How does technology hurt or help people?

Note: This was a midterm written for a class entitled “Technology and Social Responsibility”.

In the first eight weeks of the semester, our class had two units that seemed to draw us to opposite conclusions. One unit showed us how the use of technology, the internet in particular and social media specifically, was helping marginalized people stand up to governments and find ways to see themselves in the world even though their immediate surroundings may seem like they are alone. The next section, however, showed us how that same technology and its various offshoots were being used to marginalize, exploit, and even criminalize innocent people.  Unfortunately, as with anything taken to an extreme, technology is a two-edged sword that helps and hinders and should be developed with a lot of review and care.

Our class started off spending time in the Middle East with articles related to the Arab Spring. In the article entitled “How the Facebook Arabic Page “We Are All Khaled Said” Helped Promote the Egyptian Revolution” by Kara Alaimo, Alaimo identifies four stages of revolution which in the case of the Egyptian Arab Spring were aided by the use of social media technology. The first phase is preparation which is described as people using digital technology to gather like-minded people, and consolidate their list of grievances into “collective political goals”. (Alaimo, 2015, p. 2)

Next came an “ignition phase” which is usually an incendiary incident that moves the public but is largely ignored by the government they are railing against. (Alaimo, 2015, p. 2) In the case of Egypt, it was the brutal death of Khaled Said, a 20-something young man who was brutally killed by the police. When a Facebook page called “We Are All Khaled Said” was created, many people’s hidden anger towards the government caused an “information cascade” as it coalesced many people’s silent anger to join more vocal people thus creating a larger and larger group of unhappy citizens. (Alaimo, 2015, p. 2) The use of social media to coordinate street protests, which is phase three, caused more and more international exposure and “buy-in” (Alaimo, 2015), and then the final phase which culminates in a regime change. In this case, social media technology helped at each stage of the revolution to bring about a change that the oppressed people wanted. This instance is an instance of technology being used to correct a social problem in Egypt.

On the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of governments and a marginalized people, we have the Chinese government and a Muslim, ethnic minority called the Uighurs. In an article in the New York Times called “How China Uses High-Tech Surveillance to Subdue Minorities”, authors Chris Buckley and Paul Mozur detail the length at which the Chinese government has gone to keep the Uighur population in check.

The China Electronics Technology Corporation (CETC), funded by the government, has a software system and database in place that is able to access a staggering 68 billion records. By comparison, Buckley and Mozur cite that the FBI in the year 2018 only had about 19 million records on file. Even taking in population differences, according to a quick google search, Worldometers.info shows that China is 4.3 times the population of the US and would mean proportionally China should have only roughly 83 million records instead of the whopping 68 billion. This database is then used in conjunction with artificial intelligence to try and predict bad behavior which seems like a positive thing but ends up essentially being a virtual fence around a targeted group of people that the Chinese are trying to eradicate or harshly assimilate into the fold. Some of the behaviors detailed by Buckley and Mozur include “extended travel abroad” which can seem somewhat reasonable down to such mundane tasks as “avoiding using the front door and refueling someone else’s car” (Buckely & Mozur, 2019)

The invasiveness also isn’t unnoticeable, such as through surveillance cameras with facial recognition software, but invasive and can’t be ignored like obvious “you’re being watched” methods like checkpoints, not at borders which make sense, but at everyday places like “banks, parks, schools, gas stations, and mosques” all recording data (Buckely & Mozur, 2019) All of these methods are being used to instill fear in the Uighurs and to let them know in no uncertain terms that they are being watched and any infraction, real or otherwise, will result in some sort of punishment from jail time to death. In this instance, the freedom to use the technology available has resulted in unfettered use by a powerful government with seemingly no way of fighting back. In some ways, it mirrors what citizens of the Arab Spring countries were feeling by the injustices of their government but somehow the Chinese government situation seems different, more authoritarian maybe due to their largesse of power to rule their citizen’s lives with no seeming remorse of previous human rights abuses.

In the second unit of our class, we waded into further marginalization and exploitation through technology covering topics like biases in what seems like everything when it comes to women and people of color. Here we also see large scale marginalization like in Wikipedia where due to structural and coverage bias (Moravec, 2015), more men are writing and editing articles and the entire website with its hundreds of thousands of articles is geared toward men and men’s accomplishments with women’s articles being written in a closed-loop sort of way so that they aren’t linked to the rest of Wikipedia like men’s articles are. We also see personal exploitation in revenge porn where people are posting pictures of partners online without their consent usually due to revenge or spite. And because twenty-five percent of the victims are male, according to Emily Dugan in her 2015 article entitled “Are the police taking revenge porn seriously?”, this is not just a woman’s problem and just steeped in misogyny but affects everyone, in large part due to easily taken and easily transmissible technology so that these private pictures can now be uploaded in a matter of seconds everywhere from revenge porn websites to personal blogs to Facebook.

