Tech for Whom?

Charley Johnson has a good line of questions and critique for any organization or group which is promoting a ‘technology for good’ program. The crux is that any and all techno-utopian proposals suggest a means of technology to solve a problem as defined by the party making the proposal. Put another way, these kinds of solutions do not tend to solve real underlying problems but, instead, solve the ‘problems’ for which hucksters have build a pre-designed a ‘solution’.

This line of analysis isn’t new, per se, and follows in a long line of equity, social justice, feminism, and critical theory writers. Still, Johnson does a good job in extracting key issues with techno-utopianism. Key, is that any of these solutions tend to present a ‘tech for good’ mindset that:

… frames the problem in such a way that launders the interests, expertise, and beliefs of technologists…‘For good’ is problematic because it’s self-justifying. How can I question or critique the technology if it’s ‘for good’? But more importantly, nine times out of ten ‘for good’ leads to the definition of a problem that requires a technology solution.

One of the things that we are seeing more commonly is the use of data, in and of itself, as something that can be used for good: data for good initiatives are cast as being critical to solving climate change, making driving safer, or automating away the messier parties of our lives. Some of these arguments are almost certainly even right! However, the proposed solutions tend to rely on collecting, using, or disclosing data—derived from individuals’ and communities’ activities—without obtaining their informed, meaningful, and ongoing consent. ‘Data for good’ depends, first and often foremost, on removing the agency to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a given ‘solution’.

In the Canadian context efforts to enable ‘good’ uses of data have emerged through successively introduced pieces of commercial privacy legislation. The legislation would permit the disclosure of de-identified personal information for “socially beneficial purposes.” Information could be disclosed to government, universities, public libraries, health care institutions, organizations mandated by the government to carry out a socially beneficial purpose, and other prescribed entities. Those organizations could use the data for a purpose related to health, the provision or improvement of public amenities or infrastructure, the protection of the environment or any other prescribed purpose.

Put slightly differently, whereas Johnson’s analysis is towards a broad concept of ‘data for good’ in tandem with elucidating examples, the Canadian context threatens to see broad-based techno-utopian uses of data enabled at the legislative level. The legislation includes the ability to expand whom can receive de-identified data and the range of socially beneficial uses, with new parties and uses being defined by regulation. While there are a number of problems with these kinds of approaches—which include the explicit removal of consent of individuals and communities to having their data used in ways they may actively disapprove of—at their core the problems are associated with power: the power of some actors to unilaterally make non-democratic decisions that will affect other persons or communities.

This capacity to invisibly express power over others is the crux of most utopian fantasies. In such fantasies, power relationships are resolved in the absence of making them explicit and, in the process, an imaginary is created wherein social ills are fixed as a result of power having been hidden away. Decision making in a utopia is smooth and efficient, and the power asymmetries which enable such situations is either hidden away or just not substantively discussed.

Johnson’s article concludes with a series of questions that act to re-surface issues of power vis-a-vis explicitly raising questions of agency and the origin and nature of the envisioned problem(s) and solution(s):

Does the tool increase the self-determination and agency of the poor?

Would the tool be tolerated if it was targeted at non-poor people?

What problem does the tool purport to solve and who defined that problem?

How does the way they frame the problem shape our understanding of it?

What might the one framing the problem gain from solving it?

We can look to these questions as, at their core, raising issues of power—who is involved in determining how agency is expressed, who has decision-making capabilities in defining problems and solutions—and, through them, issues of inclusion and equity. Implicit through his writing, at least to my eye, is that these decisions cannot be assigned to individuals but to individuals and their communities.

One of the great challenges for modern democratic rule making is that we must transition from imagining political actors as rational, atomic, subjects to ones that are seen as embedded in their community. Individuals are formed by their communities, and vice versa, simultaneously. This means that we need to move away from traditional liberal or communitarian tropes to recognize the phenomenology of living in society, alone and together simultaneously, while also recognizing and valuing the tilting power and influence of ‘non-rational’ aspects of life that give life much of its meaning and substance. These elements of life are most commonly those demonized or denigrated by techno-utopians on the basis that technology is ‘rational’ and is juxtaposed against the ‘irrationality’ of how humans actually live and operate in the world.

Broad and in conclusion, then, techno-utopianism is functionally an issue of power and domination. We see ‘tech bros’ and traditional power brokers alike advancing solutions to their perceived problems, and this approach may be further reified should legislation be passed to embed this conceptual framework more deeply into democratic nation-states. What is under-appreciated is that while such legislative efforts may make certain techno-utopian activities lawful the subsequent actions will not, as a result, necessarily be regarded as legitimate by those affected by the lawful ‘socially beneficial’ uses of de-identified personal data.

