Enough with the unnecessary tech innovations

Living in California as I do, I’m surrounded by tech industry news and all the latest and greatest on the hottest new this and that. In the midst of the orgy of consumerism that surrounds the tech industry, filled with early adopters and people urgently in need of the newest, shiniest thing, there’s a sense of almost reluctant guilt and social obligation, like maybe it’s a little bit gross to have this much money, and perhaps something ought to be done about it.

The result is a slew of charitable foundations of all shapes and sizes, many ignoring the inequalities and tremendous problems in and around Silicon Valley in lieu of something further afield. And of course, the solution to these social problems is usually tech, whether it’s hardware, software, or both. Sometimes, it’s innovative and pretty cool, like stoves with filtration systems to reduce exposure to hazardous byproducts of combustion, a big problem in many nations where women are tasked with the cooking and they’re spending hours in cramped conditions with terrible stoves. Or it’s initiatives to empower communities to dig and maintain wells, or install more hygienic toilets to reduce the risk of contaminating drinking water with effluent.

Sometimes, though, people come up with super bizarre stuff that no one asked for, no one needs, no one wants, and in some cases people are actually actively hostile about. This is the product of ‘there’s an app for everything’ and ‘tech should be able to solve everything’ attitude that predominates in Silicon Valley, but it betrays an age-old problem with charities and organisations claiming to ‘help’ in disadvantaged regions. The notion of actually asking the people who live there what they need seems to be beyond the grasp of people who are inventing all these brilliant disruptive technologies and novelty gadgets (a 3-d printer for mud homes! wow!), and then they’re surprised and sulky when people say ‘thanks but no thanks.’

What makes technology useful really depends on a population, its needs, the ability to maintain that technology, and restrictions of culture and environment. Things that require electricity to run, for example, are contingent on a functional grid or the ability to independently maintain off-grid power, which means people need access to training, equipment, and parts to keep their windmills, solar panels, or other gear running correctly. Done well, it could be empowering for a community and might set people up for future success. Done poorly, and a bank of rotting solar panels will sit abandoned along with a stack of laptops.

I see this happen frequently with disability tech: Some distant nondisabled person in Silicon Valley thinks ‘gee gosh golly, it would be neat if blind people (or whoever) could do this thing!’ So they build a thing. Sometimes they’re just replicating a thing that already exists. Or they’re building something that no one needs or wants, like a nifty decoder ring that sure seems cool but in fact blind people have screenreaders and do not need a clunky piece of jewelry to read things to them. But if they actually talked to people in that community, they might find out that their skills are totally needed in a way they didn’t expect.

To wit: Government-funded communications devices for people who use AAC are super expensive, like hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars. A tablet or smartphone can be comparatively quite cheap, in addition to offering many  more functions (like the ability to place calls or look something up on the internet). When the tech industry collaborates with disabled people who use AAC, it can develop an incredibly powerful, flexible, and useful communications program that fosters independence. That is a super cool thing, and it’s a thing that has been done, and it’s a thing that needed the disability community’s input, because disabled people know what they need, intimately, far better than nondisabled people do.

Technology can be an incredibly powerful tool and a fantastic force for good, but you can’t force a tech solution to everything. Some problems cannot be resolved with tech, and others are complicated, requiring collaboration between people with tech know-how and people with social know-how. Wasting tremendous resources on cool novelty things that look great in annual reports and on your ‘social conscience’ page is a really terribly inefficient approach to life, especially since those resources may be sorely needed somewhere.

Tech solutions aren’t always fun or sexy — see toilets — but the right technology in the right place made in collaboration with the people who will use it really can change lives. The industry just needs to get used to the idea of bridging to find those solutions, reaching communities directly to explore if, and how, technology is a good fit for them. The results may be surprising, sometimes pleasantly so, but they do require actually leaving your Silicon Valley tower and interacting with the humans you say you want to help.

At best, technology can be amazing. At middling, it can be something that no one really wants or uses, and gets quietly discarded. At worst, it can be actively harmful. Well meaning tech can fall into all of these categories, and the determining factor is often how closely the developers worked with the people they wanted it to go to. If you believe that tech can save the world, believe first that communities must be empowered with choices, agency, and, as the industry likes to say, buy-in, to get involved with products that could change their lives, or ruin them if implemented poorly.

Image: To the castle, Julien Harneis, Flickr