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.