The Science, Knowledge and Technology section of the American Sociological Association asked me to respond to a question President Obama posed in his latest State of the Union: "How do we make technology work for us, and not against us-especially when it comes to solving urgent challenges?" Here is my reply:
It is laudable that in 2016 our leaders are thinking about technology as something that could work against some humans’ interests. When the President of the United States asks how to “make technology work for us, and not against us—especially when it comes to solving urgent challenges,” our first inclination as social scientists should be to define the “us” under investigation. Presumably, the president would reply with “every American,” but even the most cursory reading of science and technology studies literature would suggest that this is impossible. Technologies are neither inherently good nor bad for all humans; rather, they are the artifacts of social action and often participate in political controversy and social stratification before, during, and after their initial creation. The levies in New Orleans, the drones that fly over the U.S. southern border and throughout the Middle East, and the corroded pipes of Flint, Michigan stand in testament to the ways in which technology participates in politics.
A far more realistic question might be: “How do we redistribute control over and allocation of technologies?” Such a reframing decenters the artifact itself and brings analytic focus to the methods we employ to make technology in the first place. If decades of research into innovation and regulation by social scientists has taught us anything, it is that our current paradigm of “design first and regulate later” makes for bad products and even worse policy. The former sets loose unintended consequences that cause real harm to people and the latter is ham-fisted, too late, or most commonly, both. Worse yet, as social scientists we may be over-prescribing DIY, citizen-led science and technology at the expense of social movements that would otherwise be changing the landscape of scientific research and technological innovation.
Read the full essay on the ASA SKAT website.