An Ethics of Code: A Call to Action to the Creators of Technology, from Asana co-founder Justin Rosenstein

Asana co-founder and former Google and Facebook product leader Justin Rosenstein joins Collision 2018 as a speaker on a mindful approach to designing businesses, creating a thriving workplace, and achieving fast growth in the enterprise. He made the following statement this morning:

“I believe we are at a fork in the road. If we continue with business as usual, modern technology poses a clear and present danger to our self-determination, as individuals and as communities. However, if both creators and users of technology rise to the challenge, technology has the capacity to help us empathize and collaborate with each other in unprecedented ways that will ultimately strengthen our democracies and help us achieve our ​goals​ as individuals and as a global society. The choice is ours, and I’m here to urge us urgently to do the latter.

For thousands of years, technology has helped extend human capacities, enabling us to do increasingly awe-inspiring things. But just as fire can used both to heat food and to destroy a countryside, we must design and apply technology wisely to intentionally benefit life; otherwise, technology can end up hurting us (sometimes intentionally, often unintentionally).

We see this promise and peril play out with many modern technologies: they have become double-edged swords, because we have applied insufficient mindfulness. Take social media as an example. On the one hand, it has had profoundly positive effects on the world–from helping loved ones stay connected, to helping spread important social movements like #MeToo. On the other, it has also produced substantial harms, including political polarization, misinformation, and online harassment. Similarly, smartphones have put the world’s knowledge at our fingertips, while simultaneously causing screen addiction and, for many users, a state of continuous involuntary distractedness.

Justin Rosenstein Collision Conference 2018 03
Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Collision via Sportsfile.

We technologists have a core responsibility to mindfully design tools to be of benefit to people’s lives​.

This moment in history is a wake-up call. If we do not answer it, we risk being the last generation who can remember what life was like before permanent distraction. We risk our ability to be present–the capacity to show up to our own lives–and to engage in the critical thinking required for functioning democracies, communities, workplaces, and even personhood. We risk, if you will, walking off the cliff of civilization while staring at our phones.

Unintended consequences have always been a problem for technology, but the stakes are higher today: It used to take decades for new technology to reach mass scale. Today, it happens so quickly that we don’t have time to properly understand the potential side effects.

But there is another path. If developed mindfully, software and hardware can be tools for achieving our life goals, verifying information, and developing empathy for other perspectives. The Internet can help us become history’s most informed and compassionate citizenry. And we consumers can learn to use technology mindfully, rather than allow technology to use us.

What can we do? ​I don’t have all the answers, but I believe in our collective capacity and responsibility to find them. This is why I’ve been working with technology leaders (including at Facebook) who are engaging passionately in developing solutions; taking a mindful approach to product design at Asana; and practicing mindfulness around my own use of technology.

As an industry, we need a code of ethics–or even an ​“ethics of code.”​ Here are three examples:

  1. We must commit to never being a source of distraction, i.e. pulling a user’s ​a​ttention away from their ​in​tention.
  2. We must commit to treating users’ attention as sacred. Push notifications, for example, should be reserved for important timely information, instead of interrupting people’s dinners to tell them someone liked their photo.
  3. We must choose success metrics that reflect the benefit we’re providing users, not just the time or money they spend on our services.

Developing this ethics of code will be a massive undertaking, requiring input not only from technologists, but from philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, and users.
Ultimately, we must redefine of what it means to succeed in tech. We need to optimize for our values, not just our valuations. And we must vigilantly defend our values against the unintended consequences of our work, through constant, proactive iteration and introspection.

At Asana, we apply these principles in using technology to improve people’s experience at work, so they can accomplish more with less effort and distraction. Yet we too have a lot of work to do. These problems are hard, and they’ll take time to solve, but we must hold technology companies accountable to solving them.

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Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Collision via Sportsfile.

I am excited that the attention crisis around social media and smartphones has stoked public discourse around the need for mindful technology. It’s critical we have a wake-up call right now, before we make devastatingly poor choices while developing AI, drones, VR, 3D printers, blockchain, and gene editing. Those technologies are coming, and the choices we make about how to design them will have vast positive or negative effects on the future of humanity & life on Earth.

Fortunately, many hear the call. As we begin this exciting confluence of technologists here at Collision, we can already see that the influence of technology on our lives, society, and the workplace is at the forefront of the conversation:

  • Tristan Harris from the Center for Humane Technology is speaking tomorrow on the addictive quality (whether unintended or not) of many popular apps. I am an advisor to Tristan and CHT because I believe we need to educate the public on technology’s effects.
  • This morning, Facebook head of safety Antigone Davis discussed mitigating issues like bullying that arise when people can communicate online without real-world interaction.
  • Al Gore speaks this afternoon about why the tech and innovation communities must focus on the planet’s biggest problems.​ Al Gore’s Generation Investment Management, which led Asana’s recent Series D, shares our vision for achieving business success as a means toward an end of promoting human thriving.

There is much more work to be done. I am committed to doing whatever I can in service to our cognitive freedom and social evolution, and I invite more technologists and users to join the growing movement of people committed to the mindful application of technology.”

Justin Rosenstein Collision Conference 2018 01
Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Collision via Sportsfile.

About Justin Rosenstein & Asana

Rosenstein has driven the development of products that billions of people use daily. At Facebook, he co-invented features such as the Like Button and Facebook Pages. At Google, he managed several products in the communication/collaboration division including Google Drive, and helped create GChat. At Asana, he’s helped build one of the fastest-growing SaaS companies, most recently valued at $900M in Series D funding led by Al Gore’s Generation Investment Management.

With more than 35,000 paying customers and millions of team members across 192 countries, Asana is widely recognized as a leader in work management software. Founded by Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and early Google and Facebook product leader Justin Rosenstein, Asana’s mission is to help humanity thrive by enabling all teams to work together effortlessly.

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Mohamed Rahmo
Mohamed Rahmo

Mohamed Rahmo est un marketeur de profession, un communiquant de formation, un amoureux de la culture et de l'art et qui trouve qu'il y a toujours des possibilités infinies dans le monde digital. Voilà pourquoi il s'investit régulièrement dans des démarches expérimentales mais toujours actionnistes. Après des recherches sur le Social Medias et sur la Gamification, il s'intéresse aujourd'hui de plus en plus à l'Internet Of Things, fasciné par la tendance mondiale du Making et du Coding. Féru de gaming, d'art et de culture en général, Mohamed Rahmo croit fermement que l'industrie créative peut sauver le Maroc.

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