🎨 On tech and shaping a life (v0.1)

In short, when it’s at its best, tech gives you the power to shape your life, and works with the life you’ve shaped until now. At its worst, tech assumes what life you want to lead. And takes you down paths you can’t see or understand.

A couple of years ago, I was in Rwanda working with an electric motorbike startup. They were building motorbikes to sell or lease to taxi drivers, who used them to drive passengers around Kigali. When pitching it, the Founder always had this go-to line. “The bike”, he would say (emphasising the bits in bold) “and its electric charge are 30% cheaper than their petrol or diesel versions. For a taxi driver, that’s way more profit from a day’s work”. To which his Co-Founder would add, “Did you know Africa had 780,000 premature deaths from air pollution in 2019 alone? Electric bikes don’t emit fumes, so once they’re mainstream in a city, that place has one less problem to deal with”.

More money and cleaner air – it’s a compelling pitch. Rwanda’s taxi drivers (and investors) loved it. And so did I, but for different reasons.

I loved it because the startup didn’t just give taxi drivers an electric motorbike; it gave them the power to better shape their lives. With an electric motorbike, they could make more money to spend how they liked. Or, they could work fewer hours, and spend that extra time how they wanted. And – if the bikes took off – they could do all that in a city less encumbered by toxic air. Money, time, cleaner air. All giving the taxi driver the power to produce a life that meant something to them, whatever that life might be.

In working with tech, I’ve assumed plenty of metrics to try and measure social impact. For instance, tech is ‘beneficial’ to the degree it makes someone healthier, or smarter, or more productive, and so on. But maybe the most compelling lens to scrutinise whether tech makes people’s lives better is whether it gives them the power to shape their life, and its trajectory¹. Which might include working towards all or none of those assumed metrics.

There’s another angle to this too. Tech shouldn’t just equip people to produce a life that means something to them. It should also work with the lives that people and communities’ have shaped over time.

I remember learning this through a humbling experience in Zambia. We were working with a Zambian startup to build a pay-as-you-go bicycle scheme. We’d designed two initial pay-as-you-go concepts. One was a rent-a-ride scheme, popular in cities in Europe and the US. The other was a lease-to-own scheme where you pay in monthly installments, to one day own the bicycle. I was in favour of people renting rides, thinking the low cost of a journey would attract more users. After all, our target users were women and children in low-income households. What I hadn’t realised was how ‘renting’ a journey (or renting anything) was a foreign concept in Zambia. What you pay for, you should ultimately own.

We were lucky. Lucky because the Zambian startup we were working with knew better. They understood the importance of ownership in the culture we were working with, and so we went with a lease-to-own model. In other words, we worked with the meaning built up in a community, rather than imposing from the outside. Agency remained within the culture. Later, a bike shop owner would tell me a story about how customers would buy bike parts – a wheel, a frame, handlebars – and put together a bike over time. Nobody ever thought to spend that money on renting a bike.

So far, I’ve argued that tech should optimise for letting you produce meaning in your own life. And it should do that by empowering people to shape their lives, and calibrating with how they’ve shaped their lives so far.

Sadly, a lot of tech ends up doing the opposite of those two things.

Rather than empowering you, it limits your choices and funnels you down a narrow path, often designed by others. No two products demonstrate this better than the social media feed (think TikTok), and the auto-generated recommendation (think YouTube).

At times, these tools can help us shape our lives. But they can also reduce us to consumers of meaning from elsewhere, dictated to and shaped by algorithms we don’t understand. These algorithms decide what we see, and nudge how we think and act. They can shape us, rather than giving us the power to shape our own lives. Why does something show up on your feed, and not something else? Why are you nudged towards this video, and not that? What’s it assuming about you, your culture, your behaviours? Who built it, and what’s their lived experience? What are their incentives?

And algorithms like these are going into more and more of life. Self-driving cars. Medical imagery analysis. Credit lending decisions. HR departments. As this list gets bigger, how can each person keep shaping their life’s journey? Rather than have it shaped on their behalf, by forces they can’t comprehend?

Tech products that are built elsewhere (software or hardware) are always less likely to empower people to produce a life on their terms. People and communities have shaped their lives over time. If tech comes in from the outside, it’s much less likely to work with this built-up meaning. It’s more likely to impose its own assumptions about the life someone wants to live. Like me, and my assumptions about ownership and pay-as-you-go bikes.

Of course, that isn’t to say tech should never come somewhere from outside. Much has, and its empowered people in amazing ways. When it does, we should judge it by whether it gives people and communities the freedom to shape their lives and journeys. This means giving people the tools to craft a life for themselves, rather than assuming what the content and value in that life should be. People – not tech – keep and grow their agency.

And, when tech does shape someone else’s life, ask yourself – to what degree does the user and her community understand what it’s doing? Does it go with the grain of the lives people have already shaped for themselves?

Do this, and leave people to make up their own minds about how to live their lives. In the end, that’s a much more honest and sincere way to do good.

¹ Even with this power to shape your life how you want, literally nobody gets it right 100% of the time. We all make choices we regret. But the power to strive for a life that means something to you – the power to own your own journey – is what tech should aim to give us.

🎬 Thanks to Chris Mann for looking at drafts of this piece.

🤔 Got thoughts? Don’t keep them to yourself. Email me on asad@asadrahman.io. Let’s figure this out together.

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Banner is Pissarro’s ‘Le Champ de choux, Pontoise’ (1873), from Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository