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Technology and (dis)empowerment: A call to technologists

Aaditeshwar Seth

The world faces large and intersecting challenges of environmental collapse, inequality, exploitation, health, and poverty, among others. Technologies, especially those emerging from information and communication tools (ICTs) are often projected as ideal solutions to address these challenges – smart cities to improve energy efficiency, smart forests to tag individual trees and monitor their health, a plethora of digital financial services to improve economic mobility for the poor, identity solutions to improve targeting of social protection schemes for vulnerable groups, digitization of agriculture to improve the productivity of small and large farmers, digitization of health for centralized tracking of disease outbreaks, etc. Much of this technology solutionism is however known to amplify inequalities, further dispossess the poor and marginalized, erode democracy, and reduce freedoms.

Why do such technology approaches often go wrong? The answer may lie in the underlying values of the dominant neoliberal social system in which most technologies are developed today. Anchored on the assumption of the mankind’s right to control nature, neoliberalism justifies inequality as providing incentives for work while ignoring the more relevant precepts like kindness and duties. It favours competition over cooperation and conformism over criticism, and has time and again swung from crisis to crisis because it is broken. Technologies built under the assumptions of this system can be no more successful than itself.

“A Call To Technologists”

In my book, which I refer to as ACT, short for A Call to Technologists, I have tried to answer such questions by unpeeling various layers where a lot of technologies developed today often go wrong, suggesting ways of improving upon them, and the possible challenges to scaling them within the dominant neoliberal system.

ACT draws heavily on my own experience as a practitioner with having co-founded a social enterprise in India, Gram Vaani, which provides voice-based participatory media services to rural and low-income communities to demand their rights and entitlements, share information and knowledge with one another, and empower marginalized social groups by giving them a voice. Centered on the values of plurality and equality, we have built a federated network of such voice-based interactive platforms for local communities to encourage debate, bring diverse views, and thereby learn to respect others and understand their contexts. The platforms are used actively to discuss issues such as climate change, accountability of the government, labor rights, early marriage, property rights for women, agricultural practices, etc. The platforms are also leveraged by community activists to direct the attention of various stakeholders to problems faced by marginalized groups, and to prompt quick action to address these challenges. While building and growing Gram Vaani, we learned a lot about building and managing technologies that can genuinely empower the poor, but have also faced significant challenges in scaling our work in the dominant neoliberal system. ACT summarizes some of these experiences and challenges, and generalizes them to an argument that the role of technology should be to overturn unjust societal structures to empower the weak and oppressed, but also that technologists will need to go that extra mile to support a transformation of the current social system into many alternatives which embrace these values. Such a transformation will enable technologists to realize their own humanity, as well as bring greater humanism to the world.

Technology should help empower the weaker sections of society to be able to institute positive change. A Gram Vaani project in action in rural India.

I wanted ACT to hone in on technologists for several reasons. Firstly, as an educator in a computer science department in India, I wished to try and convince our students that they cannot simply outsource their morality to regulatory institutions or the markets, and in fact they needed to actively shape these very institutions, which were willingly entangled in exploiting the weak. Secondly, as a practitioner, I realized a long time ago that there is no escape from having to continuously steer technologies to avoid harmful outcomes, so any technology design and management comes with its own baggage of responsibility for the technologists involved in the process. Thirdly, technologists are in a powerful position in the world today to affect change, and if done wisely they can potentially make the world a better place. I make several suggestions to technologists to collectivize and shape the internal governance of their organizations, and strengthen democracy, to bring about this change. 

Technologies for transformation

Let me try to summarize a few of the key points I make in ACT. 

First, I argue that technology projects should clarify their goals in terms of both the ends and means. Many projects leave their end goals as ambiguous, and instead adopt generic ethics statements that focus only on the means – do no harm guardrails that the projects should follow – and this I argue is not sufficient, like a ship without a compass to point it in the right direction. It could take the ship to varied destinations, not all of which may be desirable. Having clear end goals helped provide our team at Gram Vaani with such a compass – a guiding light – to aim towards and to continuously steer our decisions to meet these goals. 

Second, it is important to then outline what goals are desirable to steer the projects so that they do not amplify inequalities. I argue that technology should be meant to bring power-based equality in the world, by removing unjust hegemonic structures that perpetuate structural injustice. If this is not the goal, then technology often tends to reproduce inequalities – being wielded more easily by those who can gain access to it, or design it for their own agendas. I draw on the works of researchers like Tim Unwin who argue for the same reason that technology should be designed only for the poor; feminist scholars like Iris Marion Young who define the purpose of justice itself as showing the path to remove the underlying processes that cause structural injustice; Amartya Sen who makes similar arguments in terms of freedoms; and Marxists like Harry Braverman and technology historians like David Noble who document the processes through which technology often serves the agendas of the powerful. Being able to deconstruct the ends and means stated for technology projects can help distinguish the truly empowering ones from those that can disempower the people they claim to support. 

Third, I delve deeper into the need to go beyond ensuring safety and equity, or goals like power-based equality, by embedding ethics in the technology design alone. I argue that attention must be paid to ensuring that the same ethical principles are followed in the management of that technology too. I define management as what comes post-design when technology is deployed, and I argue that it is important to make this distinction between design and management because often in practice the teams of technologists playing these roles are distinct and the methods employed by them are also distinct. Most complexities at the management stage arise at the socio-technical interface when technologies begin to be used by people, and invariably lead to surprises and unforeseen situations largely due to the complexity of the world that cannot be possibly modeled completely at the design stage itself. Consequently, it bacomes essential to have feedback processes to learn about these gaps, humility to acknowledge them, and proactiveness to correct them by evolving better policies or re-designing the technology systems. 

