When we build new tech, we focus extensively on the topology and hierarchies we use, and the effects of certain requirements on these. For example, building a distributed, fault tolerant system requires a certain structure of computers and makes certain demands on our systems. We think about these technical requirements extensively, but why do we stop there?
Our downtime-proof systems themselves exist in the lives of people. Our requirements comes out of a massive, fuzzy network of social relations that these people live in, and how will fulfill the requirements shapes their lives and their social networks. For these reasons our products mean things to people. We rarely think about this, and the politics of our tools. There are people in other departments of companies to do this for us, but “hackers” usually don’t. I propose that they should, because otherwise their work could have negative consequences for the world. You may accept that working for Uber is making the world a better place because now anyone can get a cab anytime, but not see the inequality it pushes forward. You may assume that tech you are working on has positive side effects, when it doesn’t.
It’s tough to know if a technology is helping people or not. Many people think that “technology isn’t intrinsically good or bad, how it’s used is”, but that is only partially true.
##How To Study Technology: Where to start There are many fields and many writers that study how technology affects society and culture. A great one to start is Communication Studies, which is the broad field of looking at how our interactions with and through technologies shape our lives. Its most famous soundbite is Marshall McLuhan’s “The medium is the message”. The idea is that instead of looking at technologies as neutral carriers of information or just tea kettles where “what you do with it is what matters”, technology shapes lives in political ways. Tools can make some things dramatically easier, others harder, others irrelevant, and therebey end up valuing some things/people/experiences above others… For example, before the early PC’s, there existed the positions of graph-maker. Before that, humans were put in rooms to be huge calculators. The fact that these positions are not commonly hired for anymore has had a huge effect on people working in those fields.
Crudely, we as hackers need to continously be asking ourselves: “what message is our new medium sending?”
Hackers can help fix broken structures and laws like the prison system, the war on drugs, racism, and the way healthcare works in the US. These are technical questions. Not in the sense that a new app is going to fix them, but through figuring out the boundaries and forces acting on these social systems, we can guide our technical solutions. By using our technical tools, knowledge of systems and modelling, we can implement new solutions. I’m not saying technology will solve everything (this is called technodeterminism). It is easy to get caught up in technology and forget there are humans using it. Twitter did not cause the Arab spring. McLuhan himself made this mistake, and he claimed the printing press caused the American Revolution.
But if we make more software that spies on and tracks users, if we start companies around Command & Control systems, or create marketplaces that re-inforce specific differences, we’re hurting the world. When we use an algorithm, we make assumptions about the world, which may act as self-fulfilling prophecies. When we hold data forever by default because it’s easier, we’re making mean political statements.
Paul Graham once defined hackers as having three desires: money, power, and to make something. First, lolololololol. Second, if you are hacker who is interested in power, it behooves you to study how current media and culture affects the structures of power in our society. How can you try to ‘change the way people connect’ and not study other media and how they affected how people connected? Otherwise you’ll end up making the world a better place through minimal message-oriented transport layers .
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