Reality bytes

Catriona McLagan
Icatrionanformation Analyst/Advisor 
Platform Charitable Trust

It’s interesting to notice that we have a natural tendency to imbue technology with either good or bad qualities.  The thing about technology, be it social media platforms or 3D printers, is that it’s us humans that are creating and using it.  It is neither good nor bad.  It has usefulness and it can create or exacerbate problems.  It can be used in ways that enhance our society and ways that undermine it.  At the recent NetHui I attended, these conversations were infused in almost every session.  Below are my three main observations from the hui.

Daylight is the best antiseptic

The theme of NetHui 2017 was ‘Trust and Freedom on the Internet’.  If we hold that technology and the online platforms we use are created by humans, with all of the strengths and weaknesses of those people informing their development, we need to then feel confident that we have ways of checking for those weaknesses.  Hon Clare Curran, the new Minister of Government Digital Services, spoke at the hui about algorithmic transparency (among other things) as one way of opening things up for inspection.  In my view, we should be advocating at all times that we don’t necessarily object to a technology or tool, but that we need to be granted access behind the curtain (or at least given an accurate description of what’s back there) to enable us to have the information to make a judgement.  This standard should be applied to private organisations and government alike.

Digital rights are worth fighting for too

There was a good deal of discussion about the digital divide, particularly in relation to internet access as a right.  I admit that my first thought was #firstworldproblems, but then as I considered what internet connectivity gives us access to, I saw that it actually should be unacceptable in 2017 in Aotearoa New Zealand that any person cannot get proper access to the web.  Exclusion from the internet could be as much of a barrier to success and social inclusion in this age as being barred from a classroom or other public building.

We should also have rights about what information is gathered and shared about us.  New Zealand has encountered this discussion most recently with the Ministry of Social Development’s proposed individual client level data collection.  The European Union’s (EU) concept of the ‘right to be forgotten’ (the right for data or information about you to be removed from public access) was discussed widely at the hui.  To me, this EU precedent shows that in a global community we can and should make regional decisions about what is right for us, even if the technology itself is created and governed in another jurisdiction.  I think we need to have the discussion as a country about how we can empower the people who live in New Zealand to have control over their data (whether collected here or abroad) and about what we think is acceptable in terms of data collection and use.  The data commons work is an exciting toe in the water here around New Zealand’s ability to lead the world in the shared data space (http://datacommons.org.nz/).  However, I don’t think we should restrict this conversation to only data that is collected and used in this country.

We have to stop ‘clutching at our pearls’ and take a big deeeeeeep breath

The final realisation I had, courtesy of some very smart people over the two days, was that we can’t let hysteria, or its less dramatic cousins alarm and fear, get the better of us in these conversations about technology.  We need to carefully think about whether technology is creating problems or actually just mirroring situations that already exist in our society.  For example, is it social media’s fault that we create and live in our own online bubbles without exposure to ‘others’ or do most of us tend to, as one speaker put it, choose not to hang out with Neo-Nazis for fun in our offline lives either?  Let’s take rational approaches to the risks and benefits (and opportunities) of technology and actively involve ourselves in conversations about it.  We cannot abdicate responsibility for shaping technology to technical people and then freak out and blame it for everything.  We know there’s a diversity problem in the tech world and that the driver for tech development is often profit or power, not people.  There are numerous other potentially problematic factors there too, so the responsibility is with all of us to get involved and shape the discussion.  We choose how this all plays out in our future and it’s too important an opportunity to either be hysterical or complacent about.

Ultimately, I think we can be far more imaginative than simply moving our analogue systems to digital and then continuing on with business as usual.  Technology offers us amazing opportunities to think about or remodel our societies for maximum good for all – again, it’s people making these choices not machines, so we can do that.  Personally, I’m going to keep reaching into this unfamiliar tech space (seriously, does anyone actually know what block chain is?) to try to understand what’s coming.  I’ll challenge the position that data collection is undesirable or any particular technology is inherently dangerous and I’ll support ways to hold responsible the people who use it harmfully or dishonestly.  Most of all I’m going to try to think critically about whether technology is amplifying, mirroring or creating the situations we find ourselves in and how we can ensure the best use of it for good.  And if it ever feels too scary, we just need to remember that we survived the tractor and the telephone just fine.

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