Technology and (Dis)Empowerment: A Call to Technologists, by Aaditeshwar Seth

September 2022

Publisher: Emerald Publishing. The published version is available on various platforms, with previews at Google Books. The electronic version is available at a discount of 30% with the code ACT (also Technology30) on .

You can also write to me if you would like access to my local electronic version (pdf/epub).  

I have written a few short articles of 1500-2000 words about different aspects covered in the book.

Technology and (Dis)Empowerment: A Call to Technologists - A Summary - A. Seth. Oct 2022. Published on the Radical Ecological Democracy forum.

The Missing Clarity Between Ends and Means in the ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct - A. Seth. Oct 2022. To appear in ACM Interactions, 2023.

Seventeen Questions for Technologists to Build a Better World - A. Seth. Oct 2022.

Mobile Vaani: A Voice-based Community Media Network for Social Development - A. Seth. Oct 2022.

Missing Publics in Digital Public Goods: The Need to Build Technologies for Communities - A. Seth. Oct 2022. Published on The India Forum.

Book discussion with Srinivas Kodali, hosted by the Hasgeek network, Feb 2023.

A Diversity of Approaches in ICTD Research and Practice: Their Relative Blindspots and Merits , presented at CSE, IIT Delhi, Feb 2023.

A Governance Framework for Digital Public Infrastructure: Learning from the Indian Experience - A. Seth, L. Vitagliano, N. Udapa, P.J. Singh, R. Swamy, S. Singh, and V. Venugopal. Jul 2023. T20 Policy Brief. Task Force 2: Our Common Digital Future: Affordable, Accessible and Inclusive Digital Public Infrastructure.

The world faces large and intersecting challenges of environmental collapse, inequality, exploitation, health, and poverty, among others. Technologies, especially those emerging from information and communication tools (ICTs) are often projected as building systems to address these challenges. This includes solutions such as smart cities to improve energy efficiency, smart forests to tag individual trees and monitor their health, a plethora of digital financial services to improve economic mobility for the poor, identity solutions to improve targeting of social protection schemes for vulnerable groups, digitization of agriculture to improve the productivity of small and large farmers, digitization of health for centralized tracking of disease outbreaks, etc. Much of this technology solutionism is however known to amplify inequalities, further dispossess the poor and marginalized, erode democracy, and reduce freedoms. What properties should technologies satisfy if they are meant to truly address various challenges? 

In my book, which I refer to as ACT, short for A Call to Technologists, I have tried to answer this question by unpeeling various layers at which technology often goes wrong and suggest ways on possibly how it can be done better. ACT draws heavily on my own experience as a practitioner with having co-founded a social enterprise in India, Gram Vaani, that provides voice-based participatory media services to rural and low-income communities to demand their rights and entitlements, share information and knowledge with one another, and empower marginalized social groups by giving them a voice. My primary argument is that the role of technology should be to overturn unjust societal structures to empower the weak and oppressed, and that technologists should take steps to ensure that their labour gets channeled singularly towards this goal - they need to play a strong role in ensuring that their creations do not disempower the people they were meant to support. 

I wanted to address ACT towards technologists for several reasons. One, as an educator in a computer science department in India, to try and convince our students that they cannot simply outsource their morality to regulatory institutions or the markets, and in fact they need to actively shape these very institutions. Two, as a practitioner, I realized a long time back that there is no escape from having to continuously steer technologies to avoid harmful outcomes, so any technology design and management comes with its own baggage of responsibility for the technologists involved in the process. Three, technologists are in a powerful position in the world today to affect change, and if done well they can potentially make the world a better place. I make several suggestions to technologists to collectivize and shape the internal governance of their organizations, and strengthen democracy, to bring about this change. 

ACT is now available on various platforms, with previews at Google Books, and you can also write to me for my local electronic version (pdf/epub). The preface, introduction, and foreword (by Professor Tim Unwin) are available here. Endorsements by a few researchers and practitioners are below. 

