How Technology Was Designed to Be Exclusive

How does a word’s history define its future?

Take a second, and think of some technologies you use every day. What do they do for you?

My computer? It helps me connect to loved ones and strangers all over the world, conduct and synthesize my research, write articles, and it can help me curate my digital footprint. Solid.

The clothes I wear? Yes, that’s tech too. They keep me warm, they keep my body protected from the elements, and they help me project my personal style. Makes sense.

The airplanes I’ve used? They let me travel to places I haven’t seen, to conduct my research, to visit new friends and family, and they help me pollute the atmosphere so marginalized communities feel the results of climate change more quickly.

Hold on.

That last one? Clearly, that’s not the intent of the tech; It was designed to sail the skies. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter much; if you take one round-trip flight between New York and California, you’ve generated about 20 percent of the greenhouse gases that a car emits over the entire year. Moreover, there are billions of people that won’t ever fly in a plane, but they definitely feel their impacts.

Let’s back off flying for a second. All of the technologies I mentioned have negative externalities: My computer needs coltan to work efficiently, and the mining operations required has funded decades of corrupt mining and oil deals in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A hefty amount of the fashion we love, such as clothes from H&M and Walmart, use the sweatshop industry in Bangladesh, which contributes to the excruciatingly low minimum wage, poor working conditions, and even massive fires in the industrial districts.

When learning about innovation for global poverty, the unexpected consequences of the tools we use every day smacked me in the face. Tech should be good, right? Contrary to popular belief, the very tech made to help the world seemed to harm historically marginalized people, and few people speak up about its impact.

Is technology, as a concept, designed to exclude?

As a matter of fact, it was.

Let’s dive into how technology’s history. The word joins the Greek root techne (an art or craft), with the suffix ology (a branch of learning), was first developed in the seventeenth century and didn’t popularly catch on until the 1930s. Leo Marx, professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, developed a sage historical review of how the word entered the mainstream.

As a cultural historian, Marx discusses how words become cultural signifiers for how the world changes. Why does the word matter? He argues technology fills a void for something that is lacking in the world; that couldn’t be filled, for example, by “mechanic (or useful or practical or industrial) arts, or invention, improvement, machine, machinery, or mechanism.”

Humans — even proto-humans and human-adjacents — have been making things since time immemorial to help them solve problems. During early industrialization, people made individual machines that solved problems, like the steam engine, the dynamo, or the spinning jenny. So, what social phenomenon incited the need for new words, and a new framing of those words in society? The railroad.

In Western society, the solutions to problems incited systems of technical and social expertise. The system had multiple levels of complexity that each needed to work so the whole could function:

“several kinds of ancillary equipment (rolling stock, stations, yards, bridges, tunnels, viaducts, signal systems, and a huge network of tracks);
a corporate business organization with a large capital investment;
specialized forms of technical knowledge (railroad engineering, telegraphy);
a specially trained workforce with unique railroading skills, including civil and locomotive engineers, firemen, telegraphers, brakemen, conductors — a workforce large and resourceful enough to keep the system functioning day and night, in all kinds of weather, 365 days a year; and
various facilitating institutional changes, such as regulations establishing standardized track gauges and a national system of standardized time zones.”

Many other systems followed suit: the telegraph and wireless systems, the urban water and waste disposal systems, the electric power and use system, all required technical, social, and business know-how. The organizations that designed and maintained these systems became larger and more separated from locally-known private companies and public institutions. While these systems represented human’s growing power over the forces around it, it also represented how that power became concentrated in the hands of the few.

People needed different words to describe the wondrous systems being developed in the world. Senator Daniel Webster, at the dedication of a railroad New Hampshire in 1847, described it as such:

“It is an extraordinary era in which we live. It is altogether new. The world has seen nothing like it before….We see the ocean navigated and the solid land traversed by steam power, and intelligence communicated by electricity….What is before us no one can say, what is upon us no one can hardly realize.”

Though other politicians didn’t share his adoration, the sentiment slowly began to take hold in society. The machines we created seemed to hold an unnamed power over society, and the tech became valued because of its exclusivity:

“Whereas the term mechanic (or industrial, or practical) arts calls to mind men with soiled hands tinkering at workbenches, technology conjures clean, well-educated, white male technicians in control booths watching dials, instrument panels, or computer monitors. Whereas the mechanic arts belong to the mundane world of work, physicality, and practicality — of humdrum handicrafts and artisanal skills — technology belongs on the higher social and intellectual plane of book learning, scientific research, and the university.”