Even with just these few examples, one can see that the use of technology can upend governments and also ruin one person’s life. It runs the gamut from helping LGBTQ+ teens find their place in the world to spying on an entire population to keep them living in fear. Technology is ever-evolving and making sure that it’s used in such a way as to help people would be an unending quest because technology is ever-evolving and it’s always a question of who is in control that often determines how technology is used, whether for or against us.

In an article called “Technology and Human Vulnerability” for Harvard Business Review, Diane Coutu talks with scholars in the area of technology and society. In it, Coutu talks to Sherry Turkle and how people are redefining their humanity when it comes to technology. What I got from the article is just how much computing and technology is so interwoven in our lives that our identities and how we see the use of technology are one and the same. Our identities rely on technology. One of the examples given was the use of PowerPoint. Originally used as a business tool, it is now used everywhere to disperse bulletized information. But used in, say, an educational setting where it’s used extensively and is considered the norm, did something change in how people are educated where we now just present bulleted ideas and do not engage in any back and forth, questions, expression of feelings, etc? (Coutu, 2003) When we incorporate other technologies in our lives to the point it becomes indispensable and routine, do the old habits, ideas, traits, actions that are taken away, did we lose something? And the more we incorporate technology in our lives that include a negative, like having pocket computers in our back pockets that also surveil us for not even governments but for private companies like Google and Apple, do we understand the ramifications and can we neutrally judge in an unbiased way the effects when it’s a part of who we are and we surely wouldn’t give up the technology we use without thinking?

After searching many, many articles dealing with technology, most seem to understand the dark side of technology but not many offered up any solutions. However, in an article entitled “Power and Technology: Who Gets to Make the Decisions?” by Jennifer Lee et al, we are given a few pointers. And granted, this was written for or by the Association for Computing Machinery which is a US-based organization so these ideas would probably be hard to implement in authoritarian countries such as China.

In a section called “How Do We Fight Back and Shift the Balance of Power”, Lee et al talks of institutional change where people in power need to be willing to share the power with historically marginalized groups. Lee goes on to say that “everyone must be an advocate” and everyone has a role from academics to technologists and artists to policymakers. She also goes on to say that the marginalized are the experts on how they’ve been marginalized and the impacts of new tech and with it usually, the surveillance. This often gets lost in what people usually do which is just community engagement without the necessary shift in power so that the marginalized can actually make decisions. Instead, what we normally do is co-opt or make a big show of getting feedback and then ignore it.

The problem that I find with these great ideas is of course the fact that those in power do not usually want to share the power. And when what is in power is a government, it is unlikely to give up that power. But at the same time, we can see places like Egypt and Tunisia where governments more totalitarian than ours form a rebellion and uprising, isn’t anything possible if enough people want it? I am hoping that voting, our voices on social media, and our understanding of the issues can help us continually keep technology from hurting others.

Works Cited:

Alaimo, Kara (2015). How the Facebook Arabic Page “We Are All Khaled Said” Helped Promote the Egyptian Revolution”. Social Media + Society, July-December 2015:1-10. DOI: 10.117/2056305115604854

Buckley, C. & Mozur, P. (2019, May 22) How China Uses High-Tech Surveillance to Subdue Minorities. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/22/world/asia/china-surveillance-xinjiang.html

Coutu, D. (2003 September) Technology and Human Vulnerability. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2003/09/technology-and-human-vulnerability

Dugan, Emily (2015, August 25). Are the police taking revenge porn seriously? The Independent. Retrieved October 25, 2021, from https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/revenge-porn-are-police-and-courts-taking-crime-seriously-10471511.html.

Lee, Jennifer et. al (2021 February). Power and Technology: Who gets to make the decisions?. Association of Computing Machinery. https://interactions.acm.org/archive/view/january-february-2021/power-and-technology

Moravec, M., & Hi. (2015, February 10). If you care about women, you should edit Wikipedia differently. March Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities. Retrieved October 25, 2021, from https://march.rutgers.edu/if-you-care-about-women-you-should-edit-wikipedia-differently/.

Worldometers.info (n.d.) Population Comparison: China, EU, USA, and Japan. Worldmeters.info. https://www.worldometers.info/population/china-eu-usa-japan-comparison/

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