Dehumanizing · Social Justice · Technology and Society

The Making of a Savior

The raw materials are slowly extracted from the ground – silicon, copper, gold, palladium, platinum, yttrium, scandium, the lanthanides, alumina, borax, feldspar, nepheline syenite, magnesite, silica sand, limestone, soda ash, kaolin clay. Some workers run heavy equipment to strip the resources from the top of the earth, while other workers descend deep into the earth to extract out the resources. Still other workers use mineral processing is used to break down the extracted material and separate out the pure metals. Still others work in factories to turn these minerals into the printed circuit boards and integrated circuits that are at the heart of every electronic device on our desk, in our pocket, on the kitchen counter, embedded in our vehicles, in our medical devices, and flashing on information kiosks.

The income earned by the workers mining the materials and producing the electronics is used to feed, clothe, house, and educate families. Sometimes the very cell phones built with these raw materials are used today to transfer funds from the distant mine and factory workers back home to the families in a new form of banking where trustworthy bankers don’t exist. But mines and factories are sometimes run with minimal safety standards leading to severe health risks for the workers. In other cases wars break out over the mines hurting or killing not only the workers but residents who live near the mines but might not even benefit from the minerals in their backyards. Run off and smoke wage a war impacting human and environment unless careful measures are taken. Cost and benefit is complicated as we consider the everyday worker who gives up some or all of their own life to support more life through wages and perhaps a new useful electronic device.

Meanwhile, engineers, computer scientists, behavioral scientists, information scientists, and others work separately and together to develop  ways to engineer the materials to meet new design specifications, to write programming code to address old problems and add new features,  to improve the user experience and performance, and overall to advance participation in the information society. At the same time, market analysts, business administrators, accountants, advertising agents, and others in the companies working to turn scientific advances into marketable products determine existing or potential niches, the costs and benefits of production using different design specifications, design branding, and a range of other choices that further influence what is ultimately distributed to the market.

The choices made by the different participants in this creation process will subtly and not so subtly leave a mark in the technical artifact in much the same way that an artist leaves their mark on their canvas. It will reflect the beliefs and visions about the world held by those who participate in the design. Certainly the work of the engineer seems strictly technical and not artistic. But the engineers design to design specifications, and the design specifications reflect many different economic, social, and political priorities. Will the design specifications list materials readily available from mines that have good environmental and human rights records, or from those only found in contested regions, or from mines that have bad safety records? Will design specifications encourage production practices that encourage friendly work environments, or those that prioritize profit over human rights? Will design specifications include extended product life, or limited useful life with few repairable or upgradable parts? Will the design specifications allow for reinvention to enable users customizability to fit new contexts, or will it be a closed box physically or through legal restrictions keeping users from modifying the product? Will the design specifications consider the many different cultures and ways of accomplishing daily tasks, or will other cultures be expected to adapt their way of doing things to the design of the product? Will design specifications consider the many different physical and intellectual characteristics of potential users, or will it designed for mass production to meet the narrow specifications of the “normal” user represented by the limited diversity of those participating in the design process? Will design specifications minimize the environmental footprint during use and will it include consideration of recycling upfront so as to decrease the environmental impact upon end-of-life?

As the product comes to market, business professionals, medical professionals, teachers and librarians, public sector workers, those from the non-profit sector, and individual early adopters get their first look at the new product. Business leaders consider how they might use this new product to increase profits, reduce costs, build new services, and otherwise gain a competitive advantage or serve the interests of their stakeholders. Medical professionals consider how they might use the product to improve care and decrease costs. Teachers, librarians, and public and non-profit sector workers consider how they might integrate the new product into their practices to meet individual and community learning and development goals. All are working to build what they understand to be stronger communities.

Each of the innovators and early adopters in these communities of practice tinker and explore, tweaking and reinventing. Slowly the product diffuses as what the engineers, scientists, and those working in product development and distribution initially innovated is appropriated for new uses within a cornucopia of contexts. But who participates in the appropriation process, and for what ends? Will the product be used by people in the community to build new collaborations, or will it be used to gain a competitive advantage? Will creative reinvention and use of this product by people in community allow others to more fully participate in society? Might limits in understanding of the social system result in those appropriating the technology to unintentionally exclude others from full participation in community life?

Hundreds and thousands of people contributed to the design, production, and appropriation of the product, a product that is not just comprised of minerals but also embeds human ingenuity and aspirations, and thereby inherits social, economic, and political qualities. Might it be that we sometimes loose site of the people behind and in front of the product and instead fixate on the product itself and the potential profit from its distribution and use in ways that dehumanize both [re]-innovators and users of the product?

And thus it came to pass that a savior was born into this world, and the savior was called Technology. It came to give hope to the hopeless and voice to the voiceless. For Technology inspires us and takes us to places humans could only dream about. Or so the myth goes.

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