Blog Post

What is the default trajectory of humanity's relationship with technology?

This Digital Inclusion week I discovered Tech Stewardship, a site and community dedicated to "Discuss, refine and imagine new ways to shape technology for the benefit of all." It's a movement related to public interest technology, appropriate technology, the All Tech is Human nonprofit that recently emerged (they are part of Tech Stewardship), and many more related networks and movements.

It's a Canadian project with a course and community and their approach resonates with me.

For example, they write that strong tech stewardship practice means practicing specific behaviors in an integrative manner and engaging with the inherent value tensions that result:

  • Purposeful – Tech is not neutral. We imagine, design, and implement technology intentionally for positive impact.
  • Responsible – The pace of tech disruption is accelerating. We anticipate, monitor and manage the complex impacts of technology.
  • Inclusive – Who’s driving tech? We expand who and what is considered and involved in decision making.
  • Regenerative – Tech is often extractive. We proceed in a manner that cares for the environment, economy, communities, and individuals.

I'm excited to become part of their growing community, as I have recently also been actively following All Tech is Human's work. I've joined their self-directed course and this week went through one question that I think is important for us all to reflect on: what is the default trajectory of humanity's relationship with technology? We're asked to rank where we are on a scale from 1 (pessimistic) to 10 (optimistic).

I'm a good Canadian fence-sitter and usually lean around a 5, in the middle. 🙂

I can think of as many positive as negative examples of technology's impact on our lives. The problem is, of course, not necessarily the technology. Even in the case of the military industrialized complex, we've gained the internet, GPS technology and more. The flip side is that we've gained corporate surveillance, nuclear annihilation, an infinite state of global war, the pinpoint drone strikes that are never as accurate as promised.

If you believe people are flawed, as I do, and people create technology, then technology is by definition inherently flawed. Which means even as we dream of technology doing the creating through AI and robotics, the more thinking roles we give them the more flaws we'll see. As we have, as others have pointed out, with AI/bots on Twitter, Reddit, Amazon's use of AI in the hiring process, etc.

I would have been more optimistic a year ago when during the pandemic we saw a collective use of technology to help reduce isolation and provide service, bring to market life saving vaccines in a timeline never seen in history, an almost global collaboration, and a recognition not only of issues of digital equity and lack of inclusion that is easily tied to overall societal and economic inequities, and a sense that we could do more, that in fact post-pandemic we need to "build back better."

Of course, in Canada, as we erroneously declare the pandemic essentially over, once again showing our human flaws in the face of science that tells us the opposite, we are not building back better. We are simply returning to lip service about inequities and lack of inclusion, talking but not doing. Sure, there are pockets of progress, as they always are. And we call them different things. So, here, tech stewardship is a seemingly growing space, but only if you're actually in it. The rest of the technology world, Facebook/Meta being the stock example, simply offers the rhetoric every time they get caught doing something unethical, obviously corrupt, clearly illegal even, just shrugs their shoulders, pays a fine, and says, we will endeavor to do better.

In my little corner of the world, the Canadian Immigrant and Refugee-serving sector, we have studied what comes next. We have had sector and country wide discussions. We have worked more closely with our largest funders than ever before. We have created a roadmap and even a national committee to steer us through next steps in technology stewardship. After more than 20 years working on digital transformation in our sector, I've never been more excited and positive. And then we stalled. We've gone back to in-person events instead of hybrid. This excludes. We don't even record and share what happens at those events. This excludes. Relying again on anecdote instead of data to assess Newcomer information and technology practice. This excludes. A collaborative funder is no longer actively talking with the sector about a hybrid service vision, or funding something they helped create momentum, while as an institution they move forward with digital transformation, while not being transparent about it, in spite of transparency being a core principle of their government's digital vision and practice. We recede into our organizations and geographies, as we struggle to figure out how to move forward with no resources.

Are their pockets of progress and innovation? Of course. But there always have been. So where are we now? I'm trying to figure that out as I try to be part of moving tech stewardship forward in our sector, collaborating with those who want to, but are pulled in a myriad of directions every day and lack the resources and time to adequately reflect, share, learn, and build collaboratively. It's not their fault. It's a default structure of how we work and function.

The question for me is can we build on what we learned during the past almost 3 years, that working together, collaboratively, actually building together, sharing, learning, mobilizing in the open, transparently, with the spirit of cooperation is the way forward?

As X-Files Fox Mulder's office poster says "I want to believe."

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