#1 The foundations of humane technology: setting the stage

10 Jul

I’m taking at my pace the free online course “Foundations of humane technology” by the Center for Humane Technology (whom I had heard of after watching the excellent documentary “The Social Dilemma”.) Here are my notes.


Setting the stage (notes from 2022-07-10)

“The real problem of humanity is the following: we have paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions; and god-like technology.”

Dr. E.O. Wilson, Sociobiologist

🤔 Personal reflection: taking stock of our current situation

Looking at the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which of these goals are most important to you? Which challenges represented by these goals have you experienced personally (directly or indirectly)? Which challenges have you been spared from? Which issues have affected your loved ones or communities you care about?

Climate action as well as peace, justice and strong institutions are the most urgent goals to me, because I believe they have respectively the potential to give humanity the time it needs and the framework required, to make significant progress on many other of the UN stated sustainable development goals.

All of the issues are truly important. I am fortunate enough as a middle-aged white European woman, to have been born in a place at an era where I don’t suffer from poverty or hunger, or lack of clean water. I have received an education of quality and I am healthy and live in a country where a health system and well-being are key benefits.

Personally I am directly negatively impacted by gender inequality. Not as much as generations before mine, and hopefully more than generations to come. I teach my teenager son the values which put humans first and that recognize that women and men are equally important. I made choices for myself and him that speak to responsible consumption, and I hope and expect he will follow a similar or better path, if not lead others to build a better world.

What role should technology play in achieving the goals you care about most?

People rely more and more on technology, which is a blessing and a curse. Because science without conscience can have disastrous consequences. There is hope where technical choices are individual’s, but it’s not always the case. Technology can empower the people through participatory governance. Safe-fails and careful design and planning are key. Technology may play an essential role in each and every of the UN stated sustainable development goals. But before we get there, there needs to be broader realization of the stakes, and global awareness and will to put the humans first.

Our shared understanding of the world is being polluted just like the Earth. The information we use to inform our choices is being mediated by technology designed to maximize engagement, not collective wisdom.

Center for Humane Technology

Systems thinking (notes from 2022-07-15; 2022-07-17)

Systems thinking is the ability to see the problems and solutions in relationship to one another rather than as isolated concerns.

Persuasive technologies use scientifically tested design strategies to manipulate human behavior towards a desired goal like increasing time on site or user engagement. The creation and amplification of these technologies have been called “the race to the bottom of the brain stem.”

Ledger of Harms by the Center for Humane Technology lists the harms to society that technology platforms have created in the race for human attention, due to immense pressure to prioritize engagement and growth:

  • The Next Generations :: From developmental delays to suicide, children face a host of physical, mental and social challenges. Exposure to unrestrained levels of digital technology can have serious long term consequences for children’s development, creating permanent changes in brain structure that impact how children will think, feel, and act throughout their lives.
  • Making Sense of the World :: Misinformation, conspiracy theories, and fake news. A broken information ecology undermines our ability to understand and act on complex global challenges.
  • Attention and Cognition :: Loss of crucial abilities including memory and focus. Technology’s constant interruptions and precisely-targeted distractions are taking a toll on our ability to think, to focus, to solve problems, and to be present with each other.
  • Physical and Mental Health :: Stress, loneliness, feelings of addiction, and increased risky health behavior as technology increasingly pervades our waking lives.
  • Social Relationships :: Less empathy, more confusion and misinterpretation. While social networks claim to connect us, all too often they distract us from connecting with those directly in front of us, leaving many feeling both connected and socially isolated.
  • Politics and Elections :: Propaganda, distorted dialogue & a disrupted democratic process. Social media platforms are incentivized to amplify the most engaging content, tilting public attention towards polarizing and often misleading content. By selling micro targeting to the highest bidder, they enable manipulative practices that undermine democracies around the world.
  • Systemic Oppression :: Amplification of racism, sexism, homophobia and ableism. Technology integrates and often amplifies racism, sexism, ableism and homophobia, creating an attention economy that works against marginalized communities.
  • Do Unto Others :: Many people who work for tech companies — and even the CEOs — limit tech usage in their own homes. Many tech leaders don’t allow their own children to use the products they build — which implies they’re keenly aware that the products from which they make so much money from pose risks, especially for young users.

