Podcast guest: Elise Zelechowski
September 30 2022 | 26 min 11 sec
In its infancy, the internet offered a utopian view of the future: a more democratic digital space where new ideas, voices and opinions could be shared. Today, we are seeing that despite many positive contributions to society, the internet (and technology in general) are not without unintended negative consequences.
In this episode of Talking Tech and Social Change, Elise Zelechowski talks about rethinking our collective relationship with technology. From seeing the internet as infrastructure to thinking beyond immediate fixes in order to build better, longer-lasting solutions, they discuss what can be done to make better tech for all.
Eduardo Meneses: Welcome, everyone. Welcome to these first series of episodes of our brand new podcast that we have called Talking Tech and Social Change, which is a common good perspective of technology. In Thoughtworks, we're really excited to host this podcast and share this space with passionate technologists, activists, citizens who really care, who are thinking, acting right now in this intersection between technology and social change.
I will first introduce myself. I am Eduardo, I am the Global Head of Social Change in Thoughtworks. I will be your host in this incredible journey, making questions for our guests, trying to go deep into the thoughts, and trying to develop these discussions so we can build together a better understanding of how our world is changing, our challenges, how we are facing the digital revolution we're living right now.
As I was telling you, we will be doing a first series of episodes that we have been thinking as an introduction, so all of this will be introduction, a high-level discussion on what we think is intersection between technology and social change, and that is why we have invited today to talk with us Elise Zelechowski, she's the Global Head of Diversity and Inclusions, Sustainability and Social Change in Thoughworks. Thank you very much, Elise, for joining us today.
Elise Zelechowski: Thanks for having me. Excited about this podcast.
Eduardo Meneses: Me too. First, and something I'll always like to do is, let's start our discussion by you telling us a little bit more about yourself. What has been your journey? What's your background? How came you to this point of thinking this intersection between technology and social change?
Elise Zelechowski: I came to technology having spent many years working in the nonprofit sector in the Chicago Area in the US. I was really doing way more hands-on community development and policy work, particularly in the environmental and climate space. I'll tell you, technology was not something I thought about very much, at least in the way we're talking about it today in terms of the software or the Internet, the sort of digital technology tools.
Right, there's so many ways to define technology and think about technology in terms of relationships, in terms of the ways in which communities interact, and what I realized was that the world was changing very rapidly around me, and I didn't understand enough about how digital technologies were impacting social movements and the kind of work, and specifically that I was doing.
I got very interested in Thoughtworks and very interested, particularly in the mission that Thoughtworks had to work with social movements and the way Thoughtworks engaged in those relationships, which seemed to me as an outsider to be very focused on depth and multi-year community and relationship building, and really designed to ensure that tech was a part of a social movement strategy, not just a transactional component or tool that was picked up to advance some part of the movement strategy.
I was also coming from a background where I focused on workforce development. I was also really interested in how the growing digitization of things was going to impact the workforce, and particularly people who were underemployed or unemployed or who didn't have access to some of the STEM education that really propels people into technology jobs, what did that mean for them and their access to wealth and just general access to opportunities as more of those jobs required those skills.
I was excited to really dig in, and bring the perspectives that I had working in the community development and policy space to a technology context and bridge that gap between activists and organizers and technologists so that we could create more holistic strategies for social movement work.
Eduardo Meneses: Building a little bit on that and your personal experience, let's say, and let's bring that to a little more high-level analysis that you're having right now on this into our society, how do you see these challenges that tech is bringing to the whole society? You talked a little bit about how you felt that from that position that you had in one moment in the nonprofit sector and with movements. Now that you have been already in the tech industry too and you have this other perspective, how do you see the main challenges that technology is bringing to our society from this perspective of economic and social justice lens, this lens that you have been building?
Elise Zelechowski: I think right in the early days of the Internet, there was a lot of tech utopianism, this idea that the Internet was going to change the world for good and it would solve a lot of the problems that we experience in our day-to-day. Internet would lead to a more democratic society. It would give people access to all of this information, beyond what they could find in the library or in their home to educational opportunities. You could connect to anyone anywhere in the world. What an amazing vision.
That it would globalize us in this really positive way. We would go beyond the geographic limits of our immediate environment and learn about other cultures and engage more deeply. Some of that has proven, of course, to be true, but the Internet is not separate from the dynamics of our society. It's a microcosm. It reflects the challenges, the politics, the interpersonal dynamics, and, in some cases, exacerbates some of the more complicated dynamics that we experience in society.
Social media is a great example of that. The way in which it has created a skewed perspective of our reality based on this idea that when you're using social media, your experience's like this is the world, and what you're not realizing is that the social media platforms have decided to, based on algorithms and a whole bunch of other things, this is only the part of the world that you'll see.
