Zarah Rahman: I’ll be talk­ing about the impor­tance of build­ing bridges between researchers who are think­ing crit­i­cal­ly about tech­nol­o­gy and data, and civ­il soci­ety. So those work­ing for pos­i­tive social change.

So I came to this fel­low­ship want­i­ng to explore the idea of tech trans­la­tion, which is a term that a col­league and friend of mine Lucy Chambers coined a cou­ple of years ago. I was using it very specif­i­cal­ly to explain this obser­va­tion I kept see­ing that peo­ple who are work­ing in tech­nol­o­gy who had a real­ly deep under­stand­ing of tech­nol­o­gy were effec­tive­ly speak­ing almost a dif­fer­ent lan­guage to those out­side of the tech sec­tor.

I spent some­time in 2015 col­lect­ing a series of case stud­ies around how civ­il soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions… The chal­lenges that they were fac­ing when they were try­ing to engage with tech­nol­o­gy and data. And these ranged from not know­ing how to man­age data that they were col­lect­ing about vul­ner­a­ble com­mu­ni­ties, to using resources to build an app that end­ed up to be kind of use­less.

So, some con­text. I work for a non­prof­it orga­ni­za­tion called The Engine Room. Our mis­sion is to sup­port civ­il soci­ety to use tech­nol­o­gy and data and more effec­tive­ly and strate­gi­cal­ly in their work. And when I say civ­il soci­ety I mean jour­nal­ists, media activists, com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ers, non­prof­it orga­ni­za­tions. Some con­text about the sit­u­a­tions in which we’re work­ing, it’s often very resource-limited. There’s not that much mon­ey. There’s a lot of pres­sure. And as you can imag­ine right now, it feels like the prob­lems that we’re try­ing to address are grow­ing even big­ger.

And over the past cou­ple of years, it feels like civ­il soci­ety has been almost over­whelmed with promis­es of how tech­nol­o­gy can sud­den­ly mag­i­cal­ly solve the prob­lems that we’re try­ing to address. Some com­ing from tech giants who say they’ve devel­oped some sem­blance of social con­science sud­den­ly. Some from star­tups who see a prob­lem and think that tech­nol­o­gy can help with­out think­ing about the sys­temic issues under­ly­ing it. And they come with mon­ey, and resources, and exper­tise.

Compare that to the atti­tudes that we have here. So we are a group of peo­ple at Data & Society, and aca­d­e­mics and researchers who are think­ing deeply, crit­i­cal­ly about the role that tech­nol­o­gy and data is hav­ing in the world. Groups of aca­d­e­mics from all sorts of dis­ci­plines are build­ing up an ever-growing body of research around the social impli­ca­tions of tech­nol­o­gy. And we’re not alone. We’re learn­ing from each oth­er and the world around us, and we have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to spread our ideas.

Ursula K. LeGuin wrote in her book The Dispossessed, The idea is like grass. It craves light, likes crowds, thrives on cross­breed­ing, and grows bet­ter for being stepped on.” The con­cept of ideas improv­ing with bet­ter diver­si­ty of peo­ple con­tribut­ing is not new. So then my ques­tion becomes, in terms of tech crit­i­cism, who is con­tribut­ing? As far as I can tell, by and large it’s not often activists or peo­ple work­ing for pos­i­tive social change explic­it­ly.

One poten­tial expla­na­tion is writ­ten about in this post by Chris Olah and Shan Carter from Google Brain. They write about the idea of research debt,” essen­tial­ly the labor that a researcher needs to do in order to start con­tribut­ing to a field. They need to first under­stand what’s come before, climb this moun­tain of pre­vi­ous work. Then when they can con­tribute, they con­tribute by putting their work on top of this moun­tain. Which makes the moun­tain high­er for those who come after, and it makes it hard­er to climb. They use the term debt” here to reflect that in the short term though this might seem like a log­i­cal way to go about it, in the long term it’s not nec­es­sar­i­ly that log­i­cal or pro­gres­sive or use­ful, real­ly. Like tech­ni­cal debt for pro­gram­mers, it’s again a prac­tice that seems log­i­cal in the short term but might be prob­lem­at­ic in the long term.

