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All humans are technologists

The Ford Foundation’s tech fellows work at the intersection of social justice and technology. Learn more about the tech fellows program here and read the other articles in this series here.

What does being a technologist mean to you? How did you become one?

I think all humans are technologistsas a species, we are defined by our ability to imagine and create new tools, particularly to communicate with one another and express ourselves.

I studied computer science and political science, and I bring both perspectives to my work. After graduate school, I conducted research on the redlining mechanisms that prevent or stall investment in particular communities. My team found that redlining was compounded by significant data- and analytical-bias about certain types of neighborhoods. To demonstrate the bias, we built large data systems with public, private, local and national datasets and worked with local organizations confronting the issue. Since then, I’ve worked on a variety of projects uncovering or intervening in different drivers of structural inequality--each project has involved a mix of community-based research, education, and organizing.

In your own words and understanding: what is a tech fellow?

As a tech fellow in Ford’s Equitable Development program, I advise on issues involving data, research, and technology. This includes evaluating and supporting grantee projects in my areas of expertise, developing new grant-making strategies, and supporting the field by convening experts, representing the foundation at events, and advising our partners outside of Ford. Sometimes I decode magic. It is quite a joy to come into work each day!

Technology is essentially neutral, but it can be used for good or evil purposes—or something in between. Give us an example that’s especially resonant for you (at the intersection of your work in tech and your issue area of focus).

Cities have a long history of using technology to sort, order, and control the physical environment and the resident people. Most recently, industry has put forward the notion of a “smart city,” which argues that the city should aspire, above all, to efficiency and optimization through technology. By redesigning the city and defining a new urban ideology, the industry hopes to capture a $2 trillion dollar market over the next few years. To counterbalance these corporate interests, we need an alternative vision for our future cities, and it should include a principled approach to data and technology that advances equity and fairness. There are a few writings leading the way: Adam Greenfield’s “Against the smart city”, Boston’s “Smart City” Playbook,  a recent article by Gemma Galdon on technology sovereignty Barcelona, and Joe Flood’s “The Fires: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City-and Determined the Future of Cities.

What are you most excited about in the world of tech innovation today? What about in the area of social justice you’re specifically focused on—and/or at the intersection of the two?

There is important new work on the dangers and difficulties posed by predictive models and risk assessments used by city and state agencies, such as education, child welfare, social services, and the court system. For example, New York City is holding hearings on a bill that would require transparency for algorithms used in city decision making; the MetroLab Network recently published guidelines for developing predictive tools in human service agencies; AI Now released principles for the development of artificial intelligence that includes ending the use of unreviewed and unverified algorithms by government agencies; groups like Media Mobilizing Project in Philadelphia are examining the use of risk assessments in pretrial detention hearings; and, a new book by Virginia Eubanks, Automating Inequality, examines the role of automated decision making to criminalize the poor in three places. Importantly, in Eubanks’ recent book, she warns against focusing on the algorithms without examining the core philosophies that algorithms are simply formalizing.

What do you really want people working to advance social justice to know about tech?

The social justice perspective on technology is essential because it helps us focus our attention on power and history, rather than the technology itself. Technology is produced by and operates within our existing cultural, political, and economic systems—according to these systems, new technologies may amplify existing structures or force a realignment. Each new technological innovation presents an opportunity to build a more just system, but only within the context of our current systems and power structures. At the same time, other (bigger) interests will strategically leverage these changes for their own benefit.

What’s your favorite example of tech in pop culture and why?

I like Black Mirror, but it is too dark for me (or maybe too close to reality). Since I was a kid, my favorite fictional movie has been Milagro Beanfield War—it is all about land rights, control of public goods, and development. And a few of my favorite books about technology and society include River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West by Rebecca Solnit, Seeing like a State by James Scott, Against the Smart City by Adam Greenfield, Consent of the Networked by Rebecca McKinnon, and To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism by Evgeny Morozov.

 

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