Part V: Social exclusion — the next pandemic
We have seen in previous articles various changes resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. This final piece outlines the looming social crisis, and calls for a fundamental debate on the role of tech in society in light of all that COVID-19 has laid bare.
It outlines three shifts that are required: access to technology as a social right, fostering the social economy of open knowledge, and the democratization of the tech debate.
We share short examples of work in each space that we are involved in.
One billion at risk
There is another pandemic hiding in the shadows of COVID-19: the economic recession and its impact on social precarity and poverty. As a result of the crisis, one in seven human beings, one billion people, could end up living in extreme poverty.
The pandemic has exposed a contradiction in modern society. We are more connected than ever – proven by the speed and truly global spread of the virus. But we are also deeply divided. The virus and responses to it have had a disproportionate impact on the most precarious social sectors, showing the structural dynamics of exclusion that shape the lives of millions. Our society's inability to guarantee basic rights to all, even the right to live, is being exposed.
The role of tech in society
Today’s connectedness, enforced by social distancing, has pushed the role of technology in every aspect of our lives to a new level.
The tech industry is now in a challenging space: trapped between the increasing politicization of technology, the still superficial social debate around its impact and the slow adaptation of appropriate legislation. Right now, the industry needs to enable and push forward this ethical debate, recognizing its responsibility in this historic moment.
End the myth
The first step is to end the myth of tech neutrality. We need to acknowledge that technology is caught between private economic interests and its social value. Some tech business models, for example, prioritize commodification of data or advertising revenue over the social value of their services – the sharing of knowledge, connecting people, etc. This tension is shared by almost every human activity in our modern society, and technology is not an exception.
The social impact of tech is deeper than we usually perceive and most of the time invisible to us. Let’s consider urban infrastructure: it determines social interactions in a city without us even noticing it – where we walk, where and how we gather. In the same way, digital architecture determines, increasingly, social interactions in our digital society. An example of this is the invisible influence of search engine algorithms, and social media algorithms, the results of which shape our understanding of the world.
In this moment of crisis, we believe that technology can play a fundamental role in overcoming the economic recession and reducing the systemic injustices that have been exposed. In order to accomplish this purpose, the tech industry and our whole society needs to address some fundamental challenges.
The rest of this article explores three challenges: access to technology as a social right, fostering the Social Economy of Open Knowledge and the democratization of the tech debate. We also give some examples of our work in these spaces.
Examples of our work in the Social Economy of Open Knowledge
Agile and inclusive accelerators are educational programs for young people in situations of social vulnerability that we run in Brazil. The programs also include non-technical lectures on diversity and social issues. Each participant receives a scholarship for the three month duration of the program. We run and support similar programs in many regions, including the STEP program in India, partnering with i.c.stars in North America and Plan International in China/SEA.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Thoughtworks was in a unique position to start new projects completely remotely with organizations whose purpose aligned closely to our focus on positive social change. We concentrated on projects that could contribute to reducing systemic injustices and discrimination. Thoughtworks Spain partnered with Femnøise, a startup developing a series of business opportunities for women, transgender and non-binary artists to help reduce the gender gap in the music industry.
Our technologists bring successful, field-tested techniques and ideas from around the globe to open source solutions – as detailed in Part I, with the examples of Open MRS and Bahmni.
The page below shares some highlights of our work across many domains including machine learning, security and privacy, global health, continuous delivery, monitoring, testing, and software development tools.
Thoughtworks partners with REAP on a gamified online education product for rural school children in China – Taoli online. The product helps children improve their academic performance, and nearly 40,000 students have registered since its launch. Home learning during the COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly challenging for rural children; many don’t have laptops or connectivity at home. The product team developed the Taoli app (Android) in three weeks, to ensure children with access to a smart phone could use the platform.
The democratization of the tech debate
Finally, the tech industry needs to acknowledge that the debate around the social impact of technology is exponentially growing right now. We are living in an historical moment in the politicization of technology. This debate is happening in places as diverse as tech workers’ unions, users associations, privacy defenders collectives and platform workers’ organizations. Topics like labor rights in the gig economy, or data privacy on service platforms have become fundamental debates for our modern society.
The tech industry is facing the same challenges that urban planners faced when they understood how deep their impact was on social interactions and opened their activity to participatory principles. The tech industry and tech-based business models need to be ready with the appropriate tools, frameworks and approaches that not only allow, but welcome citizens’ participation.
Negative, unexpected social impacts of tech can affect thousands of users and can be prevented by opening the technology production process to society-wide participation. The tech industry and digital based business have a new responsibility: building bridges between their activities and the groups who are impacted by their technology.
Managing the risk of unintended social impacts requires investment. The tech industry must invest in understanding the social dynamics of systemic injustices and discrimination; and increasing awareness of how technology can impact them.
But investment and theory are not enough, technologists need to come out of our ivory tower and build participatory design principles in each part of the technological production process. This extends from the inception of a tech product, and the development of it, to its evaluation. This can only happen with the creation of a permanent and open dialogue with citizens' movements.
The changes must run deep
These paradigm shifts need to be developed at different levels. At one level, building alternatives to tech infrastructures (which are at present totally hermetic, inaccessible to the rest of society). One level further, developing technological pedagogies that could include all historically excluded voices in the process; democratizing technology understanding.