Here’s one way to be skeptical of tech people

April 25, 2017

design / programming

While I’m a tech person — I’ve been working full-time on the web for more than a decade — I spend most of my time away from work (and these days, most of my coworkers aren’t tech people either) around non-tech people. Some of this is coincidental, of course, but it’s always fascinating. I can see how tech people, and the work we do, appears to activist friends, church friends, family, and so on. This, along with the best parts of the design field, which has its own way of looking at tech at the best of times, helps me look at my work with a more skeptical eye.

I’d like to take a look at one example of this, in the hopes that it can encourage folks to do so in their own way. This isn’t a thing that comes naturally to our society; we tend to put tech people on a pedestal and think they have the skills to do whatever they want in whatever industries they want.

Recently, Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia fame helped launch a new, donor-supported site called WikiTRIBUNE, a news website which will attempt to combine the work of professional and citizen journalists to facilitate fact checking and such. Because fact checking will save democracy or whatever.

Fact checking aside, there’s a paragraph on the site that reads like this:

The news is broken and we can fix it. We’re bringing genuine community control to our news with unrestricted access for all. We’re developing a living, breathing tool that’ll present accurate information with real evidence, so that you can confidently make up your own mind.

It’s that first line: “the news is broken and we can fix it” that is so common to the language technology folk use to talk about our work, and that I’d like to investigate. I submit that any time you see a variation of “____ is broken and we can fix it,” especially from tech people, there are a series of assumptions that that should be investigated.

This thing is broken

There are a lot of assumptions resting in the idea that journalism is broken. They might be true (or not), but they deserve interrogation. To discover this, one needs to figure out whether it is, in fact, broken, or whether it was actually designed to be the way that it is (often this is the case; this is the argument abolitionists make about prison and policing, for example).

Behind the assumption, also, is the idea that the person making the claim is qualified to diagnose whether or not the thing is broken. What makes Jimmy Wales (a great person though he may be) and the other white people with headshots on that site qualified to state that journalism is broken? What viewpoint do they bring to that diagnosis? Is it beyond the viewpoint of wealthy (Wales is certainly not as wealthy as he could be if he had treated Wikipedia differently, of course, and that is admirable, but he’s doing fine), white, mostly male, people? If it is, how did they get that viewpoint? Who did they learn it from, and why aren’t their headshots on the site?

We understand how this thing broke

If tech people can truly determine that something like journalism (or church, politics, policing, whatever) is broken — that it wasn’t designed to be the way it is but that it has become something unintentional — there are many other things we need to question. How did it come to be broken in the way that it is? How long has it been like this, and how long has its evolution been happening? What caused it to start?

Certainly part of this is the need to understand what broke something so that the same things don’t keep happening. But there’s also a constant risk, which is often but not often enough called out by designers, that we don’t actually understand what the root problem is even when we do understand that there is a problem. It’s very hard for us to see that; it’s often buried under layers of other problems.

There’s also a need for tech people to understand who broke the thing. If journalism is broken, who broke it? Some people would say the media broke it; others that advertisers broke it; still others that the internet and tech people themselves broke it. But it’s critical to understand who the players have been in creating a problem we want to solve. This is partly because we need to understand their actions, motivations, assumptions, backgrounds, and so on but it’s also because we need to understand what, if anything, makes them different from us, the people claiming we can fix it. Again in this specific case, what makes the people on that site different from the people who have broken journalism over the decades?

We understand who this brokenness affects

If a thing is actually broken and tech people truly understand the nature of how it got that way, it’s critical to understand who is affected by its brokenness and how, and especially the degrees to which different people are affected. Journalism, for the most part, is unable to agree on this, and tech people are worse when they talk about it. Is it rural, white America because they are undercovered and that increases polarization? Is it people of color and indigenous people because they are incorrectly covered and that fails to critique the existing power structures in our country? Is it some other group? Which is worse? Who decides which is worse? What criteria do they use?

Whoever is most affected by the brokenness of a thing, if that can be established, it’s important to investigate whether they have a voice in the proposed solution. In this case, are the people with headshots on this site most affected by the brokenness of journalism? If so, how? If not, do they understand the concerns of people who are? What do they know about them? How did they learn what they have learned?

Related to these issues, if tech people aren’t the people most affected by a broken thing (and we usually aren’t), what is happening among the people who are? Are they trying to respond to it already and being ignored? If so, is this new thing going to keep their voices marginalized? Is it possible to try to help their efforts instead of being the tech people who come in to fix the thing? If not, why should they trust the tech people anyway?

This thing can really be fixed

If there’s a thing that is truly broken, and there’s a good level of knowledge about how it got there among the people who want to fix it, it’s worth questioning whether it can really be fixed. In the case of journalism, for example, if you can accept all of those assumptions as true, can journalism really be fixed? Will it be fixed by asking people to join this site?

If there is a problem that can be fixed in this way, what other problems will it create? What mechanisms exist to find out what those new problems are, and if they are actually new? What kind of response will there be?

In this specific example, again, there’s an apparent assumption that the brokenness of journalism can be fixed by the community (whoever they are) and fact checking. But is that true? Do we really share enough of an epistemology in this country that would allow disagreeing groups to accept any amount of fact checking as authoritative?

We are the ones to fix this

Tech people tend to have an underlying assumption that they are the ones to fix the thing they’ve decided is broken. Sometimes this is true, but often it isn’t. Sometimes there are ways in which this is true, and ways in which it isn’t and we can’t tell the difference. I submit that it is often because of assumptions like the ones I’ve mentioned above.

Design thinking is at its best a way to question assumptions about building stuff. But it too often lacks the power analysis to do it in ways that get at these big, underlying assumptions. It’s that level of skepticism that I want to encourage.