Tech’s search for nails in matters of social justice
Technology is a hammer tapping against structures built over centuries
As we look out upon each new day with fresh eyes and worn down hearts, the question “What can I do?” echoes in heads that feel increasingly empty of ideas.
How do we stand against plague after plague, economic injustice, and an unrelenting attack on bodily autonomy being waged against women and other people who can get pregnant, communities of color, trans children, and people in queer relationships.
Faced with the choice between despair and action, we put what imagination we have left at our disposal to coming up with answers.
With so much uncertainty in our world, we piece together answers from what we know for sure. We roadmap solutions we can build with the tools we have at hand on top of our current understanding of the world.
If you work in tech or design, it’s natural to look to tech and design for those solutions. Designers turn to branding and infographics, engineers to websites and apps, and the people who hype web3 to NFTs and DAOs.
I have to tell you, though, as long as we continue to turn to tech and design first, we will continue coming up empty handed.
To solve problems of injustice, we need to disrupt social systems built over centuries, not technologies.
Before you ask how the technology or medium you’re currently enamored with can solve these injustices, ask yourself if it’s really the best approach.
For many in tech and design, “these unprecedented times” are the first we’ve been forced to look at issues of reproductive justice and bodily autonomy. The problems we see are novel…to us. A nail that’s been waiting for whatever hammer we’re carrying.
Understand, though, that these problems aren’t new. That women and people of other marginalized genders, communities of color, indigenous nations, disabled people, queer people, people whose identities span all of these groups have been fighting these problems for literal centuries.
And while we ourselves may belong to marginalized groups, we are single points of reference whose views are shaped by where we’ve ended up professionally—and, as a result, economically.
Consider that if tech held the answers, the people who have dedicated their entire lives to righting these problems would be working in tech. Not lobbying, direct aid, and community organizing.
That we don’t reveals a lot about what people in tech think of marginalized communities’ abilities. At the very least it speaks to the specialness we see in our own.
Let go of the hubris that says you can solve this better with your pet technology than the people who’ve worked in the space for decades. Resist the temptation to set angry words in a bold typeface and call it a day.
Design for self expression. Put your feelings in a graphic so they don’t eat you up inside. Build websites to take your mind off things. But don’t conflate these things with the real work that needs to be done.
There are, of course, roles for tech in social justice. The groups organizing, educating, lobbying, and fundraising already use technology. Some hire designers and engineers. There are companies building tech to support these efforts. There are organizations working to connect volunteer domain experts with causes who have real needs for tech and design skills.
If you want to put your skills to use, go work with these people, where your expertise in tech or design can support those with expertise in fighting injustice.
Half-baked projects by well-meaning people can end up doing more harm than good while stealing attention from what matters. You get the FastCo headline, but who keeps the momentum going when you get bored?
Data leaks, malicious attacks, projects that are redundant or counterproductive to existing efforts, inefficiencies scaling, and abandonment are all risks in spaces where the stakes are already so high. And they may be risks in the products you’re already working on.
If you work in tech and design and want to make a difference, before you venture out into new territory, look at the work you’re already doing. Is it inclusively designed and accessibly built? What data are you collecting from customers? Has your team considered how it will be weaponized by regressive governments and how you will protect the people you have collected it from?
This is not weekend side project stuff. If that’s the effort you can give, donate. Protest. Look for volunteer opportunities with groups who have the expertise and infrastructure to make your weekend contributions worthwhile. Don’t be disappointed if they ask you to spend it knocking on doors or stuffing mailers. Fundraise on existing platforms instead of building new ones unless you’re willing to dedicate the time, effort, and resources to do it right and support it indefinitely.
If you’re still asking yourself, “What can I do?” and dissatisfied with the solutions you come up with, try asking yourself, “Who’s already doing something, and how can I support and learn from them?” instead. The answers may surprise you.
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