The Politics of Innovation: Why Technology is inherently Biased

Technology

The Politics of Innovation: Why Technology is inherently Biased

Valerie Makanda

by: Valerie Makanda

August 30, 2017

Everything is Biased

Technology is marketed as being a democratic tool which levels the playing ground for all, but that’s not necessarily true. The concept of technological devices, much like all things, is inherently biased. Though an artifact’s functionality does not intend to detract from a user’s experience, by virtue of its conception it necessarily favours some interest over others.

Things are the product of bias. Even the most deliberate attempts at mitigating bias will fail to completely eliminate partiality. People create things. Every individual has a set of experiences which inform their interpretation of the world around them, as well as their understanding of themselves and their needs. Therefore, things are necessarily the product of bias, because things are created by people.

In his famous article “Do Artifacts Have Politics?”, Langdon Winner argued that a technology can belong to one of two categories of politics. The first is that technologies can be conceived with the intention to produce a certain outcome. Likewise, they can also produce unintentional outcomes by virtue of that same process. Put simply, technologies in this category would either be the product of ulterior political motives or accidentally exclude or disadvantage some users. The second category refers to technologies so inflexible in their conception, that by virtue of their usage a user is subscribing to their politics. So if you’re a mobile phone user, then you must also be a customer of some telephone service provider.

Because service providers are integral to the use of cell phones, you need these companies for your phone to mean something to you and serve the purpose you hoped it would when you purchased it. In this case, you are subscribing to the interdependent relationship between device and infrastructure, and this not entirely by choice.

While both forms of politics are relevant to our understanding of modern ubiquitous technologies, I will focus on the former and more specific instances in which the exclusion of some and lesser experience of others are accidental. Lack of diversity (in forms beyond race, gender, ethnicity, etc) during the conception process, often results in unintended consequences. Those consequences can be banal, but small inefficiencies and incremental improvements are important components of technological developments as we will explore.

Let’s consider one such banal example: unlocking your mobile phone. You can now unlock your phone with your thumbprint. Anybody with a relatively new age device now gets an added layer of security. Can’t duplicate thumbprints right? It just so happens that something designed to be a quick and convenient security measure can also be quite a hindrance. Before I got my Samsung Galaxy S6, I had the Galaxy S2. I never had a lock on my phone because there really wasn’t anything on there worth hiding. When I graduated to the S6, the adjustment was minor. I would place my thumb over the “main” button, whereas before I simply swiped my screen.

A few months after I got my new device, I developed eczema on my hands as a result of overusing cleaning products. My fingertips were badly affected so I could no longer unlock my phone with my thumb. I would try and try and eventually get locked out. I got so frustrated I started just using the backup security password, the second layer of security. But that too was frustrating, because I had spent my life in cell phone years without a password. Of course, I had the option of changing the security functions on my phone, but I had become accustomed to the ease and added layer of privacy that only my thumb could unlock. And to be fair, it was the default function. Did the originators of this feature consider users with damaged fingerprints? Given that there were other security measures, should they have?

People Give Meaning to Technology

While studying cultural theory at the LSE, within the scope of my own research, I spoke with two individuals who had their mobile phones stolen. Both likened the experience of being sans phone to having lost a limb. Sherry Turkle, kind of a deity in the science, technology and society studies (STS) world, explained it best when she said we were all becoming cyborgs. We are hyperconnected, and our devices, particularly mobile phones, are a physical extension of our being. If we accept Turkle’s depiction of our relationships with our devices, it’s not difficult to reconcile why the loss of a phone is like losing a limb. Your phone can be integral to your daily experience of social life in much the same way your hand is integral to your daily experience of sensory life. However, your phone plays this role, because you as a user have assigned that role to the technology, not the other way around.

The idea that technologies are natural and just happen is deterministic (also read Marxist). Marx’s determinism suggests that technologies happen to society, and in turn shape social patterns and behaviours. In reality, however, the relationship between people and technology is reciprocal. Judy Wacjman, yet another STS deity, explains that users give meaning to technology by developing and modifying uses. To put it really simply, people, in a society, determine whether and how a technology is used and appropriated and subsequently integrated into said society.

One such example is the mobile web. Web developers now focus primarily on the experience of mobile visitors of a given website. However, websites were originally conceived for consumption on computer screens. Advances in mobile telephony, and specifically the software used on mobile phones, enabled and accelerated the consumption of web pages on mobile devices. Despite the increasing percentage of people visiting web pages on their phones, as opposed to the desktop or laptop screens the developers have in mind when designing and programming the sites, some sites are still not optimized for mobile browsing. Only now are the companies who mandate the creation and management of these pages recognizing that mobile needs to come first. The shift in usage was enabled by network service providers and innovations made to hardware of and software “in” mobile phones, but mobile phone users’ actual use sparked this new emphasis on the mobile web browsing experience. It’s worth noting that the distinct behaviors of mobile browsing, as exhibited by users, dictate mobile web design best practices. That’s why web designers and developers won’t just worry about the screen size. They have to consider how a user scrolls through pages, enters data in online forms, holds their phone etc… They have to consider an entirely new set of behaviours, unique to mobile phone users: a set of behaviours dictated exclusively by users, not by the technology.

If we chose to think like Marx, we would be more inclined to believe that the mobile first movement in web development is the product of the innovation made to mobile phones, but this would be wrong. It didn’t just happen that way. Taking Wacjman’s approach, we would recognize that the software enabling the mobile web to become a thing wasn’t actually a thing until people started using their phones to access the web and adopted a set of behaviors unique to their consumption of web pages on their phones. This is wholly different from their consumption of the same content on other devices. In this sense, a technological device is a vehicle, and a user is a driver. The technology presents opportunities and constraints, but it doesn’t dictate uses. It merely enables users.

