Is technology neutral – Redux

Colin has posted on his blog a response to my earlier post that tried to flesh out the the complexity of neutrality in technology.

It is, as ever, compelling reading. We have agreed to conduct a Skype conversation, record it and post it somewhere on the web during Cyberweek 2006 to stimulate even more debate around this important topic. I hope our conversation may even lead to a Skypecast that engages with other around the world who may have ideas to share with us regarding this topic.

I think that technology adopts the biases of the individual or individuals who use it to achieve a particular end. If a programmer wants to build an online dispute resolution process that disadvantages everyone from a European country, they can do so using technology. That online dispute resolution process, then, is no longer neutral. But the technology that was used to make the process is, at essence, neutral. For example, the process could have been made to advantage everyone from European countries just as easily. That agnosticism as to the advantage demonstrates the fundamental neutrality (or more accurately, impartiality, as I discuss below) of the underlying technology.

There are several interesting points here. Just as much Colin states that the technology adopts the biases of those who use it, technology is also the result of the bias of those who create it. Any technology, including ICT, is the result of a need, which is in turn predicated upon the perception of the need based on the socio-political, economic, cultural, religious, geographical context of those who designed it (inter alia). As with objectivity in journalism, I do not believe the search for neutrality in technology yields substantive insight into the perceptions that govern its genesis, use and adoption. This shifting perception of neutrality, never constant, never fixed, is rooted in time, place and context. Colin agrees with me on this:

The concept of neutrality is an unachievable ideal, synonymous with absolute purity from bias of any kind. Of course almost nothing attains that standard. Using the term “impartiality” instead of “neutrality” is much more accurate, in my opinion, as that standard (not having clear bias toward one side or the other) is usually more realistic and achievable.

However, we differ on the introduction of applied technology – Colin’s example of the introduction of the internet to rural populations is a case in point. While it is blasphemous these days to question the introduction of the internet to peoples around the world who have not hirtherto accessed or harnessed its potential, the introduction of such technologies inevitably disrupts and subverts existing social, political and economic dynamics. My point is simple – technology fails to be neutral if its introduction to a region or place takes place without due diligence on understand, as much as possible, the ripple effects of its introduction – and this is especially pertinent when introducing technology to help medium to long term disaster / humanitarian aid efforts and the introduction of ICT to aid in peacebuilding.

Again, Colin agrees with me on this point:

But the effect is a result of humans, who are the variable in the equation, not the underlying technology itself.

But where we again diverge is on our understanding that technology itself is a human creation, and subject therefore to our inevitable bias. The question really is, should technology be neutral? Can we make a case that in some instance, it should not, and be biased towards peacebuilding? Or does this take away, however noble the goal, from the inviolability of the need for neutrality in the technology used for ODR / peacebuilding? How would, for instance, an ICT eco-system designed to support insider partial negotiation look like to an outsider? Even if it were perceived to be biased towards one party, can we state with confidence that re-adjusting it to maintain a neutral/ impartial stance would move forward the process of negotiations?

Or are these questions, as Colin says, just too bloody academic? I don’t have an answer to this, save to say that as both a practitioner who grapples daily with the perception of bias in the suggestion, design and application of technology, I’ve come to realise the highly subjective nature of neutrality, the need to maintain, within the context I operate, an impartial approach, and the need to look deeply at issues of trust in the online world we create for processes that I hope will bring lasting and just peace to not just my own country, but to other regions facing violent conflict.

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