It's the way in which search engines make you feel like you're able to go anywhere on the Internet, but they control where you go. There's an interesting dynamic here, where we have the perception that we're getting, like the key to all of this knowledge and all this diversity on the Internet, but it is heavily curated for us. That's where we've seen the issues around some of the interference in elections and some of the ways in which social media has led to some really unfortunate political dynamics. I think that we have to really step back and ask ourselves questions about how is the Internet, how is technology serving us, and what guardrails do we need to put into place to make sure that the Internet is serving that vision?
We have to think about the Internet and the software that we're building as infrastructure and understand that there's no such thing as a tech utopia. That we have to constantly be vigilant and asking who decided what information I'm seeing? How is my data being used? It's a constant set of questioning that we have to do and it can be exhausting, but it is a requirement, I think, as technology evolves faster and faster, and platforms get bigger and bigger that we really maintain that view, that lens, and really make sure that we're being vigilant.
Eduardo Meneses: To that point, I always, when I speak with anyone else, try to represent that in terms of the fact that new technologies are kind of territories. When we're in Facebook, we are in a search engine giant, we are working in a territory that allows us to do things, not other things. The fact is that what you mentioned, like tech utopianism very often gives us this idea that this is always accessible for everyone, that this is magically a good thing for everyone, and this doesn't let us ask the good questions that you were mentioning.
To that point, I wanted to ask you, you mentioned this term many times, tech utopianism. What is that for you? How would you describe that to someone who has never heard this term before, because it seems that it's something very important to a challenge we have?
Elise Zelechowski: Yes. I think that the people who invented and came together and conceptualized the Internet as we know it, as I said earlier, really did have this vision that the Internet was going to be this tool, this opportunity to level the playing field. That because-- in many ways, anyone can get their music published, anyone can-- like people who have no political background can go from having a strong opinion about something to being a candidate. It is like the way in which it has democratized people's ability to have their voice heard, that is a big deal.
I think we need to really understand the idea of a utopia is that it's going to solve, there's going to be a holistic overhaul of everything that is problematic, it's a view that there's a certain state of perfection. The problem is that you have all these different dynamics at play and you have all these dynamics that are mimicking the same challenges we have in the concrete world, and so until we really understand how to bring that framework, a policy framework and put it in place to address the things that are hidden from us in terms of their structures, but very visible to us in terms of how the impacts and outcomes play out in the day to day, we're going to continue to see, I think, almost a dystopia in the sense of it's very much going in a different direction than it was intended to.
I think any concept of a utopia is problematic because I think it's not dealing with the realities of human nature and all the different things that you need to look out for. I think we just have to be extremely careful that we don't go into any technology project, any software, any app that we're building with the notion that it's going to be this is going to save us in any way.
I think that that is something, just working with social movements a lot and nonprofit organizations, NGOs around the world, I think this is probably one of the conversations we have the most is about making sure that there is an underlying agreement or an understanding that the technology that we can build together can serve a purpose, but it's not going to address some of the people problems that are just inevitable as a part of a social movement.
We look to the social movement partners we're working with to help us understand how those dynamics are playing out and how they may impact the use of the software and how they should be thought of in the context of how the software is designed. I think there is a continued idea that an app or that a technology might solve a bigger structural problem that is just not the case. It's a tool that thoughtfully built over time to support a broader movement strategy can be extraordinarily impactful, but we have to really be honest and realistic about the constraints and how it fits into a larger system of change and levers that we need to pull to enact that change.
Eduardo Meneses: Now that you are speaking about these two things, in one side is like abandoning this idea of tech utopianism, so that means putting the right questions on the table and try-- that means, in a certain way, seeing what are the power dynamics in technology and thinking about, "Okay, how do we want to change the power dynamics?" You also mentioned that for doing so we partner with social movements.
My next question would be, I have seen and we have all seen this way of framing this, which is we want to amplify the positive social change work that our partners are doing. This is something that in Thoughtworks is very deep embedded in the why, in the way in which we work. What I wanted to ask you is, we very often when it comes to social change, we have been thought in our schools, in our colleges that history is this kind of succession of very smart people coming together and making declarations of independence, declarations of rights, giving social rights.
In fact, when we go a little bit deeper and we saw from the critical social studies or from the work that historians have done, we see that history doesn't happen that way. It happens with resistance, with building alternatives, with people getting together in collective ways to make this change. I wanted to ask you, in this sense, putting that together in this sense of amplifying the positive social change work of others, what does that mean for you? Why we are speaking about that, about this thing on amplifying, where those that put the tech industry and the technologist in all this process, what is the role that you think we can have in that?
Elise Zelechowski: Yes, it's a great question, Eduardo. I think when we look at where we have some of the most powerful levers as technologists at Thoughtworks to help social movements really achieve their vision or their series of visions as they iterate over time, it's the infrastructure that is so important. It is our job as technologists to think about how the digital infrastructure that that movement might benefit from is designed.
