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Technologies are more important than ever in our social coexistence. The more relevant these technologies are for participation in society, the more we must discuss the importance of their design as well as their availability and non-availability. Hendrik-Jan Grievink, co-founder of the Dutch Next Nature Network, coined the phrase “technoprivilege.”

By Carl Friedrich Then.

Check your technoprivilege
Those who can answer Hendrik-Jan Grievink’s questions in the affirmative are already privileged in many areas of social life, © Hendrik-Jan Grievink

When it comes to development possibilities, prosperity, and social coexistence, digitalisation has become crucial today. Politics and businesses are working hard – and with different levels of success – to make administration, work processes, and consumption more flexible, efficient, and resilient through digital offerings. Designers play an essential part in these changes because interfaces between technological innovations and users must be designed. However, as the digital world grows in importance, designers must consider the implications of the availability and accessibility of new tools for society and its cohesion.

“A digital world with all of its benefits is only advantageous if as many people as possible can use it.”

During the lockdown, the great potential of digital technologies could be seen, for example, when it came to continuing work processes remotely and virtually. However, it became clear that people from lower socioeconomic classes, in particular, did not benefit from these opportunities. This was due not only to a lack of digital workplaces in the low-wage sector. It showed also the lack of properly suitable digital devices, which would have allowed students to participate in distance learning, for example.

This was also a problem when the Corona warning app was launched. It was only available to smartphone users, and only if they had newer models and operating systems. This highlights the importance of emphasising that a digital world with all of its benefits, such as access to information, improved services, and digital tools, is only advantageous if as many people as possible can use it. This depends not only by device availability. But it also depends on how software and apps are created and how inclusive they eventually are.

Technoprivilege – When Technologies Are Privileges

In this regard, Hendrik-Jan Grievink, co-founder of the Dutch Next Nature Network, urges in a text: Check your Technoprivilege!
He also notes that the COVID 19 pandemic has revealed a gap. It demonstrates the role that technologies play in today’s social involvement. “I think it would be a really good idea if we acknowledged that there is such a thing as technology privilege,” he says. In the first place, we must comprehend the effect of technologies. This may be a familiar concept for some. However, I see a lot of naiveté about the impact of technology in the tech sector, for example. They frequently state, “This is new, so it must be good.” However, I believe that the reality that most digital technologies are developed by people who do not represent the diversity of the world’s population is problematic.”

Grievink uses the term “technoprivilege”. He wants to draw awareness to the fact that the technologies accessible to the upper middle and upper classes in wealthy industrialised nations manifest social inequalities. These are demonstrated not only in their working conditions. Their design and use can also be a major contributor to these inequalities. He refers to Peggy McIntosh’s 1989 text White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. The text’s core is a checklist of 26 statements. They effectively draw attention to the social advantages and disadvantages that come solely from one’s birth skin colour.

A Chatbot Initiates the Discourse

Technoprivilege Tekki
After a virtual conversation, the chatbot “Tekki” calculates how much technoprivilege the respondent has, © Hendrik-Jan Grievink

Grievink builds on this descriptive idea. He developed a chatbot called Tekki for this purpose. The beta version can already provide a decent sense of the subject. “With the chatbot, I want to deal with the topic in a playful way,” he says. Tekki is meant to pose thought-provoking questions. Finally, it determines how much technological advantage you have in comparison to other users.”

Grievink sticks to McIntosh’s strategy in terms of content. This is not about laying responsibility, but about starting a discourse. A discussion of privileges found in our technological gadgets and daily devices. Because their availability, as well as the manner in which they are designed, reveals far more about social inequalities than we might assume at first. Beyond the availability of technologies and the advantages they provide, devices, software, and apps reproduce inequalities within society. AIs that reproduce racist or sexist stereotypes, for example, demonstrate this. Joy Buolamwini elaborates on this in a TEDxTalk on Algorithmic Bias. Facial recognition AIs sometimes have considerable difficulties recognising non-white people or make discriminatory conclusions based on the data used. However, interfaces, UX journeys and services that are not very inclusive can also exclude entire population groups from interaction. This can happen due to language barriers or physical disabilities.

“Design plays a fundamental role in creating an interface between people and technology so that users can work more effectively with it.”

— Hendrik-Jan Grievink

Shaping Social Participation in New Technologies

As Grievink points out, design, in particular, has an important role to perform in this context: “Design wants to reduce friction and discomfort in our lives.” It plays a fundamental role in creating an interface between people and technology so that users can work more effectively with it. However, design becomes problematic “when it obscures the negative effects of technology on people and the environment,” he adds. This refers to one of design’s fundamental tensions: the one between seductive complacency and meaningful functionality.

“Technology – in general digital technology– , has fallen into the hands of a very small group of extremely powerful tech firms and those who run them. This is having an unprecedented effect on people and the planet.”

— Hendrik-Jan Grievink

Design, that works at the interface of humans and technology, is also essential in the formation and reproduction of social inequalities. Grievink illustrates this point by looking at technological history: “In my opinion, we humans are technological animals by nature.” When our ancestors began creating tools out of resources that were readily available to them, such as flint and wood, they progressed in comparison to other animals. Our history has a direct connection to the advancement of technology. As a result, there are numerous examples throughout history of humans using technology to control, dehumanize, and kill other humans.

What makes this problem so urgent, particularly today, is that technology – in general digital technology– , has fallen into the hands of a very small group of extremely powerful tech firms and those who run them. This is having an unprecedented effect on people and the planet.”

Making Technologies Usable and Available

Against this background, it is astonishing how often it is forgotten how powerful technologies are in determining the fate of nations and people. It is once again a question of whether societies become more inclusive or whether social injustices manifest and increase as a result of digitalisation. The focus is much less on the most recent and fashionable gadgets, as we saw during the COVID 19 pandemic. Rather, in a digitising world, the use and availability of technology decides social involvement and connection in terms of education, health, and wealth. Designers should consider whether they can make new devices and interfaces accessible to as many users as possible when creating new devices and interfaces. Sometimes it’s not just about the principles of universal design. It’s also about making sure that devices can be used cheaply.

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