I’ve worked in the tech sector for a number of years now, and I guess about ten years or so ago, we started talking a lot about disruptive technology and how technology can emerge in society and change things and create massive structural changes to the way we live our lives, the way we organize ourselves, or the way we experience the world around us.
And it’s really fashionable to talk about disruptive technology. I think a lot of entrepreneurs and a lot of tech innovators look at disruption as being something that you want, that you gravitate towards, almost a value system, you think that technology should be disruptive or the ultimate goal in creating technology is for it to be disruptive. But what that means can vary based on your own personal experience that disruption in your life can cause.
It can really be problematic for your ability to live independently and autonomously in the world. I like to think disruption is less about challenging the status quo and more about improving things, making things a little bit better for the people in your lives and the people in our world. We really have to stop and think when we innovate or when we introduce new technologies. We really have to think critically about what that means to disrupt. What it means to change things and what are the consequences, both good and bad.
We always fixate on the good. “Oh, this is going to change things because it’s going to make things better for this person or that person” “It’s going to revolutionize the way we do this or that” But we don’t often take a moment, just a beat, and think about the potential negative consequences. What are the risks that are associated with introducing this technology? And really use that risk assessment or that appraisal of the risks and feed that into the way we’ve created those technologies so that we’re limiting the negative impacts of those technologies so that we’re really working to try to create technology that is still doing good but is also preventing harm, preventing damage, or preventing potential negative effects.
I think reflecting on the social impact of technology both in negative terms as well as positive terms, is really important to how we approach the tech sector and how we approach technology development. I’m not just talking about jobs. If you look historically, there are so many incidents where a new technology comes in and devastates a job market. It puts a lot of people out of employment or puts a lot of businesses out of business. I’m not just talking about that. That’s a really important component, but the challenge with the job market and with businesses going out of business isn’t necessarily about technology disruption. It’s really a limitation of our educational systems. If our educational systems are focusing on the issues that are important, and the inevitability that technology will disrupt our lives, and especially employment, then the educational sector should really focus on lifelong learning and enabling people to continually upskill themselves throughout their life.
So students are not just learning a whole bunch of stuff at the beginning of their life and then basically stop learning after that, but really, finding places in somebody’s life where they can continually upskill and develop their professional capacities. That will deal with the whole unemployment issue, so that when disruptive technologies are introduced, it’s not matter of laying off a whole bunch of people but reskilling them and finding ways of bringing them back into the job market.
I think that’s a really important role for government in education. But it’s not necessarily something that I worry too much about when it comes to this issue of disruption. For the jobs that I’ve had, disruption in terms of technology development has had a very limited effect on me. I’ve been lucky that I kind of came up in the information society, digital revolution, and all that stuff.
I’ve been able to acquire digital skills and competencies and learn programming at an early age and develop those abilities throughout my life. It’s empowered me to stay on top of things and make sure that my career is future-proofed and make sure that my work is not vulnerable to technological disruptions. We have to really take into consideration not just people like me, but really the people who could be most affected by these disruptions, and when we’re considering ways in which we can create technology, we have to stop thinking about what’s feasible.
Technology developers often want to start right off with “what can I do?”, “What is possible?”, “What is feasible for me to create?”. But we don’t spend enough time reflecting on what we should create not just what is feasible but what’s really going to benefit the world around us.
What is our purpose and our belief and how can we translate that into a specific piece of technology? And stop thinking about what’s feasible and start thinking about what’s far-fetched in terms of our impact on the world around us. Again, I’ve been really lucky that technology has never put me out of a job.
But if technology disruption has impacted you and if it’s changed your sense of safety, security, or affected your employment, I want you to know that this work is important for us to all take on because it matters what impacts technology has on the world, not just the positive benefits, but also the potential harms.
This article was first published as part of the Universal Design in Life and Work podcast.