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In 2017, Resolve to Join the Conversation

As we start 2017, there has already been much reflecting on the recent presidential election and what it all means. I promise this isn’t another political post-mortem…but that’s where it starts. C Space Chairman Diane Hessan wrote in November, after taking on a special assignment to understand undecided voters in swing states: “I have learned that instead of speaking about each other, we need to speak with each other.”

This is an excellent principle to follow in politics and in life. Going forward, one arena in which it will be especially important for companies and citizens alike to apply this ethos is technology: its design, its application, its management, and its regulation.

This topic was on my mind recently as I and some family members visited the new Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate, as a break from gluttonous holiday celebrating.

To my surprise, I got much more out of this visit than some fun legislative facts.

Admission into the Institute makes you a “Senator for a Day,” granting you the ability to participate in a live floor debate with other “Senators” on an active piece of legislation being considered by the real Senate (inside a full-scale replica of the Senate chambers, no less). The day we visited, we were debating a “discussion draft” of a potential bill called the Compliance with Court Orders Act of 2016.

Essentially it grapples with the question of private information captured through use of tech products and who gets access to that information. Does law enforcement have a right to have access to encrypted information in readable formats, meaning tech companies may be required to produce new “back door” technology to overcome security measures set in place for data protection?

This question isn’t just an esoteric, philosophical one. With all of the devices and programs we all use on a daily basis, issues arise without a clear course forward. The need to figure all this out came to the national spotlight in the aftermath of the 2015 San Bernardino attack, as Apple refused to comply with a court order to break into an encrypted iPhone to assist in FBI investigations. A more recent murder investigation in Arkansas shows us how this question plays out with even newer technologies, as local police seek to gain access to private data from an Amazon Echo located in a suspect’s home. How we treat this topic has far-reaching implications for individuals’ personal data but also how we function as a society – who has the power, the relationship between tech companies and government institutions, national security, and even foreign relations. Makes you think twice before sending that Snapchat, huh?

So, we’re back at the Institute, on the floor of the “Senate.” As our facilitators looked for Senators to make a “for” or “against” statement about the Act, I was surprised when my own family member requested the mic…and even more surprised at my reaction to her viewpoints. Someone else weighed in who had spent a career in tech manufacturing and brought to light a line of reasoning that would have never crossed my mind. And so, a low-key museum visit on a dark winter day suddenly turned into an impassioned civic debate. One dinner and several glasses of wine later at a nearby restaurant, our family was still trading arguments on this topic.

What did I get out of this visit? It was a reminder that:

  1. People are more than the ballot boxes they check. Issues that really matter to people are more fundamental than political postures.
  2. Dialogue like this doesn’t just happen. Because these issues may be less top-of-mind in daily life, and uncomfortable to discuss, we need to make a conscious effort to do so.
  3. Technology is a hot topic, and depending on our individual values and experiences with it, we may have different (and strong) opinions.

In a time when all of this is being debated and technology continues to advance more and more, there’s an opportunity, perhaps even an imperative I would say, for companies and brands (and not just in the tech industry, as tech is so ubiquitous) to be a part of the conversation and understand their consumers’ mindsets. Otherwise, they risk missteps that alienate customers and prospective customers.

For what it’s worth, it’s not just me; Facebook CEO Mark Zuckberberg recently shared his 2017 resolution is to have visited and met people from every state in the US because technology and globalization have also “contributed to a greater sense of division.”

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