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Technology is not neutral—it’s political

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?

Technologist is one of those amorphous terms that can mean a whole range of things. Technologists who are focused on the public interest and on fostering social good typically operate at the intersection of people, process, and technology. They try to make sense of how technology impacts people and shapes societal processes. They are often excited about the transformative potential of technology. Yet they understand it is both political and neutral, biased and unbiased, proprietary and agnostic. Because of these dualities, technology can have unintended consequences—even when deployed with the best of intentions.

My journey started out in engineering and computer science school, where I focused on developing artifacts. As I took on various projects, particularly in the global development space, I began exploring the human aspects and social implications of technology.

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.

I view technology as political. The technologies we see created and applied, and the means and ends to which this happens, are value laden. Consequently, the outcomes of a given technology differ for various groups of people. Take, for instance, tech’s disruption of industries, democratization of certain capital flows, and reorganization of labor markets. Regular people are turning their homes and cars into income-generating assets, through platforms like Airbnb and Lyft. In the Global South, labor platforms such as Upwork are expanding participation in global labor markets. TaskRabbit, a labor platform available in the United States and the United Kingdom, offers the flexibility some people desire within their working lives. Yet the on-demand nature of work these platforms generate often leaves many people without the consistency and quantity of work they need. And many who turn to these platforms for employment often find themselves without the kinds of protections that people in standard employment typically enjoy. The spectrum of winners and losers seems to make the political dimensions of technology more explicit.

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—or at the intersection of the two?

Advances in digital innovation are helping us address complex societal challenges, but there is still much to be done to ensure greater inclusion. More inclusive societies would mean more people are able to access and benefit more equitably from innovation, especially along class, race, gender, and geographic lines.

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

Digital technology—including mobile devices and apps, platforms, data, algorithms, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and GPS—can play a role in addressing or exacerbating systems of inequality. In tackling issues of social justice, we need to be clear about where and how that's happening.

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

The TV show Person of Interest provided an accessible example of how tech might be used in everyday life. It aimed to showcase some of the opportunities, ethical dilemmas, and limitations of AI. Person of Interest spoke to how technology created for “good” (in this case, surveillance to preempt crime) can be appropriated toward other ends. It also raised questions about what might happen in a world where the technologies we create outsmart us and take over.

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