What does responsible tech look like?

As someone building a digital product at the moment, I need more examples of responsibly built tech products so I can wrap my head around what it all means in practice.

Here are some examples I found in a foundational course over at the Center for Humane Technology.

It’s all down to what the product does

First up there were simple innovations like gratitude apps. The idea is that the tech is responsible because of what it helps people do. By this measure, all meditation and wellness apps would fall into this category as well.

What about all fitness apps? Do Apple’s iOS “Wind Down” and “Bed Time” features count as fitness apps?

Wouldn’t productivity apps also fall into this category? Who’s to say if helping people stay organized counts as “humane” or not?

​Potential.app was an example of humane tech in the course but it’s basically a productivity app.

The problem with labeling a product as “responsible” solely based on what it helps people do is that wellness for one person might be a compulsion for another. Online course junkies would be one example here.

The other issue here is where you draw the boundary around the tech. For example, National Novel Writing Month provides first-time authors with workshops and peer support to help them through the creative process of writing their first novel. It happens online, it sounds responsible, but is it really technology?

Is it what it mitigates?

The next group of examples focuses on minimizing harm.

Distraction blockers like Freedom or “Do Not Disturb” functionality would be good examples here. They act as a dampener around the rough edges of the underlying technology.

Dampeners don’t always have to be plugins or layers on other products. The light phone and noise-canceling headphones are examples of whole products purposefully designed to minimize distractions.

As long as we can all agree that the thing being mitigated needs to go then this feels like a good way to define “responsible”.

The problem is that the definition is too binary. What happens if a product helps reduce the amount of time spent on Youtube each week but ends up increasing you overall screen time? Is that net responsible?

And does this mean something basic like a music player can’t be designed humanely? Is responsible design only the purview of more morally agreeable projects?

Maybe it’s how it’s built?

Another way to think about responsibility is through form rather than function.

Quora and Instagram are hardly the poster children for responsible technology.

How many little tweaks like this do you have to throw into an app that has been optimized to induce compulsive behavior before you can call it responsible?

What about when the tweaks are more sincere?

We can’t exactly dismiss sincere efforts as gimmicks just because the entire package doesn’t align with our ethical flavor of choice.

What about how it’s used?

Maybe responsibility has nothing to do with the product but rather is a characteristic of the user.

For example, always using apps in full-screen so you aren’t distracted by other windows while your work

Guns don’t kill people, people do?

As technologists, I feel like we can do better than merely allowing people to use our products responsibly.

Perhaps I’m thinking about this all wrong

What if there is no such thing as responsible technology, only markers of irresponsibility?

Maybe the best we can do is highlight manipulative design where there are clear patterns that you can point to and avoid.

As messy as all this seems, it’s important that we start to collectively sort this mess out because there are thousands and thousands of people just like me building products “irresponsibly” without even realizing it.

As long as this conversation stays fuzzy nothing is ever going to change. As a tiny product team ourselves, we don’t necessarily have the time or resources to get lost in academic debate.

At the same time, I fully acknowledge that this is murky territory and demanding practical guidelines to follow at this stage is childish.

However, just having “values” and wanting to do no harm is meaningless if
those values don’t manifest in some tangible way. We barely have a vocabulary for discussing this stuff, never mind guidelines, best practices, or regulations.

Gathering examples feels like a practical place to start. They are easy to understand, emulate and build upon.

I will continue to share examples of responsibly built technology and explore what makes them so until there is a clearer path forward.

These posts are meant to be conversational. Feel free to leave a comment on Twitter. Any thoughts, examples, or guidance as I dive deeper into this topic would be much appreciated.