I observed this debt a lot in the tech and social change space. Here, as I said there are aca­d­e­mics and researchers who are think­ing deeply and crit­i­cal­ly about tech­nol­o­gy and data. In many civ­il soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions there are peo­ple imple­ment­ing tech projects, work­ing with exist­ing plat­forms, who have no idea about the cri­tiques that exist. And it’s not that the peo­ple in those spaces aren’t crit­i­cal thinkers. Everyone work­ing in social jus­tice work or for social change, it’s all about ana­lyz­ing pow­er and under­stand­ing peo­ple and pol­i­tics and rela­tion­ships. It’s often almost the same kind of set of skills, but there’s a com­plete lack of exchange between these dif­fer­ent spaces. I think this is prob­lem­at­ic for a num­ber of rea­sons. I’m just going to go into two of them here.

Firstly, and this won’t be new to many of you, the neg­a­tive effects of tech­nol­o­gy are often first felt by those on the mar­gins of soci­ety. This has been true through­out his­to­ry of colo­nial­ism, med­ical tech­nolo­gies, war­fare tech­nolo­gies, any­thing. So as a result it’s cru­cial that those work­ing with mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties, or those mem­bers of those com­mu­ni­ties, have the tools they need to be able to crit­i­cal­ly assess tech­nolo­gies.

One of the ear­li­est uses of bio­met­ric tech­nolo­gies for iden­ti­fi­ca­tion was on Afghan refugees back in 2002. That’s fif­teen years ago. They were cross­ing the Afghanistan/Pakistan bor­der, and it was by a UN refugee agency, done in part­ner­ship with a tech com­pa­ny who was sell­ing them this won­der­ful prod­uct that was going to solve all their prob­lems. Very lit­tle atten­tion was paid at the time to the pri­va­cy rights of the refugees in ques­tion. The tech­nolo­gies were used on 4.2 mil­lion peo­ple across a peri­od of five years. Before being used on those 5.2 mil­lion peo­ple it had been test­ed on 300 peo­ple.

From research car­ried out by a Katja Jacobsen in 2010, there were many prob­lems, as you can imag­ine. She doc­u­ment­ed them in a real­ly nice research paper. This is just one quote from some­one who end­ed up using and hav­ing to imple­ment these tech­nolo­gies, say­ing, Previously, you could doubt your own judg­ment,” before the machines, this iris recog­ni­tion will make it much bet­ter. How can they argue now, the machine can’t make a mis­take.”

That ini­tia­tive was prob­a­bly, I have to imag­ine, imple­ment­ed by peo­ple with the very best of inten­tions. They were work­ing in the human­i­tar­i­an sec­tor. They prob­a­bly went into the sec­tor want­i­ng to make people’s lives bet­ter. To my mind it’s real­ly clear that they were lack­ing, and often still are, a crit­i­cal lens to view the tech­nolo­gies that they’re being sold on and asked to use. Without tools to crit­i­cal­ly assess and think about the role of tech­nol­o­gy in soci­ety, I wor­ry that civ­il soci­ety will end up per­pet­u­at­ing inequal­i­ty rather than dis­man­tling the pow­er struc­tures we seek to dis­man­tle.

The sec­ond rea­son I find this lack of exchange kind of prob­lem­at­ic is that it’s far eas­i­er to poke holes and find prob­lems with projects and ideas and tech­nolo­gies than it is to build them. Sarah Watson talks about an evo­lu­tion of tech crit­i­cism that she calls con­struc­tive tech crit­i­cism.” In her words, it goes beyond intel­lec­tu­al argu­ments. It is embod­ied, prac­ti­cal, and acces­si­ble, and it offers frame­works for liv­ing with tech­nol­o­gy.

