Posts tagged ‘social justice’

July 12, 2011

Liberation Technology Tour

My book launch at the fabulous Market Block Books in Troy

I’ve been lucky to spend much of the spring and early summer touring in support of Digital Dead End: Fighting for Social Justice in the Information Age. It’s an especially exciting time to be thinking and talking about the relationship between technology and social justice. The questions asked by audiences from Concord, NH to New York City to Philadelphia made it clear that, despite differences in race, gender and class, many of us are curious and concerned about the impact of technology on social, political and economic inequities. I was asked tough, insightful questions: Does the Arab Spring prove that social media can create radical political change? How does technology affect workers in the sagging American economy? Can we use new IT tools to increase governmental transparency and accountability?

Great line up at Bluestockings in NYC

What truly stood out for me, though, was the extraordinary on-the-ground work being done by social justice organizations in the cities that I visited. In Montréal, my event at the Concordia Community Solidarity Co-op Bookstore was supported by both the Concordia Women’s Studies Student Association and the wonderful Simone de Beauvoir Institute, which is dedicated to exploring feminism as a tool for understanding social justice and fighting for social change. While in Canada, I was hosted by the delightful Christina Haralanova, who co-authored the WITT training toolkit, Strategic ICT for the Empowerment of Women, and introduced me to Montréal’s hackerspace, Foulab, which teaches people to repurpose and redesign everything from wearable electronics to analog robots to mustard.

One of the friendliest rooms on the tour - Red Emma's in Baltimore

In Baltimore, my event at Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffeehouse was co-sponsored by Hollaback! Baltimore, a brash and refreshingly witty group dedicated to using online tools to end street harassment of women and girls. In Washington DC, my event at Busboys and Poets was sponsored by DC Jobs with Justice, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, and Teaching for Change. I stayed a few extra days in DC to undertake a “social justice tour” of my own, meeting with members of a number of community organizations. Though I learned from all the people I met, the highlight was undoubtedly my visit to ONE DC, whose steadfast commitment to shared leadership and healing in the midst of difficult struggles for housing and economic justice astonished and inspired me.

Though my book offers some uncomfortable truths about the “real world of IT” in the lives of poor and working-class women and families, my intention has always been to highlight popular technology — approaches that help all people develop critical technological citizenship and engage with technology as a site of political struggle.. We can make an extraordinary impact on the inequities of the information age when we think, and practice, technological development and social justice together.What my tour proved to me is that liberation technologies are possible; in fact, they are everywhere you look.


If you’d like to hear audio of my book event at Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffeehouse, you can access it here:

April 18, 2011

If Technology Is Not the Answer, What Is?

My very bright grad student, Megan Rolfe, recently forwarded me a link to Kentaro Toyama’s provocative article, “Technology Is Not the Answer,” in the March issue of The Atlantic. I’m intrigued by his experience, and sympathetic to his point that technology serves as an amplifier of underlying values and social structures.

In fact, I was trying to make much the same point when I wrote about the use of new information technologies in the social service system in my book, Digital Dead End. Information technology could certainly serve to connect poor and working families to community resources, make the process of applying for benefits more transparent, and ease caseworkers’ cumbersome paperwork to free them up to spend more time with clients. But under the new, hyper-punitive regime of post-1996 public assistance, it largely serves to proliferate sanctions and intensify surveillance.

Similarly, the information economy, rather than leveling economic and political economies (as Thomas Friedman et al. might argue), can amplify historic inequalities while adding a bruising shot of new insecurity and rapid change, a phenomenon I call “volatile continuity” in my book. So rather than creating sweeping social change, new technologies often magnify underlying social arrangements. Rather than sweeping away old power relations like a digital Noah’s flood, new ITs act like Hurricane Katrina, following existing socio-economic cleavages with devastating effects for those living in valleys of poverty and inequality.

This brings me to the thing I like most about Toyama’s brief piece: a simple chart that traces the rates of poverty in the United States against a time line of major innovations in communications technologies such as the internet, the personal computer, and the world wide web. No big surprises here, but the image is incredibly effective for breaking through some of our more magical thinking about technology and social justice.

Graph of Poverty in the US and Technological Innovation

I start to get frustrated with Toyama’s argument when he starts to talk solutions — for him, the focus should be on (individual) human intent and capacity, on virtue. If what he means is that we in the US need to realign our political and economic practice with our national values of liberty, justice, equality, and democracy, I agree. I think Mark Robert Rank, in his book One Nation, Underprivileged, makes a compelling argument that this kind of realignment is necessary if we are ever to take the epidemic levels of poverty in our country seriously.

Explaining that technology is just one thing we put undue faith in, Toyama coins the acronym TIPS — technology, institutions, policies and systems — to describe what he considers the most visible parts of cultural change. The real iceberg, he claims, is the invisible but more significant bulk of “individual and societal intent and capacity.” I got Marxist base/superstructure flashbacks when I read this, but in reverse.

As I’ve traveled throughout the northeast on my Spring book tour, audience members have asked again and again for specific solutions to the wide variety of social, economic and political problems Digital Dead End describes. So I respect Toyama’s attempt to look beyond the tools to the problems that underlie high-tech inequity. But solutions to the pressing social justice issues of the information age must be systematic and structural, not just individual and organizational.

I’m not sure “virtue” is a good platform for systemic social change. So in the next few weeks, I’ll tell you what I see as the “real iceberg” under the social, political and economic challenges faced by the United States. And I’ll provide some solutions and suggestions for how we go about creating an information age that works for everyone.

Stay tuned…