Responsible Digital Inclusion – How Can We Be Safe and Welcoming to All?

On December 10th, Constellation Research and the People Centered Internet (PCI)  brought over 200 people together in San Jose California to talk about a People Centered Digital Future. On the panel on Digital Inclusion, PCI co-founder, Mei Lin opened by inviting everyone into her kitchen, for if we are to be inclusive, conversations like these need to be happening in kitchens around the world. We must come together as family, friends, neighbors to discuss the future we want and how to overcome the threats to that future. If we want that future to be  meaningfully inclusive, what can we do now to make sure all lives steadily get better?


By Mei Lin Fung

Every home on a global learning network – brings threat and opportunity

“These unhappy times call for the building of plans that rest upon the forgotten, the unorganized but the indispensable units of economic power . . . that build from the bottom up and not from the top down, that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.”

               U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt April 7, 1932 radio address, The Forgotten Man

Deepa Prahalad spoke about those who live at the Bottom of the Pyramid.  It is less risky engaging from the bottom up than it once was – there is now a global payments infrastructure in place and consumer attitudes are shifting to favor companies with a social mission: the poor have adopted tech readily.   The decline in extreme poverty (from 35% to 10% of world population, since 1990) means that lots of people are becoming consumers for the first time. The Internet has not just lowered the cost of communication. What’s exciting is that is has lowered the cost of learning. We don’t have to guess at the preferences and aspirations of those who don’t look like us. Big Data exists for rich and poor alike today. We can observe and ask directly – if we care to.  

Getting the benefit of technology depends on developing human capital and infrastructure. Unless a person has a realistic means to act upon information/ inspiration, it is not helpful and can actually become a negative – information access can raise hopes without possibilities.  We can end up with civil disruption rather than disruptive innovation. She said that inclusion will demand that we broaden our conversation well beyond what people don’t have – we need to supercharge/ create platforms to build/ monetize existing assets and add convenience/ predictability. Oyo rooms in India, mPesa in Kenya, many other breakthrough innovations are coming from people in the emerging markets. We can extend the benefits we offer entrepreneurs in the developed world like mentorship, coaching, and by improving access to capital and expertise unleash new opportunities.

Digital Inclusion is a Strategic Advantage for Corporations

Doug Henschen of Constellation Research noted that the corporations that were paying attention to inclusion and inequity looked to have the most robust strategies. As a tech analyst, he attends more than 30 industry events per year and observes that the tech industry overall falls short on diversity and inclusion. There are signs of change, however, with inclusivity leaders such as Microsoft and Salesforce establishing clear policies on inclusive hiring and equal pay. He believes it’s no coincidence that these companies draw diverse attendance at their events and have experienced healthy financial performance since adopting these policies. Technology is being applied both inside and outside the tech industry to promote inclusivity, says Henschen. Natural language processing and machine learning, for example, are being used by vendors such as Textio, Workable, Jobvite and others to measure the effectiveness and appeal of job descriptions in reaching out to both men and women. There’s clear evidence that data-driven software can be brought to bear to help companies be more inclusive in their outreach to would-be employees and would-be customers.

Human-Centered Design: Critical to keeping Customers and Clients

Cecile Leroux Economic Anthropologist and Vice President at Ultimate Software brought forward the importance of human or person-centered design. To increase inclusion technologies will need to be hyper-personalized and help leaders deeply understand people, what motivates them and what alienates them. This allows us to serve up appropriate, timely, and meaningful digital experiences to people anywhere in the world. The other necessary component to successful human-centered digitization is continuous feedback to ensure digital experiences continue to be valuable and change at pace with the changing expectations of people. Much software inclusion effort has been focused on designing with localization in mind, yet as the global connectedness increases, personalization and personal preference takes on greater importance. Therefore knowing those preferences, behaviors and individual drivers is critical. Natural language processing and culturally aware voice technologies allow us to understand the meaning behind human expression better than ever before, identifying subtle emotional cues, and coupled with the ability to harness a new kind of interaction data, allows us to provide inclusive and personalized digital experiences.

The case for business leaders to drive digital inclusion

Tim Springer of Level Access noted the need for looking at how the needs of an aging population intersect with digital inclusion. He asked if mobile platforms like the cell phone and iPads can do a better job in driving for technology that is more inclusive. There is a role for the public sector – but how can we – business, government and civil society – be deft, adaptive and agile in making digital initiatives more inclusive? And how can innovation become even more inclusive? He offered these thoughts for consideration.

Moral Argument

  • We’ve decided, as a civil society, to build an inclusive society
  • We’ve decided it’s better when more people get to play
  • You’ve got to support that – and have a moral duty to providing things as broadly as possible

Financial Argument

  • Populations are getting older
  • Disability and age are nearly perfectly related – R Squared is one
  • So if you are going to do business you’ve got to do this
  • And there is real, material market demand for responsible companies

Legal Argument

  • This really just connects the two arguments
  • Turns out, sometimes when we agree to certain modes of conduct, we pass laws
  • We took the demographic trends and our moral view as a society and codified it into a law
  • So the law requires us to follow our collective moral compass

How Entrepreneurs Can Move the Needle towards Digital Inclusion

It really comes down to making decisions to do it. First, decide it’s okay that your company has a soul and, as an entity, has a responsibility to make ethical, inclusive decision. Second, morals matter, decide it’s okay to make decisions you think are morally correct that may cost you the love and affection of your investors. (In most cases they’ll surprise you and agree with your stance.) Finally, decide it’s okay to use your life to chase meaning over dollars. Creating something meaningful is as important as creating money.

Is there a role for techno-scientific communities to assure inclusion leads to more benefits than harms?

