Social Justice & Technology

Every day technology makes life easier for millions of people, and in doing so makes life harder for others.

Adam Gopnik, in his New Yorker Article, “The Information: How the Internet Gets Inside Us,” breaks down the population into three groups:

call them the Never-Betters, the Better-Nevers, and the Ever-Wasers. The Never-Betters believe that we’re on the brink of a new utopia, where information will be free and democratic, news will be made from the bottom up, love will reign, and cookies will bake themselves. The Better-Nevers think that we would have been better off if the whole thing had never happened, that the world that is coming to an end is superior to the one that is taking its place, and that, at a minimum, books and magazines create private space for minds in ways that twenty-second bursts of information don’t. The Ever-Wasers insist that at any moment in modernity something like this is going on, and that a new way of organizing data and connecting users is always thrilling to some and chilling to others—that something like this is going on is exactly what makes it a modern moment.

Anyone who has read this blog or heard me speak would have me pegged as a Never-Better, and that is pretty close to the truth. I do think that we live in an era that rivals that of the printing press, with its subsequent explosion of literacy and education. In my lifetime I have already seen a startling collapse of time and space due to how the internet and other technologies have allowed us to traverse great geographical distances in seconds. From my home I can bank, buy, and sell. I provide therapy and consultation to people as close as my city and as far as Singapore with little to no noticeable difference. And when I want to relax I join colleagues and friends in a virtual world that has denizens from Australia, the UK, and Asia.

And yet, as much a Never-Better as I am, I have noticed how social justice continues to lag behind. Not in the technology, but in both the access to it and fit between human beings and the systems they are in. Technology, as always, has advanced beyond our ability to master it, think critically about it, and perhaps most importantly achieve equity with it.

Let me give you an example I have experienced fairly recently in how the technology that benefits me has put others in my own social sphere at a disadvantage. I have an iPhone App, courtesy of a nameless coffee vendor, that has allowed me to use my iPhone to pay for my daily coffee with the flash of a barcode. My local barista rings me up, scans my iPhone, and the transaction is finished. At first, as an early adopter, I was one of the few folks using this in the Cambridge area, but more and more people are taking advantage of this App, and it is now commonplace in Austin, TX and Silicon Valley.

The problem with this App is that is financially disadvantages the baristas. There is no functionality as of yet in the App to allow for adding a gratuity, and since technology has worked all too well in eliminating the need for paper currency, I rarely carry any money with me to add a gratuity. When I initially became aware of this, the temptation was to slink away from the register as quickly as possible, and if I didn’t have ongoing relationships with the baristas I might easily have done so. But instead I asked them if they had noticed a drop in gratuities since the App became prevalent, and they remarked that they had. So what has been a convenience for me has significantly reduced the regular income of others.

This may seem a privileged example, and a minor one, but that is in fact one reason that I am mentioning it. Every day, through these minute transactions, we are influencing the lives of others, often without thought. The trope of the machine replacing the worker is in fact an industrial one: Each day, a section of our population does basically the same work they did a decade ago, but technology has made it easier to overlook and underpay them. And for that to change, we need to notice the behavior, and then, I suggest, address the technology.

There is a shortfall between lived experience, social justice and technology occurring on a microscopic level in the US, and part of why we all need to become more digitally literate is so that we can advocate on behalf of under-served and marginalized populations for technology to improve their lives. Avoiding technology is not the answer. Slinking away from the register is not the answer. The answer, in part, is to contact the company in question and suggest adding features to the technology to bridge the gap. In this case, I’m contacting the nameless coffee company suggesting they add a feature in either the App-user interface or the register-barista interface to allow for the inclusion of a gratuity. Seems like a simple fix, but as someone who owns and works in a company that creates customizable features I can tell you that they are expensive, and therefore often not made until somebody requests them.

In terms of world equity and technology we have an even greater challenge, namely, access. More than 81% of people in the US have some form of broadband internet access, as compared to approximately 5% of the African continent. 1 out of 3 people in the US have internet speeds 10 Mbs, as opposed to 0 in Ghana, Venezuela, and Mongolia.

Recently I had the opportunity to participate in a game developed by Jane MacGonigal at SXSW, which she claims will have have boosted my resiliency and hence extended my life by 7-8 minutes after playing it just once. I believe her. Which makes me think it is all the more important that we find ways not only to create games where people in the developed world learn about developing countries; but help people in developing countries access and develop their own video games. With all of the great work being done in the US and Europe on socially serious games, and games for health, we are seeing how video games can increase resilience and learning skills. How can we use these technologies to bring about similar changes in less affluent countries and populations? Because if playing a video game could help us crack the eznymatic code of HIV, which 1.2 million people in the US live with, what about playing a video game to increase resilience in Subsaharan Africa, where 22.9 million people live with it?

I think it is also imperative that people in developing countries have access not only to playing video games, but creating them. If they don’t, then the same cultural colonialization that has happened in the past will repeat itself. We need to support social justice in such geeky and subtle ways as making sure that indigenous cultures all over the planet have the opportunity to design games that reflect their own cultures, not a globalized McVersion of it.

Between the whittling away of a worker’s salary in the US and Subsaharan HIV are a myriad other social justice concerns, but digital literacy and emerging technologies are the threads that bind them all together. The same internet that allowed LGBT people to find each other in a hostile 20th century can be used to out them against their will today. The same social media that allows a more participatory experience can give people new avenues and amplifications when they want to harass people. The problem is not technology, but our lack of digital literacy. And by “our” I mean the individual you and me. Because corporations and governments are making it their business to learn how to master technology and its power even while we debate whether it was Better-Never or Never-Better.

