Last year I read “Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy” by Tim Hartford. My favorite question that he raised repeatedly was about who benefits from what we build, and more importantly, who loses.
So whenever a new technology emerges, we should ask: Who will win and who will lose out as a result?
Sara’s book is all about this exact idea. She looks at the technology landscape asking this question, and the answer she gets isn’t a good one. We’re building technology for people like us, and most of the time in this community, that means building for young, white males. And we’re doing this without thinking about the consequences.
But when we start looking at them together, a clear pattern emerges: an industry that is willing to invest plenty of resources in chasing “delight” and “disruption”, but that hasn’t stopped to think about who’s being served by its products, and who’s being left behind, alienated, or insulted.
This book is an uncomfortable read, and it should be. It’s painful to hold up the mirror and see just how badly we’re falling short. But it’s so important that we do. Technology drives so much of our day to day lives, and its reach is only expanding. It’s not a hobby, it’s not a niche thing—it’s something that impacts everyone around the world every single day.
I love that Sara very early points the finger at us, the people building technology, and then she never lets it waver. She doesn’t let us hide behind the code or the math in the algorithms we build. Her focus is on the human aspect, as it should be. We’re the ones who need to work to ensure that we’re considering different viewpoints and testing our work through these different lenses.
The book also builds very nicely from chapter to chapter. She progresses from seemingly basic considerations—like form fields—in the early chapters to complex algorithms in the later ones. Throughout, there are numerous examples of situations where people were left out by the decisions that we made on their behalf, whether or not we realized it.
She also does a good job of zeroing on some core beliefs in our field that contribute to the mess we’re in: how the idea of a separate “technology industry” lets us avoid the checks and balances for established fields, how our obsession with engagement drives us to make the wrong decisions for the people using our products, and how the focus on collecting and selling people’s data counters inclusivity.
Sara isn’t anti-technology. She just recognizes how important technology has become, and the power of the decisions we make.
Every form field, every default setting, every push notification, affects people. Every detail can add to the culture we want—can make people a little safer, a little calmer, a little more hopeful.
My own love of technology is because of this reach she describes. It’s so incredible that what we build can be used by people all around the world, in various different walks of life. I want it to work for everyone. Taking the time to read Sara’s book is a good way for anyone to get started in making that a reality.