Konstantinos Karachalios, Managing Director of the IEEE Standards Association, spoke about the need to use this seminal juncture to pose some hard and critical questions, starting from the realization that the Internet and the Web have become much more than the originally intended many-to-many connectivity machine. The Web redefines human relations, including what is power, who owns it and how it is exercised, and also alters fundamental parameters of human nature itself (such as where we “feel at home”).

An addition, what Konstantinos called the “connectedness paradox” has emerged: the more connected we are in the cyberspace, the more we disconnect from real time and space, and – most importantly – from the people around us.

So, as we are pressing forward to “connect the unconnected” we must pose the following questions and try to find some more or less acceptable answers:

A) Is the Internet fulfilling its implicit original promise toward a “new enlightenment era”?

Does it contribute to spreading information and knowledge such as to reinforce critical thinking, and thus self-determination and freedom?

If not, why, and what can and should be done?

B) Can we somehow regain some agency over our (digital) identities, including our personal (digital) data? And how?

What would failure to do so mean for our socio-political systems, at least the ones which are still based on formal political freedom?

C) Could we create age appropriate system design for the Internet platforms, such as to respect the nationally and internationally codified rights of children?

Who should act and how?

What would failure to do so mean for the well-being of future generations?

D) If the answers to questions A-C  are mostly negative, then on what moral or socio-political ground might one defend the expansion of the Internet to cover the unconnected?

To A) – What can be done so the Internet fulfills its original promise as a “new enlightenment era”?

Historically, the mastery of two techniques has been necessary in order to build and sustain an empire: storage (food, grain, weapons, etc.) and transportation/transmission (trade goods, army legions, information, etc.). If the key strategic resource of our time is data and information, then the Internet and the Web have created a new type of undemocratically legitimated socio-political superpowers, a new kind of power player, in effect – Information shoguns, who gather, store, process, use and distribute this data and the information/knowledge associated therewith.

In addition, while the Internet/Web have a positive contribution regarding economic growth (albeit, one could argue that wealth disparities grow rather than diminish), for a multiplicity of reasons, they seem to promote clan building and cohesion, rather than reinforcing critical thinking. Thus, in spite of all alleged good intentions and promises, we can say as of today that political damages against our space of political self-determination outweigh any gains; the Internet/Web – despite several positive windfalls – are not fulfilling their original, emancipatory promises. It is therefore absolutely necessary to undo what systematically creates the current heavily asymmetric power relations.

To B) – How do we, the people, regain agency over our identity and our personal data?

It is more than evident that we have lost control, at an unprecedented scale, of our personal data and digital identity. However, if a person has no agency over his/her identity, then he/she is a slave to those who have the control. Whereas the “capture” occurs in the cyber dimension, these totally asymmetric power relations (transparency flows from the slaves to the master, never the other way around) are producing very real political and social effects in the physical world. This is not good news for what remains of formal democratic systems and societies.

Moreover, because of the combination of vested interests (certain types of corporations are here in close alliance with certain types of state agencies), and despite serious efforts, we are critically missing fixes to the current architecture and protocols that could show any way out or forward.

Perhaps, a new overarching, spatial (3D) Net, based on decentralized/distributed ledger technologies, could be established. It could disrupt and replace the current Internet/Web, and – if designed properly – it could help us regain some agency over our data and digital identity.

To C) – We need age- appropriate design principles that respect national and international norms.

Probably the most outrageous failure of the current digital era lies in the massive infringement and disrespect of children and adolescent rights, formal and customary. To put it bluntly, systems that are age agnostic, treat children as adults. This means, the post-web young generations are deprived of their right for an infancy. In addition, the “connectedness paradox” that I mentioned above leads to a massive disconnection of children and adolescents from their physical environment (intentionally so, through AI-enhanced “nudging” techniques). It is totally unclear what this fact means for their souls and mental sanity.

So, there is an urgent need to create age appropriate system design for the Internet/Web platforms, such as to at least respect the nationally and internationally codified rights of children. Legislators should move boldly and set the necessary norms. SDOs should deliver the corresponding standards and tools. The laws should make it impossible for the platforms to operate, if they do not comply with such standards. This is the least we owe to our children. Part of these solutions may perhaps be repurposed to help also us, adults, to diminish our continuous surveillance (an effect similar to the legislation that was originally put in place to limit weekly working hours for children to 40).

To D) If the dangers of connectivity outweigh the benefits, should we take a pause?

If there is no significant progress in the issues A-C mentioned above, it is very difficult to argue why we should make every effort in order to connect the unconnected.

Global techno-scientific communities should raise to the level of the challenge and assume our part of responsibility; at the end, we are the ones who design and code for these systems. Due to their complexity, the “business owners” cannot prescribe all details, so we have some margins of freedom that we should use. But we need some guidance about how and in which direction, and there is nobody there to tell us what to do than ourselves. We must therefore add a layer of self-reflection (add the “why” question to the usual “how”) to our professional skill sets and use this new capacity in order to redesign  the “how” toward new “what’s”.

As main vehicle, we should develop bottom-up, voluntary standards taking into account “ethical” (in the broad sense) aspects. In the same time, we should engage with policy makers to establish bi-directional flows of information, such that top-down legislation and regulation meets our raising from the bottom.  We should also ally ourselves with the vast majority of the business actors who are not part of and realize the problem.

Concluding Remarks

We are no longer at the naive entry point for digital inclusion – only now do we see the power of technology for both good and bad. With great power comes great responsibility – like FIRE technology has to be harnessed to support our humanity and our continued existence. This is just the beginning of conversations and dialogs that need to take place as the people of the world come to understand what digital technology is making possible and how we must responsibly guide its development to assure all can benefit and say safe.


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Posted in Diversity & Opportunity, Health & Security.

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