Here is how most people think technology works: You have a problem you need to solve or a task you need to accomplish, and then you use technology to do it. Technology, in other words, is a tool. In the era of social media and the smartphone, people had needs — to connect with others, to find out information, to entertain themselves — and tech provided a solution.
The trouble, we now know, is that in providing solutions to some problems, technology created a whole host of others. Having the world's information at your fingertips lets you slip into a bubble of your own reality; finding like-minded people across the globe can give hatred a home; and having a social feed with all sorts of people can lead to rancour and polarization.
So as the decade draws to a close, instead of the celebratory tone people used in the 2000s when discussing technology, the conversation is laced with skepticism. Is this truly the decade when tech lost its way?
It's true that, as the scale and pace of technology increased, mistakes were made, lessons went unlearned, and now we have tech companies constantly making privacy violations, enforcing dubiously defended policies, and struggling to take responsibility for the change they have inflicted. But the idea that tech is only a tool is worth poking at, and so is the presumption that it only had negative consequences this decade. Quite to the contrary, it's worth remembering that technology helps many people, and it has especially helped the marginalized.
Just to start small: There was a time not very long ago when you had to yell through a landline to talk to someone overseas. Now, immigrants, refugees, and diasporas of all kinds can communicate simply and almost for free with people across the globe from their smartphones. This is about more than convenience — it's a way of fostering community and connection in what can often be the alienating experience of migration.
For refugees in particular, smartphones provided a lifeline. For the millions fleeing Syria, for example, smartphones were a way to connect with home, aid, and burgeoning communities in their new countries.
Tech thus enables people at the margins of society to find help and find each other in ways that would have been more difficult in prior eras.
But even in comparatively wealthy societies, that capacity of tech to gather people can still produce massive change. In North America, Black Lives Matter and the indigenous movement Idle No More arose in part because of how they were broadcast online, allowing the groups to recruit, get a message out against a hostile media, and coalesce around an idea.
Something similar could be said for the #metoo movement, which naturally found its home online. Beyond that, the general focus on social justice, whether trans rights, race relations, or a growing resurgence of socialism, all found a base and communities online. Would trans people have been able to highlight the enormous prejudice they face as quickly without the web? It seems unlikely.
I'm not trying to be contrarian while others are pointing out the many, very real downsides of the new digital era. Rather, it's important to remember that historical change is ambivalent. Technology's role in that change isn't to be a tool, but something that reforms and reconfigures reality.
The classic example of this comes from German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who suggested that something like a hydroelectric dam doesn't just generate electricity out of the movement of water, but actually makes us reconceive the Rhine river as a thing to be harvested, redirected. Tech isn't an addition to an already existing reality; it creates a new one.
That's an important distinction, because it reframes the conversation around whether tech is good or bad. It forces us to ask what we wish to do with a new reality.
Because for all the ways in which tech can genuinely help marginalized people, it is also the thing that will disproportionately harm them. If and when facial recognition technology is deployed by the police, it will be the poor and racialized who will be unfairly targeted. If social credit systems are used to judge people, as is starting to happen in China, it is hard to believe it won't be the underclass who will suffer. And there is more broadly the pre-existing digital divide, in which upper- and middle-income people have access to tech, which in turn can give them a leg up in school or the workplace.
For all that risk, it's worth pointing out that the groups in society usually trodden underfoot have also used tech to collect themselves, push back, and ameliorate their lives. That is worth remembering too: We are not simply pawns subject to power, but people who can also resist it. And as the decade draws to a close and a new one dawns, we need to consider more than whether or not technology is harming us. We need to ask what we can do with tech to empower the marginalized.
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