Technology Solutions Rarely Address the Underlying Power Issues

by | Jan 11, 2021 | ICT4D, Identity |

technology needs the ecosystem

Who controls and has access to my data? And can I take my data with me? These are two fundamental questions being debated and discussed. In some circles for decades now and other circles they are just starting.

Discussions about controlling how your data is used happens in many different ways. From pop up boxes about cookies, to GDPR, to the recent update on WhatsApp which now gives much of the data on your phone to Facebook. Taking my data with me is a slightly newer discussion sometimes framed as open data like open banking, but primarily framed as Data Portability. And some of the reaction to this ‘brave new world’ are conversations about Digital wallets, Personal Data Stores (PDS), and Self Sovereign Identity (SSI).

Often these discussions are framed as a power issue with a technology solution. While the technology solutions are fascinating and potentially can help, they tend not to address the underlying power issues at play. Effectively, most ‘solutions’ say that the user can and should be in control of their data rather than some other organisation.

Fair point. However, as we have seen with many websites, if we don’t agree to the terms of the websites – the cookies etc. – access is not granted. Many of us are annoyed with these pop up cookie windows and therefore click accept to get rid of the box. Or if you like me, I often choose ‘reject all’ but then have to choose that every single time I visit that site. So access is denied or we give in to the cookies (and the tracking) or we have to choose each time we visit a site.

So while the technology solutions available can help understand who is using our data and can give us a sense of control, they don’t address the underlying power issues. This happens with big companies. If we don’t agree to WhatsApp’s new policy of giving our data to Facebook, we can’t use the service. But also in smaller organisations – most aid organisations won’t give out aid unless recipients give them lots of (unnecessary) data.

We can race ahead with what is possible with technology. And yet, perhaps we need to stop and ask ourselves about the world we want to create. Technology will be a part of that for sure, but perhaps technology advocates (myself included) need to do more to ensure the ‘non-technology’ aspects of our future world vision are also being created.

It’s easy to build something. It’s quite another to make it useful. Technology has a role to play, but we need the ecosystem for it to be successful.

The choice is up to us.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak

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