Silicon Valley logics run deep – meaning that even the most well-intentioned ‘tech for good’ project can unfold in directions that might make good sense in terms of technology development and/or entrepreneurial innovation, but blur the lines of what otherwise might be considered appropriate and ethical.
Joanne McNeil (2022) writes about the recent case of a US text-based counselling service – offering a confidential means for potentially suicidal teens to seek guidance through text-based messaging.
Drawing on over $20 million start-up funding raised from tech-related philanthropic sources (including Melinda Gates and Steve Ballmer), ‘Crisis Text Line’ was subsequently found to be harvesting text data from its teen callers with a view to developing other products – despite initial claims to ‘NEVER share data’ of the teens contacting the service.
Some of CTL’s leaders reasoned that it would be unethical not to use this data to gain insights into teen-suicide behaviour. Less nobly, the data was seemingly used to drive a spin-off service described as ‘a Grammarly for emotion’ – helping other online customer-service teams respond to texts in a caring, empathetic, warm manner.
This clash between the ambitions of tech developers and innovators and the complex nature of something like suicide counselling typifies the dangers of what McNeil (2022) terms “the Silicon Valleyfication of Everything”:
“Crisis Text Line put its market proposition above the needs of its vulnerable users: its dehumanizing data collection practices were part of a series of callous acts. Suicide prevention doesn’t look like the “speed of a private tech company” or “awesome” machine learning. It requires safety and care with no strings attached. This care includes generosity and expansion of public resources like access to housing, food, healthcare, and other basic needs; it can’t be measured in KPIs. The very purpose Crisis Text Line claimed to serve is incompatible with the Silicon Valley way of doing business”
McNeil, J. (2022) Crisis Text Line and the Silicon Valleyfication of Everything. Vice, 11th February, https://www.vice.com/en/article/wxdpym/crisis-text-line-and-the-silicon-valleyfication-of-everything