For tech to serve the public good, we need standards

When I first started as a technology investor, I became interested in Neil Postman’s work at NYU. He stated — in a time of the rising proliferation and expansion of television programming — that mediums of mass persuasion and influence needed extremely careful consideration and society needed to understand the unintended consequences of these mass mediums.

Dr. Postman died before the popular rise of online everything. But he (and others) gave us every warning on how — if we did not carefully consider the negative ramifications of new developments — our society would be at grave risk of injury.

I’ve spent half my life looking closely at technology companies for my investments. One thing I’ve always found problematic from many of my peers is the widely held belief that the free market will ensure that any flawed tech system will breed competition that will then fix those flaws.

I don’t agree. This is how we ended up with “move fast and break things” and a too-prevalent underlying arrogance that anything that is new is better than what existed before it.

I truly believe that what we have lost in the last three decades far outweighs the tremendous gains since the Internet became a public utility. We are now at a point in which the public utility has become privatized and controlled by a dangerously small number of companies, the vast majority of whom lack even the same level of governance in place to oversee drinking at parks.

Big technology companies and their investors have created an ecosystem that resists oversight and has demonstrated limited ability to behave responsibly — from creating platforms that harbor misinformation to manipulating employee protections.

To share the blame, most governments have failed to protect their citizens. Most elected representatives are not sufficiently literate in the language of technology that is woven into every part of our lives. Instead, there’s a public antagonism between our business and public leaders that is impacting us all.

That needs to change. I still believe that technology can solve a lot of our collective challenges and that it can support education, social equality, and move toward public good.

Technology doesn’t have to be at odds with governance. This is my guiding principle with my investments: I look for entrepreneurs that don’t see government as the enemy but as welcome and respected collaborators in a lot of important areas.

Transportation is one example. Government mandates safety regulations, and automobile companies follow, resulting in fewer accidents and more lives saved. Even now, the possibilities have grown: Public-private partnership may lead to a future in self-driving cars.

Our election systems could be another. We are in a unique place where collaboration between the government and the private sector can resolve some of the challenges in the current electoral system in America.

The pandemic — and our most recent woes with the post office — have only made it more clear that our remote voting options (mail-in ballot, fax, or email) are falling short on feasibility, accessibility, security, and privacy. Mail systems in more than 70 countries are not delivering to the U.S., meaning deployed military and overseas citizens in those countries simply won’t get to vote this year. That is unacceptable.

Increasing individual participation in civic society is an area in which technology should be able to play a meaningful role, providing additional methods for people to vote and ensuring that the systems are designed properly and governed responsibly. But public trust and buy-in is key for us to achieve higher participation in elections and give us a truly representative administration.

For this to happen, we need a way forward that provides a shared language and accountability between tech companies and the government, to ensure public trust and safety in the platforms that play such important roles in every part of our lives. And for that, I call for the development of a set of technology standards that provides that base of trust and that can ensure public safety in our elections.

It’s a new space; we’ve set groundwork towards privacy, but not the safety and trust of technology as a whole. We have an opportunity to set the foundation of this new way forward. My hope is that this administration or the next will lead the world in establishing these standards and that today’s industry leaders embrace the opportunity to keep building to ensure that the technology that touches the most important parts of our society does so in a way that benefits us all.

We are at a point where, if we do not provide a path to produce the tools that ensure each person still has a voice that matters, I fear we will simply continue to fuel emotional fires that will burn the remaining bridges of society for greater and greater profit.

Tom Williams is founder of Heron Rock, where he oversees multi-family office investment strategies focused on investments in technology, consumer and media, and life sciences companies around the world. Prior to Heron Rock, he founded BetterCompany and co-founded Miavita, an online health and nutrition website that was later sold to Matria.

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