I’ve often said on this blog that if you want to run a private psychotherapy practice in the 21st century you cannot ignore technology. Now I’m upping the ante, and saying that if you want to be a socially just human being you cannot ignore it. We need to learn how emerging technologies work and how they don’t. We need to identify the slippages between human systems and the technologies that convenience some at the expense of others. We need to see the internet as an infrastructure necessary to make the developing world as viable as the developed. And we need to understand how digital literacy can empower us before someone takes that power away.

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  1. Great points. It may also mean that we as social workers and as people are helping to give voice to people and communities through social media.

  2. I find it interesting that the coffee app was created without a way to add gratuity. Why is that? Isn’t tipping commonplace knowledge for those receiving a service? Do developers stand to make more money by keeping the app initially substandard; that in the development of what seems like common sense (allowing the app to give gratuities), more money is to be pocketed? And that this was done purposefully? Does this make me a better never?? I hope not, but I guess I treat certain developments with caution, suspicion even.

    • Mike Langlois, LICSW says

      I think it was more of an oversight initially.

      • I, too, am intrigued by the app that caused the barista to go without the gratuities. I wonder if there is a way to notify the creator of the app so that can fix that?

        On another social justice note – on the UB campus, we can now pay for parking in certain lots with an app called ParkMobile. Before that app, I had to carry around change for the meters (which would only take quarters). One time the meter was broken, so I couldn’t pay for parking. I got a parking ticket that day. I tried to fight it, but I was unsuccessful. Ever since the ParkMobile app, I have been able to pay for parking without any issue, and I have not received any tickets either! So the social justice thing works both ways, in this case. 🙂 (Of course, last week I forgot my phone at home, so sometimes the reliance on technology gets hairy. But still, you get my point.)

  3. I am intrigued by the part of your post that discusses the need for the people in Subsaharan Africa to be able to play video games (and more importantly to create video games). My initial reaction was “Maslow’s Hierarchy”. Shouldn’t we just start with mosquito nets so that the spread of disease isn’t so bad? But then I thought about it some more. We know for sure that in countries where women aren’t allowed to get educated, their economies suffer. We also know that when we do educate those women, their economies experience quite an increase. So, with the video and your post – I wonder what humanity is losing by not allowing the poorest amongst us to have access to creation of technology. For instance, we could be losing out on the next Albert Einstein, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, etc.

  4. I think all technology has pros and cons, “winners” and “losers” so to speak.

    Differential access is huge in developing proficiency. I look at all of us who are newbies to video games and how inadequate we feel in that world and think about those whose access to the internet or computing is limited and how they must feel with technology that I am comfortable with.

    My husband and I are unusual in this regard, for middle class, educated Americans. We are slow adapters of many technologies, having acquired our first GPS just this weekend and not owning smart phones. Both of us own cell phones that are technically capable of texting but have keypads that make it impractical and no data package on our cell phone contract. Unheard of, right?

    This selective adaptation has allowed me to think critically about the potential benefits and drawbacks to each technology we have acquired and to consider those who might not have it. I think the key to social justice and technology is to realize that all of the technology we use on a daily basis is a WANT as opposed to a NEED, and there are implications to the decision to use each form. However, in certain societies and cultures, society is forcing it to be a need for advancement. More businesses are moving towards web-based reservations, information, applications, and how does differential access to technology restrict the upward mobility of those who must travel to a library or school to use a computer?

  5. I also believe that we are living in a world of rapid advancement akin to the invention of the printing press, replaceable parts, or the assembly line. Yet I am very concerned about the people who are left behind in the fury of change even here in the US.

    They say “the poor always pay more” and having worked with low income communities on financial issues – I know full well how limited their opportunities for using technology can be. Most do not have access to computer technology in their homes because of the costs associated with either the equipment or broadband/wifi access. As a result, the poor cannot benefit from simple things we take for granted. Many – especially in Buffalo which is one of the most underbanked cities in the US – do not have access to electronic banking opportunities and pay more to send their payments via Western Union or other means. The poor don’t have ready access to computers to help them develop the skills to secure employment, let alone the opportunity to apply for positions on-line. They also don’t have ready access to the “creature comforts” of the web including lower cost travel and discounts.

    Those that do have the necessary equipment often gain access to lower caliber machines available from predatory providers that require long-term, higher cost contracts to receive a dumbed down “smart phone” or a basic computer box. After the costs of those contracts are added up, the poor will have spent much more than they should have on poor quality, consistently slow equipment and will likely need to shell out even more for repairs or costly “fixes” through less than reputable repair persons.

    Unfortunately, it is difficult to get foundations and other funders to understand the importance of making technological resources available in poor communities. Even today, I hear ” our foundation would rather provide resources to the meet basic needs of many rather than providing resources to a few”…or…”Can’t they just use the resources available at the library?” It seems that we require the poor to scatter around for scraps rather than providing them with the resources and support needed to move to greater economic self sufficiency.

    Like education, access to technology and support for its use can be a game changer for individuals and break the cycle of poverty. The question is…are we willing to create a world where everyone has access.

  6. Mike, your writing and its depth is delightful and insightful. Thanks


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