That’s exact­ly what peo­ple work­ing in civ­il soci­ety and for pos­i­tive social change are try­ing to do. We’re engag­ing with the prob­lems of soci­ety. We’re try­ing to build bet­ter futures and not just sug­gest alter­na­tive pos­si­bil­i­ties, but build them and make them hap­pen. This is a mas­sive chal­lenge, obvi­ous­ly, that needs a diverse set of peo­ple and skills and per­spec­tives in addi­tion to activists and prac­ti­tion­ers and orga­niz­ers. It needs con­struc­tive tech crit­ics, too.

So, how can we cre­ate these spaces for engage­ment? This would mean cre­at­ing spaces for peo­ple from diverse back­grounds and expe­ri­ence to con­tribute to research mean­ing­ful­ly. Not just being inter­vie­wees or par­tic­i­pants in a research project, but being the peo­ple who design the project or car­ry out the research. But going back to what I said ear­li­er about research debt, that path of engage­ment cur­rent­ly exists pri­mar­i­ly by ask­ing peo­ple who already car­ry a heavy bur­den to climb moun­tains rather than walk along bridges.

When peo­ple work­ing in civ­il soci­ety or peo­ple that I work with ask me, What should I read or what should I look at to try and under­stand these crit­i­cal per­spec­tives you talk about?” I often actu­al­ly don’t know what to sug­gest. I know that they have resource lim­i­ta­tions, time pres­sure, it needs to be acces­si­ble. And I’m not real­ly sure where those bridges are.

So in response to this, and in response to see­ing how quick­ly mis­in­for­ma­tion spread in 2016, I’ve been think­ing a lot about dif­fer­ent ways to com­mu­ni­cate these ideas, not just in a way that tries to explain them as though I’m an expert at explain­ing things to lay peo­ple, but in a way that encour­ages inter­ro­ga­tion and encour­ages engage­ment, and allows peo­ple to actu­al­ly ques­tion what I’m say­ing. Together with my col­lab­o­ra­tive Mimi, who’s in the back, we devel­oped this zine as a play­ful way of help­ing peo­ple think crit­i­cal­ly about the role of infor­ma­tion in soci­ety.

We want­ed it to be famil­iar. It’s a phys­i­cal arti­fact. We want­ed peo­ple to look at it and not think that we’re experts telling them things, but think, Hey, I could have prob­a­bly done this myself, too.” So it’s hand-written. We want­ed to give con­text as to why this should mat­ter, so each page has a his­tor­i­cal exam­ple that speaks to the con­text of the peo­ple that are read­ing it. So we’ve trans­lat­ed it into German and replaced the exam­ples with German exam­ples, and we’re doing the same for Spanish.

We want to keep explor­ing this idea so we’ve set up stu­dio, Small Format, where for now at least, you can buy the German and English ver­sions of the zine, and we’ll be using Small Format to con­tin­ue to explore play­ful and crit­i­cal print­ed inter­ven­tions for explor­ing data. So watch this space.

In con­clu­sion, I believe that the role of dis­till­ing com­plex ideas into their sim­plest forms is a task that the tech crit­ic com­mu­ni­ty could get a lot bet­ter at. We need to be able to explain com­plex­i­ty in sim­ple ideas, and explain ideas not by rely­ing on knowl­edge of Western philoso­phers or the­o­rists but by sit­u­at­ing it with­in local con­text and lived expe­ri­ence.

Last week at a con­fer­ence that Ingrid host­ed called Future Perfect, Ruha Benjamin talked about the val­ue of cre­at­ing knowl­edge not to con­vince peo­ple who we want to impress or per­suade of a cer­tain thing, but for our­selves and for peo­ple who need it. I’d ask you all to think care­ful­ly about who you’re pro­duc­ing your knowl­edge for and whether they’re the ones that could ben­e­fit the most from it. Thank you.

Further Reference

Event page


Help Support Open Transcripts

If you found this useful or interesting, please consider supporting the project monthly at Patreon or once via Square Cash, or even just sharing the link. Thanks.