Tech-ing Care of Our Future: Why I’m Pursuing a Master’s in Technology Policy
Initially posted on Medium on August-21
TL;DR: I believe there are less exploitative business models for the next generation of world-changing tech companies, which could enhance personal fulfilment. I’m looking forward to exploring how this can be achieved through the intersection of state collaboration, public understanding, and founder empowerment.
When I share the news that I am going to study a master’s in Technology Policy, most people respond with kind congratulations, which are often followed by the same questions: “What actually is technology policy?” and “How did you figure out that you want to study that?”. In this post I aim to address these questions. In short, I hope to play a part in using government policies to influence the way we use and support particular technologies and the industry around them, ultimately shaping our future for ‘good’ (hopefully).
So, in an attempt to do this I will share a snapshot of my thoughts and beliefs about the current state of tech. These are thoughts which have fundamentally motivated me to pursue my upcoming master’s, and why I believe the most impactful way I can spend my time is to attempt to make the positive changes I want to see in the tech industry.
To clarify, I am not using ‘technology’ in its strictest dictionary definition but rather to mean: Digital inventions and institutions with wide reaching social impacts (e.g. Facebook, TikTok, Amazon, Google, areas of Artificial Intelligence).
Shaping our technological legacy
Many people are already doing amazing work to make tech ‘responsible’ or a ‘force for good’ through influencing policy and tech firms directly. There was a good quote from Tony Blair in The Entrepreneur’s Network’s recent article — ‘The Way of the Future’ which summarised politics’ relationship with tech: “…for good or ill, [tech] is changing the world. This is the real world event that is happening in our time, to our people and the world over. The challenge for politics is to understand it, master it, and harness it for good.”
In essence, we are discussing the improvement of the future by harnessing the power of tech. I would like to refer to this as our ‘technological legacy’.
So, how could we possibly measure our ‘technological legacy’? For me, fulfilment is the best broad metric for many aspects of life. I want to maximise this in whatever way I can. Both for myself and all those for whom I have a legitimate and informed reason to support.
Tech can be both an incredible enabler, and potential disabler, of fulfilment. I want to ensure the technological legacy we leave is one that we and our descendants are grateful for and at the very least, does not reduce the levels of fulfilment of the population.
I appreciate fulfilment is very subjective and I hope you can forgive its lack of specificity. In this context it combines several key aspects of life including: are we able to live healthily; do we have access to meaningful work; can we build strong relationships? In short, how do we ensure tech makes our lives and our descendants’ lives worth living? I am confident that even if this definition of fulfilment differs from yours, tech will have an impact on it.
Tech for ‘good’
The potential upside for technology is massive. Just think of something as simple as video calls and how, for many of us, they have made our recent isolated existences tolerable and perhaps even enjoyable. But let’s not limit ourselves to Zoom, we have and will continue to see advances in health tech which gives millions of people access to treatments and diagnoses otherwise unimaginable. We are seeing huge investments into climate tech producing amazing innovations (although I must caveat that perhaps tech is not the solution to a climate crisis due to the brief time period we have to develop solutions). This really is the tip of the iceberg and I imagine you can think of many more examples. This is a world I find fascinating and have experienced through my work at Entrepreneur First (EF) and I hope to develop during my master’s.
Of course not all technology is ‘good’ and sometimes ‘good’ technology can be used maliciously, there are current examples from all over the world, just think of social media platforms being used to spread hate filled messages; facial recognition to persecute individuals based on ethnicity; and less extreme, but incredibly widespread, the capturing of our attention and time in the interest of increased consumption through advertising.
Since we can’t ‘un-invent’ technologies, the best thing we can do is to learn more about them in order to make informed decisions in the future. This could be how we can best use types of tech, if we must, or how we can build something better next time. I have started to work toward this mission by founding Texistential, a not for profit running workshops with the ambition of: clarifying what tech means to participants; providing basic education about the tech industry; introducing the various incentives which drive tech’s design; and suggesting ways participants can have a more fulfilling relationship with tech. There are many others doing incredible things in this space (check out Omidyar Network and Centre for Humane Technology), and so far, the students I have run sessions with have shown great engagement which really motivates me to continue and expand this work.
Focus on founders
All of the incredible upsides and downsides from tech start inside the heads of individuals who are able and lucky enough to realise their ideas into a process or product. It’s easy to forget that huge institutions such as Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook (and every other household name) all started with individuals who saw things in a way others didn’t and were willing to pursue it.