A focus on appropriate technology helps create design sensitivity among technologists.

Fourth, I borrow from the concepts of appropriate technology by E.F. Schumacher and the Scandinavian methods of participatory design to emphasize that the users of a technology system should be involved in its design and management. Only once the users understand the technology and are able to un-blackbox it, can they steer it to avoid any harm, and to neatly handle exceptions in their diverse local contexts. This has always been a key principle for us at Gram Vaani, and led us to develop the hybrid online-offline Mobile Vaani model – where the online technology is governed by an offline team of community volunteers. It is the volunteers who are able to ensure a close embedding of Mobile Vaani within the communities, convey editorial preferences for the content carried on their platform, and ensure that all operations adhere to the ethical principles of inclusion and empowerment of the weak and oppressed. We have always endeavoured to get to a point where the technology simply becomes an infrastructure, and community institutions such as the Mobile Vaani volunteer clubs do the rest. 

Fifth, I discuss what might prevent technologists from following the principles mentioned above. I delve into the depth of the current structures of the market and the state, which often compromise these values, either by design or by sidelining these principles in favor of other objectives. Profit-seeking goals of corporations, or social control goals of the state often interlock, and infiltrate multiple spheres resulting in negative fallouts from technology. They also permeate organizational culture by creating role-based segregation and moral buffers for various teams. They influence the incentive structures for technologists by emphasizing profit-maximizing metrics rather than impact-maximizing or harm-avoiding metrics. And, in the current context of increasing digitization led by centralized architectures they inevitably lead to surveillance based models which at worst are designed to disempower individual and group freedom, or at best are highly error prone and often not scaffolded by fault-managing systems, unable, for instance, to propel grievance redressal. 

This is why the book is really a call to technologists to realize their position of strength in today’s world and take steps to ensure that their labor is indeed able to lead to empowering effects for the weak. This is not just a hope. I rely here on Marx’s concept of humanism. For Marx, social relationships arise from relations of production and consumption, and positive social relationships are those that create genuine use-value, without coercion or instrumental use of others. Technologists are workers too, and I believe we are driven by these same desires of reclaiming our humanity. I strongly believe that sooner or later technologists will indeed see through the fog that often surrounds them, and blunts their passion for taking deliberate action to bring about social good through their labor. Collectives of technologists that can change their organizations from within, public spheres that connect technologists with end-users of their technologies, and new economic structures such as the commons, may hold the key to the way forward. 

Finally, I argue that such a value-driven ethos for technologists can exist only within the morally grounded rules of behavior that democracy tries to create for society. Pluralism to listen to diverse voices, learn from them, and change one’s preferences based on these insights, is what drives democracy. For their own humanism, technologists have a role here too to build meta-social good infrastructures that strengthen democracy through pluralism and structures of accountability and transparency. I argue that participatory media systems such as those created by Gram Vaani, and the community media ecosystem in general, are crucial for this purpose. These systems enable deliberation and learning, and regard the media as a tool in the hands of activists and communities to expand the sphere of freedom and democracy, and not as a propaganda mechanism wielded by the powerful. It is these kinds of federated infrastructures that can uphold pluriversal values and eventually nudge the wider society to adopt power-based equality as a core value to be aspired by technologies, and to regain social control over these technologies to adhere to such values. 

The world we want to see

Technology ecosystems are already transforming on the lines mentioned above, and a realistic path is opening up for technologies to change the world. The growth of free and opensource systems, for example, has demonstrated that rapid innovation can emerge through shared knowledge and resources without any expectations of material gain. Wealth accumulation secured through private ownership of intellectual property or assets is not the only incentive that motivates people to innovate. Instead, incentives of solidarity to work in cooperation with others, or the imperative for social good as a key characteristic of humanism, are strong motivators in themselves. To scale these projects, methods such as platform cooperatives that pick up the necessary material means of production from the external capitalist world, but utilize them internally in a cooperative manner to produce goods that are needed by other members of the cooperative, can be a means to build a commons-based economy and support various commons-based projects. As they grow and build their own economy centered on labor, the commons may not need material assets from the external world anymore, and could, in fact, start producing goods for the rest of the world, gradually allowing it to join the organizational fold of the commons. Appropriate technologies fit naturally into such commons-based models by reducing dependency on large external technology providers by building the necessary skills internally, as well as the institutional structures to manage the technologies. Furthermore, such revolutions may not always happen outside of the current systems as alternatives – the collectivization of technologists within their own organizations has repeatedly made it possible for technologists to re-possess the ground where they themselves could make responsible decisions to design and manage technologies, aiming for equality and plurality.

Technologists should therefore not take any social structure as a given. A clarity of purpose, the humility to continually correct course to steer their innovations, a commitment to values of equality and plurality, and gaining political power through collective means to exercise their judgement, can help technologists counter the dominant paradigms that produce disempowering technologies today. Technologists should aim to architect a new system, and not simply persevere like a bee but within the specifications laid down by the existing system – they should intercede in the status quo to usher in a new reality!

A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.” – Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 1

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Aaditeshwar Seth is an Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, and co-founder of the social technology enterprise Gram Vaani. He is a recipient of the ACM SIGCHI Social Impact Award for 2022.

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ACT is now available on various platforms, with previews at Google Books, and you can also write to Aaditeshwar for his local electronic version. The preface, introduction, and foreword (by Professor Tim Unwin) are available here, along with endorsements by a few researchers and practitioners. 

Some pictures in this article have been taken from open sources on the internet.


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