Creating Technology for Social Change

The Importance of Stakeholders as Designers

Something that has been echoed by many of the speakers at today’s Knight Civic Media Conference is the importance of considering who participates in the design of a technology. Sasha Constanza-Chock spoke about the importance of using open technologies and open data when developing tools for communities. Chris Csikszentmihalyi spoke about how those with power producing technology tend to make technologies that reinforce their power. The Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science, one of this year’s grant winners, emphasized the importance of community participation and ownership in the collection of scientific data. But why is this important? Don’t closed systems like Twitter or Facebook have the potential for great social good?

To contextualize, it might be helpful to recall the techno-boosterism from a century ago, in the early days of aviation and wireless telegraphy, which were supposed to usher in a world of peace and humanity as distance was abolished. In 1916, the Aero Club of America wrote:

We who are close to developments find reasons to believe that we are on the threshold of a new age … which widens the prospects of world peace. The aircraft, with the wireless telegraph and the telephone, are the factors which promise to humanize the world. They promise to bring about the complete annihilation of space and distance, and in their prospective developed state — which has been approaching in rapid strides … uniting people and unifying their interests, making the whole world
practically a world nation.

So what happened? Rather than ushering in world peace, the airplane has become a symbol of destructive power and cultural discord in a line of increasing amplitude from the dog fights of World War I, the atomic bombers of World War II, spy planes of the cold war, the attacks on the World Trade Center of September 11, 2001, and the remote-controlled military drones of modern occupational combat. Rather than striving to reinforce an ideal of brotherhood and shared humanity, modern airlines instead strive to reinforce class differentiation through “elite” statuses, first and business class cabins, and loyalty programs. And mobile phones — the heirs of wireless telegraphy — are among the most closed platforms in the world, and used by authoritarian governments to spy on their citizens’ communications and movements.

Somewhere in the mix, the utopian vision was compromised and lost, given way to practical or economic concerns. But we are left to wonder — how would the progress have been different, if the designs were truly open and democratic? If the design process incorporated concepts of human brotherhood and sisterhood into the fabric of the rotors? This, I think, is where the importance of open technologies fits into socio-technical design. Without intentionally embedding values intended to make the world a better place, the designs will follow their inertia toward stagnation, centralization, and control.