How Technological Design Incorporates Social Values
Excerpted from Asaf Bar-Tura:
"Technologies are not innocent. They embody human values. And the way we design them determines winners and losers among us.
Looking ... back, over the past two centuries, we see that technology has also produced a perplexing dynamic. As comedian CK Louis describes our technological progress: “Everything is amazing and nobody is happy.” That’s close, but there’s more to it.
Technology harbors so much potential, yet so many people are miserable. Ever since the Industrial Revolution, we’ve seen that the more wealth we produce, the more poverty comes with it. We live in a world in which multitudes are overworked, while far too many are under-worked (whether unemployed or under-employed). With the incredible technologies at our disposal, why must so many work so much and so hard for so little?
So, before we utilize technologies for social change, let’s be clear: Technological design itself raises social justice issues. Media and technology theorist Andrew Feenberg uses 19th-centruy steamboat boilers to illustrate how design choices reflect values. Early steamboat boilers were designed without safety considerations. Thousands of workers died attending to them. Over time, safety gained weight in public opinion, and safety mechanisms were introduced into the design. In other words, even boiler design embodies specific values: safety versus cost, in this case.
There is no single way to design our energy sources, our transportation methods, or our food production. It’s not a simple matter of efficiency or getting it right. It’s about how we decide to live together. The ways that we design and engage with the Internet itself are no exception.
There’s plenty of discussion about Internet regulation. But we spend less time as a society, generally, looking at the structural design choices of the Internet’s super-structure, and how it shapes our experiences and understandings.
Consider the online flow of information, designed through links, and according to the HTTP protocol. In practice, this means that the way we search and find results — based on links — creates winner-take-all patterns and that all online sources do not receive equal attention.
anyone seriously seeking to harness the Internet toward social change knows there’s a big difference between expressing yourself and being heard. Not all websites are created equal. Political theorist Jodi Dean explains that as in any network (cyber or “real”), hierarchies and hubs emerge out of growth and preferential attachment. Smaller, newer, or lesser-known sites that seek publicity and attention attach themselves through various links to sites that have established themselves as central hubs. In the process, clusters of networked power inevitably form.
What does this look like on the ground or online? As Internet scholar Matthew Hindman put it, the Internet provides anyone a potential audience of millions, in the same way that potentially anyone can win the lottery. But being heard online isn’t really a matter of luck.
While data about Internet dynamics shift from year to year, the trends have been pretty consistent over the last few years:
- Though millions of Americans blog, only a very small percentage of political bloggers get as many readers as a typical college newspaper.
- The owners of the vast majority of widely read blogs are white, male, and have advanced degrees, typically from Ivy League colleges and universities.
- These bloggers tend to be professionals in fields where individuals have control over their time, training in writing and publication, and access to significant social and monetary (journalism, law, business, academe).
- Finally, there’s much talk about the “digital divide” (the concern that many still don’t have access to the Internet). Yet what stands out, perhaps even more than socioeconomic differences in Internet access, is the skills gap, especially when we look at who has the skills needed to use the Internet effectively."