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Building the world for everyone

By Courteney Peters

23 May 2024


This essay was originally written by the wonderful team at Antistatic for the introduction to More Zeros and Ones: Digital Technology, Maintenance and Ethics in Aotearoa New Zealand, an anthology of essays they edited that was published by Bridget Williams Books in September 2022. The version below has been edited to remove some content specific to the book’s other contents. 

Image credit: Jamillah Knowles & Reset.Tech Australia / Better Images of AI / People with phones / CC-BY 4.0

We want to live in a world that is built for everyone. From our cities, homes and infrastructures to our political systems, technologies and services, we want human-built environments and systems to be inclusive of everyone. We also want them to reflect our particular place in the world and allow for multiple worldviews and ways of thinking. Digital technologies and the services and tools that are built on top of them are woven throughout our lives. To build a world for everyone includes ensuring that digital systems are equitable, inclusive and empowering.

Industry commentators and the government alike want New Zealand to be an innovative, future-focused country that builds cutting-edge technology and thrives in a digitally connected global environment. Local companies like Rocket Lab and Xero are lauded for growing successful digital businesses with a strong international profile, and both public and private funders put considerable investment into growing New Zealand’s tech industry.

However, the future of New Zealand’s digital ecosystem can’t just be about rockets and exponential growth. To build a world that sustains both future generations and the land that nurtures us, we also have to care for the present. This means doing the tough and unglamorous work of identifying where existing systems aren’t working for – or are actively working against – the people they claim to serve, and then fixing these systems and changing the way things are built. This might not sound a lot like innovation (and, to be fair, it’s not as sexy or exciting as building rockets), but even the most spectacular of new inventions are built on the foundations of the past. Every time people make something ‘new’ they’re using existing tools and building off existing frameworks and technologies. If those tools and frameworks are biased, harmful, or designed to serve the needs of only a few, then the new things that get built will replicate the same old problems.

Historic inequities can be replicated during the design and development of digital technologies and services, which are often designed ‘for the 80 per cent’ – the centre of the bell curve that includes most but not all people. The people outside the 80 per cent will differ in different contexts, but might include blind or low vision people who use a screen reader to engage with digital content, Māori people for whom data is a taonga, or older people who did not grow up with digital technology. By consistently designing for the middle of the bell curve, the 20 percent of folks outside the middle have an uphill battle to get products and services that work for them, and decisions made for the majority often inadvertently reinforce systemic oppression.

We see examples of technology built using biased frameworks or designed for the 80 per cent – whether deliberately or inadvertently – all around us. For example, more and more businesses and organisations are providing vital services in a digital-first way, with in-person or other channels being secondary or an afterthought. This approach assumes a certain type of user with an up-to-date smartphone and relevant digital skills, and accepts the risk that a percentage of people will be excluded. Or take the example of cloud services, which is increasingly how data about us is being stored. As more and more data is handed off to international cloud storage giants, Māori have limited options to retain sovereignty over their information, which can become subject to international law and out of local control. Finally, the social platforms so many people rely on to connect with each other are designed in such a way that mis- and disinformation can spread at speed and scale, leading to real-world harm. We only have to look at the disinformation about Covid-19 vaccinations that has been spread widely over the course of the pandemic potential negative consequences for communities and whānau.

There are some really optimistic narratives circulating around the future of technology: that our problems can be innovated away with technical systems, and that increased decentralisation, transparency and automation can help us achieve prosperity and equity for all if we just deploy them for good. It’s easy to buy in to this version of a technological future – optimism is exciting, and these narratives make a fix look simple. If computer scientists can be aware of potential bias, maybe they can just code it away. If hiring managers acknowledge that certain demographics dominate the tech industry, they can encourage more women to apply for STEM jobs. If big platforms can just tweak a few content moderation settings, maybe they can do away with mis- and disinformation permanently.

However, surface-level adjustments won’t be enough on their own. There are some big underlying issues shaping the way digital technology is funded, designed and deployed that need to be addressed in order to see any real systemic change. Just like you can’t stop internal bleeding with a Band-Aid, you can’t make small adjustments to the products and services of a profit-focused company or institutionally racist organisation and expect them to suddenly centre the wellbeing of all users. When problems are deeply ingrained, our solutions also need to go deeper: starting with the way that digital systems and products are designed.

To begin to do things better, we argue that tech needs to be shifted away from the centre of the story. The optimistic narratives that promote technology as the solution for all problems often also treat digital technology as though it’s a force of nature – something to be harnessed, like wind, or the sun, or flowing water, in order to lead towards a certain kind of inevitable progress. But in reality, technology is made by people and is the product of human systems. No technology is an inevitability. It is only through the actions of many people over time that software, hardware and infrastructures are built. 

The good news is that things can be different. If we acknowledge that no technological development is inevitable, it means we don’t just have to cross our fingers and hope that things will work out okay. Instead, we can work together to change the systems that are causing harm, and develop new practices. The bad news is that changing systems is hard work. Recentring people’s needs and aspirations over the demands of profit and convenience isn’t easy to do. It will require people with power to change their ways of doing things, make difficult decisions, and listen to others. And it will require courageous advocacy and action from everyday people. But if we want a more just and equitable future for everyone in this country, it’s essential that we get started.

Aotearoa New Zealand has a unique context and culture, and our digital systems need to reflect that. Fortunately, we already have many of the guides and levers we need to ensure our digital future upholds our specific values and uplifts our people and culture. Aotearoa’s digital ecosystems need to embed Te Tiriti o Waitangi – a founding constitutional document for Aotearoa. Our digital systems and policies also need to recognise human rights, for example by adhering to the Privacy Act 2020 and giving effect to the United Nations Declarations on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and Persons with Disabilities.

Along with these existing commitments and guides, people in the tech industry, the government and communities will also need to develop a broad range of new ways of building, deploying and maintaining digital systems and infrastructure. Even within Aotearoa New Zealand, we know that one-size solutions don’t fit all, and that everyone experiences the internet and digital technology differently. Now it’s time to put this knowledge into practice.

Changing how we do things also means changing how we think about the future. Futurists are big business and their opinions are held in high esteem by many decision makers. For us, however, thinking about the future of the internet and digital technologies doesn’t mean looking for distant ‘signals’ about what the next big thing might be, so investors can accelerate growth and regulators can be ready to deal with any negative impacts that might come with it.

This approach centres exciting innovation and the emergence of new ideas, but it can also tend towards framing technology as something that just happens to society, where all any of us can do is be ready for what comes. This glosses over the agency and responsibility that people – including people here in Aotearoa New Zealand – have in building the world.

We propose an alternative approach to thinking about the future of technology. There are three questions we like to ask when thinking about what can be done now to shape the internet and the equitable digital world we want. It’s our way of thinking about the future, based on the reality of the present. We suggest that, when thinking about the possibilities of digital technologies and how they are embedded into our ways of doing things, you ask yourself:

  • What is working well now, and how do we maintain it to serve us in the future?

  • What is harming us now, and how do we dismantle or change it?

  • What is missing now, and what can we build to fill the gap?

The book from which this blog post was excerpted, More Zeros and Ones: Digital Technology, Maintenance and Ethics in Aotearoa New Zealand, is available from Bridget Williams Books, other booksellers, and maybe your local library. It contains chapters offering important contributions on issues from honouring Te Tiriti o Waitangi in tech and data projects to the right to repair. We highly recommend checking it out.

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