I believe we should encourage and celebrate founders who are willing to battle against the odds to make their ideas a reality as it is the foundation of all great inventions. The more institutions dedicated to the cause of enabling ambitious individuals to gain fulfilment and realise their potential, the better. (If you agree and haven’t heard of EF yet then do click here.)
However, as we have seen, many issues arise from tech companies when their ambitions become misaligned with the fulfilment of others. Sometimes this takes the form of worker exploitation, or it could be tax evasion/avoidance which unjustly capitalises from the nations from whom they benefited so greatly in their early stages.
I don’t want to villainise individuals involved in tech for these actions as they are part of a culture which, in the most extreme cases, glorifies the behaviour of winning at all costs and treating anything outside of the company as an ‘externality’ to be exploited or ignored. I want to make my beliefs clear that I think this is wrong, and a damaging and unsustainable addition to our society. Knowing when or how we are supporting these types of institutions is difficult but essential if we want to reduce their influence and damage caused.
Evolution of tech companies
It is tempting to simply believe that there is an unavoidable cycle which has and will repeat itself for centuries: new technologies are developed, they exploit the current system and environment, regulation comes in, management loses sight of how to be innovative, and in nearly all cases even the biggest names fade into the history books with new companies filling their position. The list below shows the extent of this with only eight of the current Fortune 500 companies being over 200 years old. The regeneration process also seems to be speeding up with average company lifespan within these elite companies having reduced from 61 years in 1950 to only 18 years now.
In nature as things iterate they evolve and improve, but even with the large regeneration of the most powerful companies, I don’t believe we have become better at creating fulfilment enhancing businesses. Perhaps now is the time we ought to make this a selection pressure to breed the sort of tech businesses we leave for our children.
Tech companies start as ideas in individuals’ heads
Initial intentions of these companies is to fulfil the company founders, their employees and their customers
Along the way, the ambitions of the company start to encroach on the fulfilment of others
Eventually (usually with about a 10-year lag) these institutions are regulated
Over time the company’s services become irrelevant or they lose a key inspirational individual. Eventually they are dissolved or acquired and their place is taken by the next powerful organisation.
Involving the state
I don’t believe that we are doomed to repeat the previously mentioned cycle and I think there is an approach to enabling companies that boost fulfilment.
Now we come back to why studying a master’s in tech policy is the most impactful use of my time — I believe tech companies must be supported and held accountable by an institution which is far older than them and is likely to outlive them: the state.
To support sustainable and fulfilling business, the state can and should support riskier, more socially beneficial, and longer term investments. This is not a new idea — the USA pioneered this sort of state funding for products which would be too high risk for private investors with ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency, later becoming DARPA when it moved to focus solely on Defence projects). Current examples include several state funded ‘green banks’, closer to home the recent announcement of ARIA (based on the previously mentioned ARPA, focussing on “high risk, high reward projects”) and the state backed British Patient Capital (a subsidiary of the British Business Bank) who invest in venture capital funds with the ambition to allow “more home-grown and fully funded, high-growth companies to fulfil their potential”.
Ideas for improvement
I am excited to develop a deeper and more robust understanding of how we can make positive change in the ways I have previously mentioned. Two areas I am interested in exploring are:
Wider education about the tech industry — If the general public can better understand the implications of the tech they use and support through their purchases, time or taxes I believe there will be a stronger political desire to ensure tech benefits its users by default, rather than a select few shareholders.
Improving communication channels between government and early stage tech companies — we can develop more meaningful relationships with the future leaders of the next tech giants. Here the aim is to make government more aware of what tech really needs so govt is able to support founders in a way venture capital cannot and advise start-ups on how they can make the most of the support available to them from the state.
Most of the previously mentioned issues are exacerbated by the pressures that businesses face from many investment firms. Companies are often forced into ‘hyper growth’ to obtain a return in the shortest timeframe for their investors. This can negatively affect their chances of long term success and encourage a ‘win at all costs’ mindset.
The history, current state of tech, the work done by others, and the potential to make the future a little better for ourselves and our children are my motivations for me to embark on the master’s where I will narrow down the exact contribution I can make.
Get in touch
I am currently fundraising to cover the course fees for my master’s and so would welcome any support — whether that be advice or financial it is all greatly appreciated.
If you are wondering how you can make our lives more fulfilling through tech, if you have (or haven’t) enjoyed reading this, want to ask any questions, or have tips for Cambridge, I would love to talk!