Creating a Vision for Ethical Technology

Blog Post
Oct. 13, 2020

This story is part of PIT UNiverse, a monthly newsletter from PIT-UN that shares news and events from around the Network. Subscribe to PIT UNiverse here.

Deb Donig had a goal: Bring the idea of ethical technology to college campuses. This vision was borne out of her desire to revolutionize the tech workforce and train the next generation of what she calls “humanists and technologists” to occupy and succeed in jobs and make a positive impact.

“I really developed a commitment to thinking about ethical technology—and thinking about it along the lines of correcting and meditating on the relationship between tech culture and tech production, and some of the ethical outcomes of that,” she says. “Also thinking about the relationships between ethics and equity, and understanding that a lot of the unintended consequences of technology comes out of a culture that is ill equipped with intellectual diversity, cultural diversity, and racial diversity to address some of the blind spots that emerge out of homogeneity.”

Hoping to put her goals into action, she designed an ethical technology syllabus, and applied for and was awarded a strategic research initiative grant. By this spring Donig, who is an Assistant Professor of English Literature at California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo, was all set to start teaching ethical technology. Then Covid-19 hit. After some introspection, she realized that the idea of teaching the course using twice a week, two hour Zoom calls was not appealing, especially since she says many of her students might have issues with internet access. She needed to redesign the course and make it not only accessible, but engaging and conversational. Her solution: a podcast that’s attracting big names and plenty of subscribers.

Called Technically Human, the podcast, which shares a name with the Cal Poly course, answers a not-so-simple question: What does it means to be human in the age of technology? To date, she’s created 20 episodes in support of her course and garnered 2000 subscribers.

The first episode features a discussion with Kevin Adler and Jessica Donig from Miracle Messages, a San Franciso-based organization that uses online social media platforms to help people experiencing homelessness connect with their loved ones. Other episodes host personalities and pundits including Aaron Samuels, the COO of Blavity, one of the largest digital communities for Black Millennials, author Dave Eggers, the CEO of UCOT, the Center for the Unintended Consequences of Technology, Chris Ategeka, and De Kai, one of eight members of Google's AI Ethics Council. The most recent episode features Hana Schank, Director of Strategy for Public Interest Technology at New America.

“I invite teachers, thinkers, writers, critics, and technologists from across a spectrum of backgrounds, across a spectrum of conditions within and inside of industry and academia to really think together about this concept called ethical technology,” Donig explains. “[The goal is] to flesh out its dimensions, and also to see who might be in conversation with one another and who have not yet seen themselves in the conversation of ethical technologists. And to describe the dimensions and the boundaries and the scope of this new field.”

While the podcast is for the world at large, students taking Donig’s course use it as part of their study materials, in addition to readings, assignments and hands-on work with organizations that exemplify the application of ethical technology. To date, the podcast has subscribers from more than 30 countries across the globe, and it’s spurring real conversations in the public interest technology world, says New America’s Schank.

“In the PIT practitioner world we are a little bit removed from the emerging PIT academic world. Speaking with Deb gave me a really great view into the academic side of PIT, and ever since that conversation I have been thinking a lot about how we might be able to move the conversation about the ethical considerations of public interest technology beyond academia and into practice,” she says. “When you are building something in the public sector, it is already a lot to just get the thing built in a way that helps real people, you don’t always have the luxury of thinking about how something might be used down the road. But that is a critical piece of the PIT puzzle.”

Since the spring, more than 60 students have taken the general education course, which has become extremely popular and is competitive to get into. Donig is looking forward to continuing both the course and the podcast this semester, which will help bring more attention to the need for ethical technology.

Adds Donig: “The entire question that these podcast dialogues raise is the question of, ‘How do we behave ethically as a society and what does it mean to search for truth?’ If we hold up ideas for scrutiny to another person and have them respond to us and ask—engage—genuinely with one another, we can arrive at the truth through dialog.”