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A Call to Technologists on Technology and (Dis)Empowerment

By Guest Writer on November 3, 2022

technology deisempowerment india

Several fascinating Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D) innovations have emerged over the years and ICTworks has regularly profiled many such case studies. At the same time, some innovations have also gone terribly wrong.

The complex relationship between technology and social outcomes includes issues like:

  • the reproduction of inequality due to the digital divide,
  • threats to democracy from misinformation on social networking platforms,
  • algorithmic biases that perpetuate structural injustices,
  • hardships faced by citizens from misplaced assumptions about ICT in government processes,
  • simplistic beliefs that technology can easily lead to social development.

My new book, Technology and (Dis)Empowerment: A Call to Technologists is a call-to-action for technologists to collectivize and ensure that the outputs created through their labour do not amplify or create new structural injustices in society by disempowering the weak. By technologists, I refer to:

  • Designers who conceptualize new computing technologies and information systems,
  • Scientists and engineers who build them,
  • Product and project managers who steer their deployment and governance.
  • Students who train for these roles in higher education institutions.

A Call to Technologists (ACT) anchors its argument in Marxist humanism that positive social relationships for technologists arise only if their labour fulfills genuine use-value for society. ACT suggests methods including collective action and building public spheres for deliberation through which technologists can persuade the organizations in which they work, and the wider society to democratically debate the underlying values for technology governance, to avoid disempowerment through technology.

ACT draws attention to different reasons because of which technology often leads to disempowering effects.

  • First, the political economy of technology which incentivises applications that lead to accumulation by dispossession, and an ideology of technology optimism that fuels this in contemporary systems of the state and markets.
  • Second, the socio-technical interface where unforeseen technology governance challenges arise because of a mistaken belief in rationalist approaches to design.
  • Third, the technology design itself where numerous issues such as incomplete datafication, privacy invasion, unfair algorithmic objectives, inadequate accessibility, etc. arise and ethics-based approaches to address them are not sufficient by themselves.

ACT is a call to technologists to increase their awareness about these issues, burst the technology optimism bubble, build an ethos for taking greater responsibility in their work, collectivize to similarly shape the internal governance of their organizations, and engage with the rest of society to strengthen democracy and build an acceptance that the primary goal of technology projects should be to bring equality by overturning unjust societal structures.

I see A Call to Technologists not just as a book, but as part of a movement for technologists to build this view and reclaim their humanism.

5 Reasons to get A Call to Technologists

ACT is a unique addition to the collection of books that discuss inevitable or unintended fallouts of technology, and methods to address these issues.

1. Technologists are at the center

Most books in this space consider technology as the object that needs fixing, and do not speak to technologists as the change agents to do this. ACT instead is geared towards technologists and suggests actions which they can take, such as collective action within their organizations for responsible design of technologies, the use of intellectual property rights to restrict use of their innovations to the purpose of social good, and to connect more closely with the users of their technologies to understand the direct impact of their work.

2. Political economy maters

ACT highlights the importance of the political economy of the state and markets within which technology develops and encourages technologists to partner with society to counter these entrenched social systems. Most books especially for engineering students do not raise the importance of the political economy and restrict the solution search for responsible outcomes within technological domains only.

3. A comprehensive framework for change

ACT builds a comprehensive framework of various factors that influence the outcomes arising from technology, including the technology design, the management of its socio-technical interface, the ethics of the goals for which technology projects are conceptualized, and the relevance of democracy through which society can arrive at a consensus on these goals. Most books on technology and ethics explore only some of these aspects in isolation.

4. Values need to be shared

It highlights that technology design and management choices are driven by underlying values, and that consensus on these values needs to be democratically agreed upon by society. ACT thus links democracy with being able to ensure that responsible outcomes arise from technology. This requires public spheres for deliberation and ACT additionally identifies communication primitives required to build vibrant public spheres. Although this route for imposing social control over technology was discussed until some decades ago, recent books have not emphasized the link between democracy and public spheres with technology governance.

5. Technology alone is not the answer

ACT provides a critical view of the relationship between technology and social development, especially in the context of India, where the state and market are unified in their propaganda of technology optimism. Not many books exist in this space and more voices are needed to counter the manipulative marketing of technology innovation in the name of development and helping the poor. This makes ACT relevant at the intersection of digitalization and development.

Aaditeshwar Seth is the author of A Call to Technologists, which is now available on eBooks.com (with a 30% discount using the code “ACT”), with a preface, introduction, and foreword by Professor Tim Unwin. You can also contact Aadi directly for his local electronic version.


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2 Comments to “A Call to Technologists on Technology and (Dis)Empowerment”

  1. Hi there.
    I would like to learn more about how we as technologists can play a role in minimising the socio-economic impacts in rural areas living on less than $2 a day. My company has started a journey to build a network infrastructure to bridge the digital divide and we are at the verge of bringing the network live. But most importantly we want the infrastructure to become a medium to do more than just internet connection but for its recipients to utilise it to better their lives. We will support more than 200 000 citizens in South Africa. My partners in other provinces are also coming live and in total that will be more than million people supported on monthly basis.
    More ideas are required including support.

    Who can I speak to regarding this milestone we are seeking to achieve.

  2. Neil says:

    Congrats Aadi! I expect this work will make a positive impact on all of us and our work.