfulfilled promises and persistent inequality. The Alphabet Workers’ Union is fighting for all of Google’s employees to get a seat at the table. Other groups like Black in AI, Design Justice Network, AI Now, and The Algorithmic Justice League have been fighting for a seat at the table for years.

It may seem that the driving force to “not be evil” in an increasingly complex world is a difficult one, and it is. But the key to addressing it is not to ignore the outrage and criticisms coming from workers in tech companies everywhere. If we as a society are to enjoy all of the benefits that large-scale technology promises, then these technologies must be designed with input from people of all walks of life, genders, races, disability categories, income levels, political viewpoints, nationalities, and backgrounds. We must have a say in what to build, how to build it, and who to sell it to, or we will find ourselves living in a future that only works for the Silicon Valley elite.