Humanity has always faced difficult challenges, but never before have they been able to so quickly scale up to create truly global threats.

Center for Humane Technology

The leverage points framework

Inspired by Dr. Donella Meadows’ 12 Leverage Points to Intervene in a System, the Center for Humane Techology developed a simplified model of leverage points for intervening in the extractive tech ecosystem. (3-minute video explaining the levers and giving simple examples.)

Leverage increases from left to right on the framework, as does the difficulty of implementing changes.

  1. Design Changes: These are adjustments that technology companies themselves make in the visual design and user experience of their platforms.
  2. Internal Governance: These changes are implemented by decision-makers within platforms to shift how internal systems and structures operate.
  3. External Regulation: This occurs when legislators or regulators, pass laws that set requirements related to safety, transparency, interoperability with competing platforms, or create liabilities for unsafe business practices or harms.
  4. Business Model: These changes shift the fundamental operations and profit structures of a firm, for example, a company could move to a subscription model with a sliding scale to ensure broad access.
  5. Economic Goal: Redefining economic success can radically alter how systems behave.
  6. Operating Paradigm: Paradigm changes are the highest leverage point and generally the most difficult to shift. They occur when there is a widespread change in core beliefs, values, behaviors, and operating norms.

We cannot meet our biggest global challenges if our technology distracts us, divides us, and downgrades our collective ability to solve problems.

Center for Humane Technology

🤔 Personal reflection: The ledger of harms

Did any of these harms factor into your decision to take this course? Why do they matter to you personally? Are any of these harms new to you and worth deeper contemplation?

​I am acutely aware of all of these harms to society. If I have personally experienced some of them first-hand, I have witnessed all of them unfold increasingly during the past decade or two, in the three decades that passed since the invention of the web by Tim Berners-Lee, who then created the Web Consortium (W3C) for whom I work, with a mission to develop the open web standards that make it more powerful and helpful to society.

My growing frustration and feeling of helplessness in the face of market interests factored in my decision to take a course on approaching humane technology. W3C and its stakeholders are gradually, albeit slowly, moving from purely technical standards work to value-based systems thinking. The technical work is already anchored around values that put people first: “User needs come before the needs of web page authors, which come before than the needs of user agent implementers, which come before than the needs of specification writers, which come before theoretical purity.” (called Priority of Constituencies.) I am watching with hope the social aspect of our work as there is growing interesting among our stakeholders to make “sustainability” a resident among the wide horizontal review group, joining long-term subjects web accessibility (for disabled people primarily), internationalization (for all of the languages and scripts of the earth), security and privacy (for everyone).

Showing people that humane technology is possible can help transform consumer distrust of existing platforms into consumer demand for something else.

Center for Humane Technology

We need humane technology that:

  • Respects, rather than exploits, human vulnerabilities.
  • Accounts for and minimizes negative consequences.
  • Prioritizes values over metrics.
  • Supports the shared understanding necessary for effective democracies.
  • Promotes fairness and justice.
  • Helps humans thrive.

🤔 Personal reflection: acting with leverage

How can your own work help to push a leverage point in a meaningful way?

At my level (which isn’t that of a product designer, or technical architect), I strive to influence my peers and colleagues by ensuring we keep being guided by a strong moral and ethical compass, by reminding others of relevant aspects, and in some cases by making proposals for internal discussions.

Where do you see opportunities to push on other leverage points?

The decisions I take for myself are more and more informed by my values, and manifest in whether I choose to support, or not support, certain types of activities, businesses, practices, etc. I evangelize when I can. I teach my teenager the values which I believe make the world a better place. I try to lead by example. Beyond this, I believe that one’s exercising democratic preference is the next best leverage point that is available to me.


A common pattern in the tech industry is thinking that systemic problems have algorithmic solutions. Sometimes it doesn’t work. Per the following xkcd illustration.


badge earned: "setting the stage"

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