If you want to use information technology to make a positive difference in the world, then you need to read this book. Aadi Seth combines careful analysis of the interplay between technology design and socio-political processes with a wealth of practical experience to identify key challenges that efforts around IT for Good will always have to face.

-- Andy Dearden: Professor (Emeritus) Interactive Systems Design, Sheffield Hallam University

Given the enormous influence and control of technologies over our lives, an ethical enquiry into their development, use and ownership is of vital importance. This book provides an incisive account of how state and market-led technologies have exacerbated socio-economic and environmental injustice, and conversely, how technologies based on the ethics of plurality, diversity, power-based equality, freedom and participation can help the movement towards justice and sustainability. Seth's call is not for rejecting technology, but for paradigm shifts towards more socially engaged technology and technologists.

-- Ashish Kothari: Kalpavriksh, Vikalp Sangam and Global Tapestry of Alternatives

Professor Aaditeshwar Seth has spent years developing technologies through Gram Vaani, a social enterprise delivering a voice-based social media platform in northern India. Based on wide-ranging scholarship and hard-won experience, he counters market values with an approach to social impact that takes ethics and socio-technical theories seriously. If you're a technologist hoping to contribute to social good, this book will keep you honest!

-- Kentaro Toyama: Professor, School of Information, University of Michigan

What comes out most importantly in the text is Aadi's two-fold firm conviction - one, that a technological community committed towards social good is indeed possible; and two, that dividing lines across technologists and ordinary people can be bridged, and this is what he has argued for. I hope that the technological community engages with these arguments.

-- Rahul Varman: Professor, Department of Industrial & Management Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur

I next try to summarize a few of the key points I have tried to make in ACT. 

First, I argue that technology projects should clearly clarify their goals in terms of both ends and means. Many projects leave their end goals as ambiguous, and rather adopt generic ethics statements that focus only on the means - do no harm guardrails that the projects should follow - and this I argue is not sufficient, like a ship without a compass to point it in the right direction. It could take the ship to many different destinations, not all of which may be desirable. Having clear end goals helped provide our team at Gram Vaani with such a compass - a guiding light - to aim towards and to continuously steer our decisions to meet these goals. 

Second, it is important to then outline what goals are desirable to steer the projects so that they do not amplify inequalities. I argue that technology should be meant to bring power-based equality in the world, by removing unjust hegemonic structures that perpetuate structural injustice. If this is not the goal, then technology often tends to reproduce inequalities - being wielded more easily by those who can gain access to it, or design it for their own agendas. I draw on works by researchers like Tim Unwin who argue for the same reason that technology should be designed only for the poor, feminist scholars like Iris Marion Young who define the purpose of justice itself as showing the path to remove the underlying processes that cause structural injustice, Amartya Sen who makes similar arguments in terms of freedoms, and Marxists like Harry Braverman or technology historians like David Noble who document the processes through which technology often serves the agendas of the powerful

Being able to deconstruct the ends and means stated for technology projects can help distinguish the truly empowering ones from those that can disempower the people they claim to support. 

Third, I delve deeper into the need to go beyond ensuring safety and equity, or goals like power-based equality, by embedding ethics in the technology design alone. I argue that attention must be paid to ensuring that the same ethical principles are followed in the management of the technology too. I define management as what comes post-design when technology is deployed, and I argue that it is important to make this distinction between design and management because often in practice the teams of technologists playing these roles are distinct and the methods employed by them are also distinct. Most complexities at the management stage arise at the socio-technical interface when technologies begin to be used by people, and invariably lead to surprises and unforeseen situations largely due to the complexity of the world that cannot be possibly modeled completely at the design stage itself. Feedback processes to learn about these gaps, humility to acknowledge them, and proactiveness to correct them by evolving better policies or re-designing the technology systems, become essential. 

