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The Techno-solutionism approach to Philanthropy isn't the answer, But don't downplay 'TechForGood'

Image is taken from the Front cover of Research Handbook on Human Rights and Digital Technology: Global Politics, Law, and International Relations Edited by Ben Wagner, Matthias C. Kettemann, Kilian Vieth.

On the 12th of November Data and Society’s Chief Executives, Janet Haven and Dannah Boyle released a report funded by the Knight Foundation entitled Philanthropy’s Techno-Solutionism Problem. Here they argue that philanthropy and the tech for good sector will need to change their ways in order to create long-term sustainable democracy and societal change. On the surface this argument is not unfounded, however, there are some intricate nuances to it, and a critical point, which though briefly mentioned in the report, is undermined. Although we live in a world where Silicon Valley CEO’s have too much power, like Section 230 Decency Act in the United States, and their tech being somewhat ambivalent at times, there are amazing technologies in the world that can change peoples lives for the better. 

As a Technologist working in Live Streaming and Human Rights advocacy, I can name multiple projects that are using technology solutions in order to bring about change, from Indigenous Drones in the Amazon Rainforest from perhaps an obscure western-centric lens, to BioNTech and their recent success with a Covid-19 Vaccine. Actions and projects like these which are implemented by the tech for good sector, a lot of the time on the ideals of techno-solutionism, can have a great effect on institutionalizing societies and therefore giving people political power and representation. 

With this kind of gained political power and representation individuals have been able to mobilize and exercise their rights to freedom of expression, thought, and assembly. It’s easy at this point to mention Twitter and the Arab Spring that the human rights literature constantly cites due to its importance. Yet, there are more recent events such as the Extinction Rebellion, the BLM movements, and the EndSars movements which gain a vast amount of attention online and in some cases have brought about national policy change. This is what I would argue is democracy at work, platforms that though ambivalent can mobilize society to pressure governments to bring about new laws and change. As I mentioned these examples do creep into the report, however, the democratic element of the platforms are downplayed:

“technology can be used to challenge the status quo: activists mobilize through online platforms, witnesses livestream abuses of power, and advocates share information faster to broader publics thanks to the internet. Yet there is nothing inherently democratic about these technologies. These same tools are often used to harass people, spread disinformation, and amplify hate.”

The whole point of people using these platforms in order to mobilize is in fact democracy in action. The fact that people have the right to freedom of expression on these platforms is also democracy in action. It may be contentious when amalgamating this in the context of fake news, misinformation, and hate speech. However unfortunate, freedom of speech (so long as it's not inciting hate and violence) is a core pillar of a democratic society. It’s also easy to argue that the nature of politics has always amplified misinformation and hatred, it’s not just a troupe of the tech industry. Yet, I do agree with this quote from the report:

“good intentions do not prevent technologies from doing harm.”

Where the tech industry has really failed is in its lack of addressing hate speech and misinformation on social media platforms as an attempt to appear plural. The idea of plurality has its roots in the origins of the platform's creation. During the early 2000s there was a vast movement and cyber experiment taking place online that was trying to foster free speech, but the experiment ultimately failed. This is because when platforms like Twitter became infested with trolls and Facebook harbored pages and groups that amplified hate speech (which in some instances lead to terrorism), their leadership simply failed to respond. 

The report also mentions the issues that academic and research institutions are having with short term funding, which is rightly a serious problem. None the less, the authors make the generalized assumption that these short term funded projects and research fellowships, though achieving short term goals, will not bring about long term systemic change. However, here I can turn the reader's attention to the founding of the Digital Verification Corps by Dr. Ella McPherson and her team at Cambridge University in conjunction with Amnesty International, Witness, and other universities. Their sole goal is to teach students and professionals in the human rights fact-finding space to use open source technology (much of the time from social media platforms), to verify human rights abuses. These students have learned skills they will take out into the wider world, and may be on the first wave of bringing about structural change by securing prosecutions for human rights violations by using technology as a source of evidence. The Digital Verification Corps Project also just won the TEL (Prize Technology Enabled Learning Prize). As the project also works with open source technology it makes it perhaps makes it easier to implement with limited funding and sustain over a longer period. 

The Digital Verification Corps Project on winning the TEL Prize

In conclusion, though I agree with much of this report and the authors take on the modus operandi of philanthropy, I argue that we shouldn’t become too pessimistic with what they term as Techno-solutionism. It’s important to remember that the individuals at the top of the chain in Silicon Valley do not represent the majority of hard work coders, programmers, and experts who work tirelessly to bring about open-sourced, progressive, and research-based solutions which can bring about change.


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