Can an Online Course Help Big Tech Find Its Soul?

The new course is meant, in part, to answer that question, speaking directly to rehabilitated techies like Read. It contains eight modules and is intended to take about eight hours total, plus additional time spent on worksheets, reflection exercises, and optional discussion groups over Zoom. Read, who “binged” the course, says he completed it in about two weeks.

For people who have spent years studying the harmful externalities of the tech industry, the course might feel short on insight. Yes, social media companies exploit human weaknesses—what’s new? But for those just arriving to those ideas, it provides some useful jumping off points. One module focuses on the psychology of persuasive tech and includes a “humane design guide” for creating more respectful products. Another encourages technologists to identify their highest values and the ways those values interact with their work. At the end of the lesson, a worksheet invites them to imagine sipping tea at age 70, looking back on their life. “What’s the career you look back on? What are the ways you’ve influenced the world?”

Subtle? Not exactly. Even still, Fernando believes the tech industry is so badly in need of a wake-up call that these worksheets and journal prompts might give tech workers a moment to consider what they’re building. Suparna Chhibber, who left a job at Amazon in 2020, says the pace of the tech industry doesn’t always leave room for people to reflect on their purpose or values. “People get paid a lot to push things through, and if you’re not doing that, then you’re basically failing,” she says.

Chhibber enrolled in the Foundations of Humane Technology around the same time as Read and found a community of like-minded people waiting to discuss the material over Zoom. (The Center for Humane Technology leads the sessions, and plans to continue them.) Read described these sessions like group therapy: “You get to know people who you feel safe exploring these topics with. You can open up.” Critically, it reminded him that, although many people don’t understand why he left his prestigious job, he is not alone.

The Center for Humane Technology is not the first organization to make a tool kit for concerned tech workers. The Tech and Society Solutions Lab has released two, in 2018 and 2020, designed to encourage more ethical conversations within tech companies and startups. But the center’s new course is novel in the way that it tries to create community out of the burgeoning “humane tech” movement. A single concerned engineer is unlikely to change a company’s business model or practices. Together, though, a group of concerned engineers might make a difference.

The Center for Humane Technology says that more than 3,600 tech workers have already started the course, and several hundred have completed it. “This is by far the biggest effort we’ve made to convene humane technologists,” says David Jay, the center’s head of mobilization. The center says it has amassed a long list of concerned technologists over the years and plans to promote the course directly to them. It also plans to get the word out through a few partner organizations and through its “allies inside of a wide range of technology companies, including many of the major social media platforms.”

If there ever was a moment for the tech industry to band together and reconstitute its values, it would be now: Tech workers are in high demand, and companies are increasingly at the whim of their desires. Still, workers who have tried to raise flags haven’t always been listened to. It seems unlikely that these companies will reorient their business incentives—away from profits and toward social consciousness—without greater pressures, like regulation. Chhibber, who says she tried to infuse “humane tech” principles into her teams at Amazon, didn’t find that it was enough to change the company’s overall culture. “If you have the business model breathing down your back,” she says, “it’s going to impact what you do.”

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