Technology is not Neutral

One of my favorite hobby horses to beat until it’s dead (and use in other mixed metaphors) is the idea that technology isn’t neutral.  I got the perfect example of this this morning, so I thought I’d share.

My permanent home is in Indiana, which will be having its primary elections in the coming weeks.  When I logged into facebook this morning, I had a message from facebook in my newsfeed.  I reshared that I was registered with the comment, “I’ll share this although I will say I’m not entirely comfortable with how much sway FB and other social networks can have on an election through actions like this. Never forget: technology is not neutral.”

Ceoiv_HWAAAS3vi.jpg largeTell your “friends” that you’re registered to vote or, if you’re not, follow this link to register to vote now.  Seems innocuous, right?  Almost seems like a wholesome “eat your veggies” or “be sure to get enough sleep” message with no ill effects.  What’s my problem?

Well, I have a couple.

This isn’t your mom or God telling you to register to vote..it’s a huge corporation with vested interests in how national elections turn out.   Facebook also knows a crap ton (that’s a technical measurement) about me – my education levels, where I live, the stories I share or comment on (both within and OUTSIDE of the facebook platform), my gender, my age, where I work..demographic and specific information that is likely to give them a pretty good idea of who I’m going to vote for.

You don’t even have to have that specific of information about people.  Take, for instance, the state of Ohio.  The city hubs of Cleveland and Toledo skew liberal while southwest Ohio near Cincinnati skews conservative.  Ohio is a swing state for national elections.  What if Facebook were only sharing the “get out and vote” message in Cleveland and Toledo?  It’s entirely possible a presidential election could be swung based on a simple message from Facebook.

Now, we can assume that Facebook is telling everyone to go and register to vote.  But what if they’re not?  There’s no way to know that and, if they’re not, what criteria they are using to choose who to send that message to.  Did I get it because people of my demographic aren’t good voters or because I live in the liberal enclave of Porter County Indiana?

However, even if they are sending it to everyone, they are still affecting election outcomes.   The demographics of those who use Facebook are not an exact match to the electorate at large.

I’m not saying all of this because I think Facebook should stop encouraging people to vote. (Although it would be nice to have some transparency about the decision process behind them doing so.)   I’m bringing this up because it’s a useful example to remember that technology is not neutral.

Technology is a tool that will be shaped by the humans that use it as well as the humans that create it.   Whenever we look at tech, we must remember to ask ourselves, “who made this?” “who was this made for?” and “who isn’t able to use it?”  I find myself asking these questions frequently when looking at the free law offerings of the states.   Sadly, I’m finding, much of the technology used in these publications was not made for the people that could most use free access to law.

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