The potential for increasing the vulnerability of people is more obvious, and heightened, in a humanitarian aid setting, but is a global risk for all of us whose data is being used. Digital technology has become mainstream in our organisations. We assume technology is neutral, without bias or power, and therefore assume more is always better.
In humanitarian and social organisations and public institutions, our default is to use technology or gather more data ‘because we can do it’ without thinking about the why or the implications of technology or examining the consequences of increased technology. While using technology has improved aspects of humanitarian work, it has also significantly increased the power imbalances and inequality.
There is an unclear relationship between our belief systems, ethics and decision making around creating and using technology, especially with the these organisations. Humanitarian agencies are using technology more and more to assert control over those without power by those with power. It appears moral, faith, and ethical standards are not being considered in decision-making around our creation and use of technology.
We focus on the technology and are distracted by the shiny toy, as Sean McDonald so wonderfully articulates in the recent CIGI article on technology theatre (if you prefer video, look here). Our focus on the technology (techno-centrism) has become a distraction from addressing the underlying issues of power and racism. In fact, it could be argued our focus on the technology has exacerbated the power imbalances.
When our focus is on technology, the discussions get relegated to the IT department because ‘I’m not a techie’. We abdicate our responsibilities. Technology is not objective and all algorithms are full of assumptions the engineers have made because they have to in order to get it to work. Those assumptions are decisions about power and bias.
When we abdicate our responsibilities of upholding the values of our organisations and the humanitarian principles, we tend to view technology as a practical means to an end. We forget digital is laden with values and principles too, some of which are not aligned to ours.
Too often we abdicate our responsibilities of having the hard, messy, slow discussions about power, racism, and patriarchy. And then wonder why technology has so much power. And perhaps we’ll no longer be needed.
Digital transformation is never about technology. It’s about power, principles, and whether or not we’ll address the patriarchy.
Photo by Fatih Kılıç