The word technology was outfitted with social gerrymandering. While the people reified the technology’s capabilities, it slowly became separated from the people it influenced: from those who created it, from those who benefit from it, and clearly from the invisible communities harmed by its development.

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

In some ways, you knew this already.

There’s a way technology is discussed in modern society. We can talk about artificial intelligence and Google Echo, but not as much how they work. Technology is valued as a marketable life skill, but we rarely discuss the worldwide cost of its progression. We’ve created a litmus test for the value of tech that has put a premium on its lack of transparency.

If we aren’t vigilant, humans personify the things we don’t understand. Humans feel they have little power over the depth, spread, and nature of tech’s influence, and can’t understand the consequence of that spread. It’s understandable why this happens — because the purpose of tech is to extend the capabilities of humans in the first place.

As Jeff Ong states in his blog post at Automattic:

“ The value of a computational design system is not to replace designers, but to augment the workflow such that a designer’s time is spent reviewing and selecting the best creative, rather than pushing pixels across a screen and cutting banner ads. Moreover, the immediate value lies in increasing design efficiency and speed — giving designers more time to focus on refining the system, solving creative problems, and improving the overall brand + product experience.”

However, people are pushing to clear the air. In the field of Information and Communication Technologies for Development, there’s been a strong debate about the influence of ‘leapfrog’ technologies in addressing global poverty. One example is the global push to develop cell phone infrastructure instead of landline tech because the towers have been wildly cheaper than the corded technology. Cell phone advocates have been leaning on the power of mobile technologies of all types fo reshape education, business, communication, and social life across the world.

In this debate, Kentaro Toyama, professor at the University of Michigan, argues that technology, by itself, is not medicine, but an amplifier. It makes good schools better, and bad schools worse.

“ In 2004, Kentaro Toyama, an award-winning computer scientist, moved to India to start a new research group for Microsoft….But after a decade of designing technologies for humanitarian causes, Toyama concluded that no technology, however dazzling, could cause social change on its own.”

He’s not the only one. In a world that values digital literacy and competence, Mark Warschauer talks about how many ICT-based solutions in international development fail to predict how communities will use technology because of their improper understanding of context. For instance, he mentions how USAID donated an entire computer lab to an Egyptian university department to establish a teacher-training program in computer-assisted learning, However, jealous adjacent departments tied up the program bureaucratically, the university didn’t have the funds to house or support internet maintenance, and faculty members fought over who should use the tech. The computers weren’t installed until a year after they were donated.

Tech, by itself, does not inherently do good. The technology developers oversimplify what and how people will be affected by the tech, and therefore must money, time, and resources are lost to incomplete interventions. In many instances, if not holistically designed for, it can exclude the very communities it purports to include.

Photo by Noiseporn on Unsplash

So, how do we rewrite history?

Some technologies are designed to help others gain capacities historically excluded. For example, Kickstart was made famous because of their high-quality irrigation tools and system of farmer support to help develop their specific agricultural needs. The infamous company D.light, for example, broke into the homes of everyone with an assortment of solar lighting and energy tools sold across 65 different countries.

Project Torino goes further. The project created a physical coding language, so visually impaired children can learn alongside their peers about the tools, foundations, and power of coding as a topic. Google recently featured a collection of design solutions that help develop UIs for everyone, like Project Euphonia, who help speech-impaired users communicate faster and gain independence. Here, the tool isn’t just educational, it’s empowering historically excluded communities to create for their own.

The history of technology is diverse in its applications and outcomes. Still, countless designers of the ‘new big thing’ fail to consider the impact of their creations on society. The belief is, if they focus on creating, then the impacts of their creations will speak for themselves.

To sum up, there’s too much HOW, and not enough WHY and WHO.

So, every time we make something new, or apply something old to a new context, we should be asking the questions:

Who can use it?
Who can create it?
What is it supposed to influence?
Who’s hidden from view?

By asking these questions, we ensure that people, who are only divorced from technology in theory and not in practice, are at the front of the impacts of new tech.

How will you rewrite history?

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