Technology and structural discrimination: thoughts on a recent discussion

I had a chance to spend a morning last week at a roundtable discussion on technology and structural discrimination, as part of the Technology Salon events. The conversation brought together activists, organizers, technologists, and few international development types like myself, though many in the room blurred those boundaries.

Technology provided a filter for the discussion, but it was a loose filter. A wide range of topics still seeped through. In fact, our discussion moved in circles a bit. Each element raised inherently relied on others. That’s the problem with structural and systemic issues, as every problem or solution raised can be immediately and quite legitimately trumped by another—”Ah, but the real problem behind that is…”—until we eventually come back to the same problem.

At the risk of reductionism, it seemed like we talked about two layers in the relationship between technology and structural discrimination:

First, challenging power structures with technology. These were mostly tactical. For example, video is used to document discrimination or create empathy, social media can help to organize real-time attention, spatial mapping or other data visualization better illustrate injustice. These tactics fit into broader strategies of social activism. The tactics may be new, and still evolving, but the strategies are not dramatically different from those used in previous eras. Last week’s discussion touched on the topic in various ways, but inevitably it feels like an unsatisfactorily slow path to change.

Second, challenging power structures within technology. Despite the mythological equalizing effect of digital technology, non-technological dimensions of privilege (wealth, education, etc) very quickly transfer over to technology. This involves the well-known “digital divide”—but importantly, it involves both access and production. Most hardware and software is created by people who were already privileged in the dominant power structures, which means the profits reaped from technology tend to reinforce those same structures. This carries the worrying implication that even efforts to close the digital divide, such as teaching coding or other tech skills to minority youth, will be minor in challenging the structural issues. Technology can be a force for reinforcing discrimination.

It’s fractal: The same discrimination that exists in society at-large is repeated within technology; channels to challenge discrimination within one sphere can be leveraged to challenge it within the other, but can also be stymied by the other.

Making use of the positive potential means bridging a different divide: between the technologists and the activists. This has to go deeper than just hackathons, which now generate as much skepticism as enthusiasm. Longer-term partnerships are needed to create what the technologists might call “synergies”, but the activists would just call “organizing”. The old strategies still apply.