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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Technology, Video Games & Class

Some 500 years after the Greeks began using the alphabet they’d adopted from the Phoenicians, Socrates expressed his concern and disdain for the new technology of writing:

“for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves… they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.” –Socrates in Phaedrus

Fortunately for us, Plato disagreed with Socrates, at least to the point where he wrote down the dialogues which have endured to the present.

Aristotle, who was probably a teenager when Phaedrus was written, describes in his Nicomachean Ethics several different concepts of thought including episteme, techne, and phronesis.  Episteme referred to knowledge that is rational, eternal and certain.  Phronesis is ethical thought.  And techne is usually translated as “craft” or “craftsmanship.”  Techne was considered the realm of the Mechanical Arts by the ancient Greeks, as opposed to the Liberal Arts.  As such it was the realm of the common worker of the lower classes, while episteme was the pursuit of the free man of the upper class.  This perhaps is why Socrates was so concerned about writing:  The common worker would not have the time to engage in dialogues with learned teachers, and his understanding of philosophy could go awry.  The Liberal Arts clearly involved having free time to talk and listen to teachers.

I elaborated on all this to help make the point that technology has always been about class.

Anything kinesthetic, or hands on, was associated with techne, and the lower class occupations of masonry, carpentry, and back in ancient Greece, medicine.  Working with ones hands was not then, or is it now, considered one of the characteristics of the upper class.  Gentleman don’t work with their hands.

This attitude persists, albeit more subtly to this day.  We see it in our educational system:  Students who don’t score high on IQ tests are often tracked to vocational tech schools.  Students are often discouraged from using the technology of calculators because they need to “learn” how to solve the problem.  What distinguishes us as adults in math is our ability to count in our heads, not with our hands.  We see it in work in the difference between blue and white collar jobs.  And we see it in our attitude of technology.

Therapists often view technology in general, and video games in particular with a thinly veiled disdain.  Technology has been accused of ruining relationships, causing addictions, destroying our neurology, and fostering escapism.  We pathologize people playing video games in a way that is reminiscent of the novel in the 19th century, when solitary reading was considered a dangerous pastime for women, leading to languishment and insanity.  The gamer has become the hysteric of the 21st century:  out of touch with reality, immature, lazy and troubled.

Anything that smacks of being technological and kinesthetic is also seen as at best a necessary evil in therapy.  Using the phone to call insurance companies, filling out paperwork are examples of the work we therapists often feel takes away from our time to do “what matters.”  Emails, Facebook and Twitter are unnecessary and probably a liability issue.  In fact the majority of our workshops on technology aren’t actually about techne but Phronesis, i.e., the “ethical” use of technology.  And when our patients try to talk with us about technology, they are often rebuffed or pathologized (“How many hours are you spending on the internet, anyway?”)

With our adolescent patients, the assumptions are even more dire:  It’s less than face to face contact.  It’s too complicated to understand.  It’s too boring to listen to teens about.  It gets in the way of “real” relationships.  It distracts teens from therapy, and listening to adults in general.  Its for kids with Aspergers Syndrome / who have poor social skills.  And heaven forbid they meet people they talk to online, they’ll be killed.

It is a dangerous assumption to leave unexamined, the linking of different forms of thought to class.  We have seen how it has played out in race, gender, and sexual orientation.  And it is being played out today in our disdain and suspicion of all things technical and the people who use those things.  Just listen at your local office or agency to the way people talk about the “IT guy” and you’ll hear it.

Although class issues remain in play, techne and technology inevitably become integrated into our society.  Imagine for example that you go to the local Apple store, only 600 years ago:

Skeptical customer: “I’ve begun seeing more and more of these “pencils” around, but they don’t seem very useful to me.”

Pencil salesman: “Oh not true, they are very useful indeed. Combined with this “paper” they become a powerful storage system.  You can write your ideas down on the paper, and it will store it for later use.  And you can expand your paper and store even more ideas.”

Skeptical:  “But isn’t that a privacy risk?  If I write something with this pencil, can’t it be lost and read by others?”

Pencil Salesman:  “Well, yes, but you can always store the paper securely..”

Skeptical:  “But even so, what if I write down something on paper and want to unwrite it later.”

Pencil Salesman:  “Our developers have anticipated that!  See down here, this part of the pencil is an “eraser.” Just swipe the eraser across the markings and they’ll disappear.”

Skeptical:  “I dunno, I don’t have a lot of writing to do.”

Pencil Salesman:  “Well, everyone has different needs, that’s why this pencil comes with several Applications.  You can use the pencil to draw pictures.  You can use it to do mathematics.  Or you can compose poetry.  Or you can play games with it alone or with your children.  Whatever you want to do, there’s an App for that.”

Nobody would seriously imagine that they need to be convinced of the usefulness of the technology of the pencil.  Nor would they suggest that if you write a threatening note to someone that it was because the pencil was bad.  But today we seem to be at an earlier phase of development with computers, smartphones and tablets.  And much of this fear and suspicion, I would suggest, involves class.

Technology has become more complex through time, but our attitudes about it are still generally simplistic.  And right in the middle of this terrain we have the video game.  It’s one thing to have to use technology for our work, but to actually enjoy using it?  That’s strange and suspect.  And so people talk about how much time others are “wasting” on Facebook, or playing World of Warcraft, downloading music to their iPod, or surfing the net.  I know people who are actually ashamed that they spend time trying to figure out a new technology like Google+, and we have a word for these people, geeks.  Although the term geek has begun to be reclaimed by many, it’s important to remember that the word comes from the English and German dialects to mean fool or freak.

We need to be open to learning about our patients, and with gamers especially, about their technology.  To do this we need to understand how gamers, and geeks, are part of a marginalized population.  To practice gamer-affirmative therapy one needs to be culturally competent, and I believe that part of this competence is understanding the stigmatizing connection between technology and class.

To be gamer-affirmative, I believe therapists need to get technical, that is, “hands on.”  Every time I do a consult or a workshop I tell therapists that there are dozens of free trials of the different games their patients play, and encourage them to spend some time playing them.  I consistently get resistance on this, usually a version of the comment “I don’t have time to play video games.”  Really?  Over half of all adults play video games, and 4 out of 5 young adults do.  If they can find the time to play while holding down a job and having meaningful relationships, so can you.When email first came out, many people decried it saying that it was going to be impossible to use it because there wasn’t enough time in the day.  And yet, we’ve managed somehow to make time.  “I don’t have time to play video games” is usually a gussied-up version of “I have better things to do with my time than play video games.”

But too often people have bought into the stereotype of gamers as unemployed, unmarried, and unfit.  This is the same form of projection and splitting that our society has used to “other” people in terms of race (lazy Mexicans,) gender (weaker sex,) sexual orientation (promiscuous bisexuals,) and class (poor white trash.)

Very often I hear therapists protest that they like technology, that it has “its place” in our lives.  This sense of having and knowing one’s place is inextricably bound to issues of class and status.  Technology doesn’t have its place, technology is everywhere.  It is a vital part of human being, ever evolving, responding to us, shaping and being shaped by us.  In therapy, we need to unlearn our privileging of one group over another if we are to truly understand our patients.  When we demure and say, “oh I don’t know anything about video games or Facebook,” we are being more haughty than contrite.  The fact that we act as though using or talking about technology is unnecessary is our class bias at work in our profession.