Apple can tell you how you should use your device through advertising or during the sales process. The actual iPhone dictates in part how you interact with it (those are its politics), but you have the power to reappropriate certain functions and determine how the phone is to be used. In appropriating these functions you ultimately determine the phone’s dominant uses and give the technology new (or actual) meaning.

Same, same, but Different

 

We now understand people develop technologies with politics. Users shape said technologies and it give them meaning. However, it would be naive to neglect the impact of technological development itself, on society as a whole–coming full circle here. Because technology enables people to do things, people control how it is integrated into daily life. This process of integrating technology brings about new uses, creates new requirements and the technology is subsequently improved upon. But the initial technology has limitations and constraints that equally restricts use. This has the effect of creating opportunities for improvement on the one hand, but also narrowing the scope of improvement on the other.

To explain the technological element of the issue at hand, let’s consider the theory of great surges, and the broader techno-economic paradigm shifts framework–courtesy of Carlota Perez. A new technology is developed and it fundamentally changes the economic, social, cultural, technological (and and and) landscape. This is your paradigm. A series of smaller innovations occur, spurred by the progressive new technology, and other dominant products, designs, or models are defined. In turn, an increasingly narrow set of even smaller incremental innovations, all stemming from this big daddy innovation, occur until the new world order, as dictated by this new technology, begins to mature. Within those second-tier innovations, even smaller incremental innovations are brought to emerging technologies, creating different innovation trajectories, all stemming from the previous innovation, and its previous innovation, all the way back to big daddy. These innovation trajectories only move forward, and they all stem from the established dominant designs on the various tiers. Therefore, every innovation is a spinoff of the previous innovation and the one before that. It’s too risky to deviate from the trajectory, and very few people, if any operate outside the paradigm.

Let’s not stray too far from what’s near and dear to us and consider our phones. The cell phone is a product of the information communication technology or ICT revolution. The “beginning” of the ICT revolution can arguably be traced back to the invention of the microchip. From then on a series of inventions, some dominant, others not so much, some competing, others operating in parallel or conjunction, were developed and brought to market. So, the portable disc player and the portable calculator, both products of the ICT revolution, were not competing products. But interestingly, the innovation trajectory of both those artIfacts merged into that of the mobile phone. The mobile phone, arguably the foremost technology to emerge from the ICT revolution did not exist in its current form and a series of smaller incremental innovations resulted in the product so intrinsically linked to our experience of daily life today.

Most readers have fond memories of their first cell phone. Mine was an all-black, ultra-sleek Motorolla Razr. At the time, the dominant design was the flip phone. Mobile phones were primarily used for phone calls and text messages. Web surfing was possible but given the size of the screen, the quality of the network (wifi didn’t just exist everywhere back then), and the actual web browsing experience, it was neither a key selling point nor an important function. Once the hardware design changed and the web functionality was optimised, almost in tandem, network service providers began modifying packages to offer improved wireless internet access. In response to usage trends and continued advances, the flip phone lost its edge, to what I called “the brick”. Research in Motion’s Blackberry was the premier device, and its accompanying software which was super secure thanks to end-to-end encryption, once again shifted the innovation landscape within the quickly narrowing technological trajectory. However, the most significant development deviation, within this tier of ICT innovation, occurred when the iPhone was brought to market. The significant hardware changes and modified experience of mobile telephony propelled the new dominant design.

Again, the iPhone didn’t just happen. When it was released, the competing hardware that preceded it was literally halfway to a full screen. The iPhone became the dominant model because consumers bought it. Innovation trajectories can only become innovation trajectories through dominance, and dominance is the result of usage and consumption. Users bought and loved iPhones because of the design. Naturally, competitors began to focus their efforts on working within the confines of the new micro-paradigm. It made little to no sense to continue developing flip phones or bricks. Most people weren’t buying flip phones or bricks.

Where does this leave us?

 We can agree that there are politics embedded in technologies that impact usage, and have the effect of restricting usage, but also spur creative forms of re-appropriation. This, in turn, leads to new innovation streams and continued development within a dominant paradigm. However, a technology remains a political artifact: one that could very well serve different ends and impose different constraints were its politics different.

Diversity in the development process would result in different politics, and consequently different technologies. We expect plurality of opinion in most if not all political spheres. We work towards variety in every sense of the word when we speak of representation but somehow fail to consider the impact politics and diversity have with respect to artifacts as central to our experience of daily mobile phone users. We could be missing out on life-changing functionality or design. More realistically though, to reference the experience of those interviewees who had their mobile phones stolen, it’s quite likely some of us are simply walking around with a mismatched extra limb.

To truly optimise the process of innovation, if the goal is to create inclusive technologies and to expand the repertoire of development possibilities, we actually need more politics. More importantly, we need to make the more kinds and the right kind of politics dominant to see the full gamut of trajectorial possibilities for a technology.

So, go shopping. Honestly. There are startups, products, and services for just about everything you can imagine. Think Tinder and Bumble, Whatsapp and Viber, uber and Lyft. If there is a need, the technology adapts and all of a sudden there are options galore. We know dominant designs dictate innovation trajectories so go find what you’re after and vote with your dollars, clicks, likes, fingers, and usage. Vote for your politics.