Is ethical tech a farce?

In the past year, we’ve seen tech platforms called out for stoking hate and not doing enough to instill ethics from the top down. There is a bigger problem at hand, and to borrow Silicon Valley parlance, it’s a feature, not a bug. When profits trump impact, ethics lose out.

Tech companies become profitable or lose their shirts on engagement rates. Cute cats get clicks. So do incendiary comments from world leaders. Engagement rates drive top-line growth. Social media platforms are designed to advance voices that drive engagement, regardless of the impact of that engagement. The problem is not just fueling hate; it’s a singular focus on a specific kind of value creation — profits. We have yet to see a tech sector leader optimize for profit and ethics with the same fervor. One always wins.

If profits beat ethics, is ethical tech possible? Simply put, yes. There is a different genre of tech startup that values impact over profits. They are tech nonprofits. Rather than building products that satisfy animalistic behavior, from screen addiction to fear mongering, tech nonprofits are building technology to fill gaps in basic human needs — education, human rights, healthcare. Or as an early tech nonprofit Mozilla stated in its manifesto, technology that, “must enrich the lives of human beings.” Tech nonprofits are building tech products that serve customers where markets have failed.

Their primary goal is not a profit-proxy like engagement rates. Contrarily, they are designed to make the lives of human beings better — not just the ones whose clicks have market value. As the profit-focused tech community grapples with how to reverse its impact, and how to take a step back and consider building products with ethics in mind, tech nonprofits are the one clear example of ethical tech.

Take Khan Academy. Khan’s mission is to provide a free, world-class education to anyone, anywhere. Khan has many for-profit competitors, with new competitors launching everyday. Those tech companies are laser-focused on educating those with perceived market value, whereas Khan is designed with the rest of the population in mind, and not just those who can afford it.

Crisis Text Line, born out of a recognized need for text-based crisis support for youth, is so impatient to solve the problems their users face that the organization open sources its data to inform journalists, school systems and citizens, encouraging collaborative support in reducing and preventing these crises.

There are hundreds more tech nonprofits that value impact over profit and improve the lives of human beings. Platforms created to teach anyone to write well like Quill, or prevent teen pregnancy like RealTalk, or end veteran suicide like Objective Zero. These tech nonprofits will never measure success based on revenue or engagement. They exist to serve humanity. Tech nonprofits function as a social safety net. Engagement and profits couldn’t be further from the goal.

All of these companies started with the problem and leveraged the tech we use everyday to solve it. In this moment, the tech community is reckoning with what it’s built. It may take a generation or two to fix what we broke. It will certainly take an emerging breed of technologists — those who measure value in more than money — to model ethical tech.

So is ethical tech a farce? It doesn’t have to be. Tech nonprofits prove that.