Tech for Development

“The sleight of hand that focuses attention on technical solutions while covering up violations of the rights of real people is the moral tragedy of development today.”
William Easterly – Tyranny of Experts (p15)

Is new technology a panacea for solving global hunger, pollution, and poverty? Or is it shortsighted, wishful thinking to believe that humankind will develop technological solutions to free ourselves of our most intractable problems?

Many conversations that I have about the future, and the role of future tech, wind their way towards one of these two extremes. This dichotomy turns out to be counterproductive, coloring over important nuances that will shape our future.

Technological innovations themselves often do not cause problems simply through their mere existence - unless they bring inherent existential or moral dilemmas, like the development of the hydrogen bomb, or robot soldiers. The challenges sometimes presented by new technologies, such as the disenfranchisement of vulnerable populations and environmental and social externalities, can be products of underlying power structures, not the technology itself. Consequently, when we ask whether a new gadget will cause greater good then harm, we must consider: who gets to choose which technologies are developed, and how they are applied in the real world?

When assessing the role of future technology from a perspective of power structures, our relationship to these issues shifts in subtle but meaningful ways. Demonizing individual technologies is no longer fruitful. Instead, we ask ourselves: what are the structural determinants of how solutions to global problems are developed? What are the institutionalized patterns and parameters (formal or informal) that are leading to improper or unjust application of particular technologies? How can we as a global society push our processes of technological development to maximize equity and productivity? How can we expand the principles of open-source, in the name of fair access to technology and crowdsourced development?

From the lens of agricultural development, it is clear that some technologies provide benefits to some groups at the expense of others. For example, water extraction technology used by wealthy farmers can reduce water access for poorer neighboring households, while new processing and storage techniques can boost larger agricultural businesses and crowd smallholders out of the market. On the other hand, other technological developments can be used to assemble key suites of tools to help tackle our most insurmountable problems, such as helping poor farmers defend themselves against climate risks through climate-smart agricultural practices.

To write off “technology” as inherently unjust, or as merely dangerous and exploitative arrows in the quiver of multinationals, is to discard the counsel of prudence – disregarding our societal need to utilize technological improvements as we work to make the world safer, healthier, more productive, and more just. Opportunities to improve productivity, healthcare, education, and freedom through technology should not be seized if they do not come with associated harms to underrepresented populations (and species). Similarly, to consider “technology” as deus ex machina to sweepingly solve our most wicked global problems, ignores the importance of an watchful eye towards equity in the development of a future we can be proud of.

Instead of blaming the tools, we must consider the power structures that determine how tools are created and put to use. We must examine the political and economic institutions that determine which genome gets sequenced, which neighborhoods benefit from infrastructure improvements, and which new ideas get funded. We should aim for a productive technological justice that benefits all, even the weakest and poorest, while rewarding both private and public investment.

Our technologies reflect our collective values. We should strive for the tools we use to express values that we are proud of, not to perpetuate inequality and hardship.