Fourth, I borrow from the concepts of appropriate technology by E.F. Schumacher and the Scandinavian methods of participatory design to emphasize that the users of a technology system should be involved in its design and management. Only once the users understand the technology and are able to un-blackbox it, can they steer the technology from avoiding harms and to neatly handle exceptions in their diverse local contexts. This has always been a key principle for us at Gram Vaani, and led us to develop the hybrid online-offline Mobile Vaani model - where the online technology is governed by an offline team of community volunteers. It is the volunteers who are able to ensure a close embedding of Mobile Vaani within the communities, convey editorial preferences for the content carried on their platform, and ensure that all operations adhere to the ethical principles of inclusion and empowerment of the weak and oppressed. We have always endeavoured to get to a point where the technology simply becomes an infrastructure, and community institutions such as the Mobile Vaani volunteer clubs do the rest. 

Fifth, I discuss what might prevent technologists from following these principles above. I delve in detail into the current structures of the market and state that often compromise these values, either by design or by sidelining these principles in favour of other objectives. Profit-seeking goals of corporations, or social control goals of the state, and often interlocks between the two, infiltrate multiple spheres that lead to fallouts from technology. They infiltrate organizational culture by creating role-based segregation and moral buffers for various teams. They influence the incentive structures for technologists by emphasizing profit-maximizing metrics rather than impact-maximizing or harm-avoiding metrics. And in the current context of increasing digitization led by centralized architectures they inevitably lead to surveillance based models which at worst are designed to disempower individual and group freedom, or at best are highly error prone and often not scaffolded by fault-managing systems like for grievance redressal. 

This is why the book is really a call to technologists to realize their position of strength in today’s world and take steps to ensure that their labour is indeed able to lead to empowering effects for the weak. This is not just a hope. I rely here on Marx’s concept of humanism. For Marx, social relationships arise from relations of production and consumption, and positive social relationships are those that create genuine use-value, without coercion or instrumental use of others. Technologists are workers too, and I believe we are driven by these same desires of reclaiming our humanism. I strongly believe that sooner or later technologists will indeed see through the fog that often surrounds them and blunts their passion of taking deliberate action to bring about social good and only that through their labour. Collectives of technologists that can change their organizations from within, public spheres that connect technologists with end-users of their technologies, and new economic structures such as the commons, may hold the key to the way forward. 

Finally, I argue that such a value-driven ethos for technologists can exist only within the morally grounded rules of behavior that democracy tries to create for society. Pluralism to listen to diverse voices, learn from them, and change one’s preferences based on these insights, is what drives democracy. For their own humanism, technologists have a role here too to build meta-social good infrastructures that strengthen democracy through pluralism and structures of accountability and transparency. I argue that participatory media systems such as those created by Gram Vaani, and the community media ecosystem in general, are crucial for this purpose. These systems enable deliberation and learning and see the media as a tool in the hands of activists and communities to increase freedoms and democracy, and not as a mechanism for propaganda wielded by the powerful. It is such federated infrastructures that can uphold pluriversal values and eventually facilitate the wider society to adopt power-based equality as a core value that its technologies should adopt, and to regain social control over these technologies to adhere to such values. 

I look forward to hearing your thoughts and feedback, and if we can together think of ways to build a movement to ensure that technology becomes an unambiguous force of social good and transforms the world rapidly into a more equitable and fairer ecosystem, capable of handling the grave impending challenges of inequality, exploitation, poverty, and climate change that we face today. 

About the author

Aaditeshwar Seth is an Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, and co-founder of the social technology enterprise Gram Vaani. He is passionate about building appropriate technologies and participatory tools that can empower marginalized and oppressed communities to collectivize and voice themselves. Several million people, and over 150 organizations worldwide, have directly touched technology platforms built by Aaditeshwar’s team at Gram Vaani and his students at the ACT4D (Appropriate Computing Technologies for Development) research group at IIT Delhi. Many elements of their work have also been adopted by government departments and have influenced the use of technologies for development in the social sector. He is a recipient of the ACM SIGCHI Social Impact Award for 2022. His book, Technology and (Dis)Empowerment: A Call to Technologists, argues that the primary goal of technology should be to bring equality and overturn hegemonic unjust social and economic structures.