The result? At best, ambivalence that reflects the population’s existing alienation from democratic structures of government. More likely, however, is that lawful but illegitimate expressions of ‘socially beneficial’ uses of data will further delegitimize the actions and capabilities of the states, with the effect of further weakening the perceived inclusivity of our democratic traditions.


The information superhighway is being promoted as a powerful means to even out disparities and inequalities that afflict people inside the United States and throughout the world economy … a privately owned and managed information superhighway will be turned toward the interest and needs and income of the most advantaged sectors of the society. Significant modification of this systemic tendency requires the pressure of a strong political movement.

Herbert I. Schiller. (1995). “The Global Information Highways: Project for an ungovernable world.”

What Schiller wrote in 1995 could as easily be written, today, as it pertains to the new technologies which are regularly promoted as evening out disparities and inequities. It remains unclear to me that there has been any significant change in the systemic tendencies that are baked into the contemporary internet, nor that there is sufficient contemporary political pressure to reform existing inequalities let alone ensure that next-generation technologies will not reproduce them.


Links for December 14-18, 2020

Links for December 14-18, 2020

  • The coming war on the hidden algorithms that trap people in poverty || “A family member lost work because of the pandemic and was denied unemployment benefits because of an automated system failure. The family then fell behind on rent payments, which led their landlord to sue them for eviction. While the eviction won’t be legal because of the CDC’s moratorium, the lawsuit will still be logged in public records. Those records could then feed into tenant-screening algorithms, which could make it harder for the family to find stable housing in the future. Their failure to pay rent and utilities could also be a ding on their credit score, which once again has repercussions.” // The harms done by automated decision making are deeply under appreciated, and routinely harm those whom society has set aside as ‘appropriate’ test subjects for these inequitable technologies. It’s abhorrent, unethical, and unjust.
  • Understanding 5g, and why it’s the future (not present) for mobile communications – tidbits // This is the most accessible, and helpful, primer for 5G that I think I’ve come across this year.
  • How Russia wins the climate crisis || “…agriculture offers the key to one of the greatest resources of the new climate era — food — and in recent years Russia has already shown a new understanding of how to leverage its increasingly strong hand in agricultural exports. In 2010, when wildfires and drought conspired to ruin Russia’s grain harvests, Putin banned the exporting of wheat in order to protect his own people, then watched as global wheat prices tripled. The world reeled in response. From Pakistan to Indonesia, poverty increased. High prices rocked delicate political balances in Syria, Morocco and Egypt, where about 40 percent of daily caloric intake is from bread. The shortages poured fuel on Arab Spring uprisings, which eventually pushed millions of migrants toward Europe, with destabilizing effect — a bonus for Russian interests. And much of this turmoil began with wheat. As Michael Werz, a senior fellow for climate migration and security at the Center for American Progress, says, “There’s a reason people demonstrated with baguettes in Cairo.”” // Bread will, once more, be a functional weapon of war as climate change devastates currently fertile land and enables authoritarian countries to express their will—and encourage chaos—by withholding the nutrients required for life itself. One can only hope that countervailing democracies in the Nordic nations and Canada can acts as sufficient counterbalances to withstand potential Russian malfeasance.
  • The outbreak that invented intensive care || “Comparisons are being made to the 1918 influenza pandemic — eerily, just over a century ago — which had a mortality that might turn out similar. But that outbreak occurred without a ventilator in sight. Is this new disease, in fact, more deadly? Thanks to what my predecessors learnt in Copenhagen almost 70 years ago, we can, in some parts of the world, offset the havoc of COVID-19 with mechanical ventilation and sophisticated intensive care that was not available in 1918. But it is as COVID-19 continues to spread in areas that do not have ICU beds — or not nearly enough of them — that we will, sadly, learn the true natural course of this new virus.” // It’s incredible that, until 1952, we didn’t have modern ventilators, and worrying that the ‘true’ mortality of the current pandemic may only be apparent after studies are conducted of countries where contemporary medical technologies are often unavailable.
  • How infectious disease defined the American bathroom || “When architects designed homes in the wake of the 1918 flu pandemic and World War I, they typically took one of two approaches to the recent traumas. The first was to start at the ground-up and rethink everything, like Modernists and the Bauhaus did in the 1920s. The second — and far more common — tactic was to try to forget about the trauma and make ourselves comfortable, which bolstered the popularity of Art Deco design, according to Dianne Pierce, adjunct professorial lecturer in decorative arts and design history at the George Washington University.” // The links between human perceptions of health and safety, and the design and configuration of where we live, are fascinating. The extent(s) to which there will be substantial changes in how we build out homes and living areas will similarly be curious: will design change as a result of the current pandemic or, instead, will we see an active effort to not change or to ignore the events of the past (and coming) year?