FEATURE24 June 2021

Civic-minded: The rise of public interest technology

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Public interest technology is a growing field focused on the ethics of how we build, apply and interact with systems. By Katie McQuater.

Aerial view of people walking across a zebra crossing

In 2020, Netflix documentary-drama The Social Dilemma brought a disturbing vision to our screens: shady controllers monitored people’s every online move, influencing the content they come across and, thereby, their mood, and even their likelihood of being indoctrinated.

If it sounds like a dystopian prospect of a distant future, it’s far from it. Facial-recognition technologies; the hyper-targeted digital advertising market; the growth of disinformation and conspiracy theories threatening democracy, leading to violence such as the attack on the US Capitol; online abuse of female journalists and politicians. All are negative outcomes of technology.

There is a growing field that recognises technology should be designed, understood and applied in a way that considers all outcomes and potential impact. Enter public interest technologists – those who operate in and around tech, who understand that designers and coders don’t function in a silo and that tech should be used to benefit society as a whole.

“Public interest technologists produce knowledge, hardware and software optimised to advance ...