This is not something that we can do in a transactional way, and this is why we're so committed to partnerships that are long-term and really digging in and thinking about multi-year strategies because it really does take time to design that infrastructure in a thoughtful, equitable, accessible, scalable way. What we do as technologists is really help shape those tool sets for our social movement partners to allow them to do their work, and that is the amplification.
For us, that is the quiet work of really making sure that they have what they need to be successful. That is the role that we can play as people who are committed to social impact. We can also get out there in the streets and share our voices. There are many ways to participate in social change, but as technologists, I think we have the opportunity and the responsibility to design these tools as thoughtfully as possible.
I think one of the more recent examples where I see this play out is with the war in Ukraine. I think, always in crisis, there is a desire to be helpful. I think that is such an important response. It's what brings us together and allows us to really think about not only how we can help in this moment, but we are, I think, required to think about what is this infrastructure, the systems problem that has led us to this moment.
We do have a responsibility to think, "Okay, what is going to address an acute need, but what is the work that we need to be doing every day to build the infrastructure to support this community that is in this moment experiencing crisis, but there is going to be a long tail, or there will be a long road to recovery or to sustainability or to whatever sort of more stable state that that group or that community needs to get to?"
I think that whether you're talking about building tools for social movements that are trying to solve structural complex problems, or you're talking about acute crisis, humanitarian crisis moments, we need to be thinking holistically, we need to be thinking beyond that moment, and really looking at, "Okay, what are the underlying conditions, and how does technology need to be built so that it can support a longer-term strategy?" I think it's a very important lens that we need to bring to any social situation as technologists.
Eduardo Meneses: Building on what you're saying, Elise, I think that there is something that-- I know that we have already touched on a lot of the points that I wanted to discuss with you today but there's one point, in particular, that I really couldn't finish this discussion without taking that. I have seen you talk about this many times about this value about thinking solidarity over charity when working with social movements.
This makes me a lot of things, a lot of things you were saying about this, this idea of long partnerships, about thinking systemic issues, and not only some urgency needs that makes us feel good, but really thinking social change in a deep way. I just wanted to ask you, when you speak about this principle of solidarity over charity, what do you mean, how would you explain that to the people who are hearing us?
Elise Zelechowski: I think in its most simple terms, it's about a horizontal relationship versus a vertical one. It's looking at the relationship with a lens of power dynamics and making sure that when you are responding or stepping up to address a problem that those power dynamics are really checked, and that you are, as a technologist, in this case, letting a partner lead, and really guide you in the strategy.
I think human-centered design is a very nice design concept that I think embodies a lot of those values. That we're really making sure that in any situation, we're thinking about who the users are and what they need in centering them, but I think more broadly, this question of systemic versus transactional, I would argue that that is the solidarity over charity dynamic at play, which is showing up, doing something, kind of a quick interaction is not going to really get at the broader change work that needs to happen.
I think the solidarity work really is the systemic work. It's been at the table for a long time, it's getting to know the organizations and the people, and really being a partner in the process so that as the social movement strategy develops, the technology can develop with it, and the solutions evolve, and the infrastructure evolves and grows and changes inevitably.
I think, as technologists, we have to bring that solidarity mindset. When we are approaching an organization that says, "We don't have a lot of resources, but we need an app, can you build us something?" We step back and we say, "Let's look at really what you're trying to build." Just because we're really good at building custom software doesn't mean we're going to go and build you something custom.
We're going to step back and say, "What are the tools that we can leverage that are software as a service that have infrastructure and support, that are open source, that have communities around them, that are constantly evolving? How do we bring those together to bring you the best solution so that we don't burden you unnecessarily with the maintenance of all this tech?"
I think in terms of like if there's one takeaway for today that I want people to think about, it's making sure that we are really asking the right questions and thinking about how we take a longer view, one that is systemic and solidarity in nature in terms of how we engage with our social change partners because that is how we're really going to make larger change together.
Eduardo Meneses: Yes, thank you. Thank you very much, Elise, for sharing with us these thoughts. It has been a great discussion. I hope that the people hearing that, technology activists of anyone, have developed some of those questions that they can use tomorrow when thinking of that. I think that in this moment in history with technology and digital technologies are changing totally our society, having this idea and this acknowledgment of the responsibility that tech industry has, that the technologies have in this change of building tomorrow makes this space and this discussion so much valuable.
Thank you very much, Elise, for this.
Elise Zelechowski: Thank you.
Eduardo Meneses: Just for the people who are hearing this, this is one of the episodes, we have a whole series of episodes that are discussing this introduction to tech and social change. We will be discussing responsible tech, we'll be discussing digital public goods, digital rights, many other topics that are this kind of introduction to what technology and social change means.
Thank you very much, everyone, for being with us today. Thank you very much, Elise. For all the people also who help us to build this podcast who are invisible to this discussion but have been with us, Kevin, Katie, and everyone, thank you very much for this, and we will be seeing all of you very soon for the next episode. Thank you very much.
Elise Zelechowski: Thank you.