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Can we design sociotechnical systems that don’t suck?

Can we design sociotechnical systems that don’t suck?:

Many hard problems require you to step back and consider whether you’re solving the right problem. If your solution only mitigates the symptoms of a deeper problem, you may be calcifying that problem and making it harder to change.

Ethan’s essay is a long response to Shane Snow’s proposals for prison reform. In short, Snow is aiming to adjust conditions inside of prisons without considering whether there is a broader series of social issues that are responsible for actually leading to incarcaration. And, worse, he’s making his proposals without lived experiences of what prison itself is like.

The crux of Ethan’s argument, really, doesn’t concern the kinds of prison reform which are(n’t) appropriate so much as this: is it appropriate for a given person, or group, to solve the problem(s) in the first place? Are they capable of even identifying what are the problem(s)?

I think that this kind of attitude – of humbleness and appreciation for one’s limited perspective on the world – is something that should be taken up by more technologists, policy makers, and law makers. Too often we assume we know how to help without even knowing whether, and if so why and under what conditions, help is needed in the first place.

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That smartphones allow us to imprison twice the number of people at half the cost is the kind of cutting-edge innovation that only management consultants and tech entrepreneurs would be excited about. Such breakthroughs would be worth celebrating if they didn’t distract us from the more radical (and simpler) solution to the problem of overcrowded prisons: incarcerating fewer people.

Smart technologies are not just disruptive; they can also preserve the status quo. Revolutionary in theory, they are often reactionary in practice.

Smart technology, thanks to its ubiquity and affordability, offers us the cheapest — and trendiest — fix. But the gleaming aura of disruption-talk that often accompanies such fixes masks their underlying conservatism. Technological innovation does not guarantee political innovation; at times, it might even impede it. The task ahead is to prevent our imagination from being incarcerated by smart technologies. Or should we settle for gamifying ourselves to death?

* Evgeny Morozov, “Imprisoned by Innovation