Author: Renee Ho
“Technology’s primary effect is to amplify human forces.”
This seems like a good thing: Feedback Labs has been experimenting with mobile phone technology to help amplify voices and collect feedback. But in other ways, “technology’s primary effect” can be a bad thing if the “human forces” are not necessarily good.
“Technology — even when it’s equally distributed — isn’t a bridge, but a jack. It widens existing disparities.” This is what Kentaro Toyama claims in the recent New York Times article, Taking a Tire Iron to Techie Triumphalism.
He explains how in rural India, when computers were provided to children, the computer mouse was always held by upper-caste boys.
We agree with a lot of what Toyama says. But we don’t believe that “technology” universally widens existing disparities. It operates within social and political systems and if we understand those systems better, we can adapt our technologies to be more inclusive.
Toyoma’s own research at Microsoft Research India shows this. After observing upper-caste boys take over the computers, a team of researchers developed a multi-user computer, with multiple mice for boys and girls:
Even Bill Gates has come around a little. He is quoted as saying, “Toyama’s research reminds us that there are few one-size-fits-all solutions. If technology is going to improve the lives of the world’s poorest, it must be grounded in a deep understanding of human behavior and an appreciation for cultural differences.”
So when we think about feedback and design systems to collect it, we are fully aware that any technology needs to also incorporate contextual knowledge and sensitivity. In the paper produced by several Feedback Lab members, Do Mobile Phone Surveys Work in Poor Countries?, the authors point out that it’s hard to reach rural women and other under-represented groups. The technologies, in this case, follow what Toyama warns us about.