Creating Technology for Social Change

Liveblogging #PPDD17: Information and Communication Technologies and Social Justice, Media Justice, and Ethics

I’m in San Diego at the Partnership for Progress on the Digital Divide (PPDD) 2017 conference. PPDD engages a broad diversity of individuals and organizations to spearhead a multi-associational, multi-disciplinary partnership among scholars, practitioners, and policymakers to make significant contributions in closing the digital divide and addressing the many other challenges and opportunities presented by the digital age. I’ll be here speaking about some of my ongoing research on Mapping Information Access and liveblogging the other panels as I can.

This liveblog represents a best-efforts account, not a direct transcript, of the lecture, presentation, and/or panel.

I’m attending the breakout panel entitled Information and Communication Technologies and Social Justice, Media Justice, and Ethics.

  • Chair: Lousia Ha, Bowling Green State University
  • Darrian Carroll, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
  • Izabela Korbiel, Institut fuer Publizistik- und Kommunikationswisssenschaft, Uni Wien
  • Neha Kumar, Georgia Institute of Technology

Darrian begins by introducing himself as a master’s candidate at UNLV who will be talking about #Palestine2Ferguson. He argues that this hashtag uses a “rhetoric of embodiment” that expresses empowerment “across the digital divide.” He defines, for this presentation, the digital divide as a term that describes the (lack of) interconnectedness between people.

The #Palestine2Ferguson hashtag was created to produce solidarity in/by communication between individuals in Ferguson and in Palestine who saw certain parallels in their experience of oppression. This conversation sometimes saw people describing themselves as part of “one fight, or “one love.” Darrian describes the “rhetoric of embodiment” as being constituitive of this “one”, in (as I understand) a sort of e pluribus unum produced by Twitter conversation. He connects this to the rhetorical concept of enthymematic reasoning, whereby the audience is persuaded to arrive at conclusions produced by the negative space of what is not said, and reviews example tweets that perform this kind of rhetoric.

Darrian takes the concept of the public screen from DeLuca and Peeples and translates it into the “public touchscreen.” He argues that certain activist conversations are both inventional/intentional in how they simultaneously imagine and speak to new audiences.

Izabela follows with a talk about human rights as an ethical framework for technology developers. She begins by describing two positions in thre academic debate about human rights and ICTs: whether particular (and which) social values should be followed when designing protocols, and whether protocols should seek to enforce certain values. While many governments have made statements about the liberating potential of ICTs, in practice many governments try to restrict, restrain, or control ICTs. Meanwhile, human rights advocates face challenges in technical feasibility, the legitimacy of non-state actors (e.g. the IETF), and the contested character of human rights.

Izabela identifies the UDHR as the most relevant ethical and legal framework for human rights on/around the Internet, but translating those values to the Internet remains a political and technological challenge. Even when engineers and developers in Izabela’s research are sensitive to e.g. privacy concerns, they tend to see it as a problem of trust in a given network, as opposed to a universal human rights concern. However, Izabela argues that a framework like the UDHR is the most powerful example we have of a general framework for responsibility that should guide how we build and regulate the Internet.

Neha, who was on the plenary panel at lunch about global ICT development, is now here to give a presentation called “Imagining Feminist Futures and the Case of the Panic Button.” It’s drawing on her work at TaNDem on panic buttons in New Dehli. Neha references urban planning critiques of the city as places that were primary designed for men and their work and not for the mobility of a new generation of women. The purpose of this project is to investigate how smart cities can also be made safe cities for women, and what literacies // initiatives // technologies are required to achieve that.

In 2016, after a brutal gang-rape of a middle class woman in an area widely considered safe, the Indian government mandated that smartphones include a “panic button” that summons emergency services. Neha and her students conducted interviews and fieldwork with women in New Delhi to better understand how early deployments of this product are being used and where the problems existed. In doing this research, they followed feminist HCI principles to guide their fieldwork. Neha then reviewed core findings and themes that emerged from their qualitative fieldwork with women riding public transit systems and other public spaces in New Delhi. She also shared alternative practices that have emerged in New Delhi, e.g. taking a picture of the taxi and driver and sending that to a family member to help deter harassment.

Through this fieldwork Neha and her team concluded that the panic button // phone solution was not well-aligned to the problem as focused through design and local values. It’s not well-integrated with the technical infrastructure, preexisting problems with police, tensions with parents about mobility, and so on. Instead of a single button with single function, Neha advocates for a solution that provides for multiple uses that are well-aligned with local customs and expectations, as well as increased accountability for state organs and investments in necessary infrastructure. Only with an integrated (and feminist) approach will a successor system to the panic button actually succeed.