Everyone should be here: it’s better to be connected.

November 11, 2019Computing in Context

Prompt

“There is a huge need and a huge opportunity to get everyone in the world connected, to give everyone a voice and to help transform society for the future. The scale of the technology and infrastructure that must be built is unprecedented, and we believe this is the most important problem we can focus on.” - Mark Zuckerberg, 2012, Facebook filing for IPO.

Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, once declared that Facebook was built to accomplish the social mission of making the world more open and connected. This idea that the world should be more connected is a normative expression that is fundamental to the creation of the internet and the web built upon it. But what does the acceptance of this idea also work to produce?

My Response

Zuckerberg's letter for Facebook's IPO speaks towards an idealistic view of connectivity on the web as a social good - it makes sense, as it's literally a call for others to financially invest in Facebook. As he speaks towards getting the world connected on Facebook, he packs in idealistic claims about the effects of such, making (unrealistic) assumptions about the best of human behavior.

Having a voice =/= Having Power

A main point of conflict in Zuckerberg's letter is equating having a voice on the internet with having political power. Zuck invisions the internet as should resembling "a network built from the bottom up or peer-to-peer, rather than the monolithic, top-down structure that has existed to date", and writes about this structure as being able to catalyze social and structural change.

“We believe building tools to help people share can bring a more honest and transparent dialogue around government that could lead to more direct empowerment of people, more accountability for officials and better solutions to some of the biggest problems of our time.

By giving people the power to share, we are starting to see people make their voices heard on a different scale from what has historically been possible. These voices will increase in number and volume. They cannot be ignored. Over time, we expect governments will become more responsive to issues and concerns raised directly by all their people rather than through intermediaries controlled by a select few.”

However, what's ensuring that governments will care to respond about the issues voiced by the people, and that having this voice gives people tangible power? In "The Tyranny of Structurelessness", Jo Freeman speaks about the illusion that structureless, non-hierarchical communities can work towards political action, particularly in the women's rights movement. Freeman explains how almost always, communities that seem structureless are actually covertly run by an elite, given power because of pre-existing factors, like their social backgrounds. (I think this also relates to a sub-myth: that having a voice on the internet is a meritocracy).

Freeman's analysis of the women's movement would debunk Zuckerberg's claims that giving everyone a place to speak online necessarily will result in social change. Everyone having a platform to say things does not mean everyone has a seat at the table where decisions are being made, and voicing an opinion doesn't mean it will get the attention from the leader that needs to hear it.

Diverse user =/= Diverse Creators

Another main implication that Zuck's getting at when he says it's a univeral good that everyone's connected, is the implication that having diverse users of technology results in technology serving them better.

“As people share more, they have access to more opinions from the people they trust about the products and services they use. This makes it easier to discover the best products and improve the quality and efficiency of their lives.... One result of making it easier to find better products is that businesses will be rewarded for building better products — ones that are personalized and designed around people. We have found that products that are “social by design” tend to be more engaging than their traditional counterparts, and we look forward to seeing more of the world’s products move in this direction.” - Zuck

This is a highly optimistic account of the landscape that businesses have on social media, in today's age of surveillance capitalism and targeted ads. Zuck is just too optimistic that businesses are all thinking in the best interests of people on the web.

I think that this statement of his has been true to some extent, and has allowed for the growth of a lot of direct-to-consumer brands that were born from the internet. I think it's nice that you can get bras from stylish, smaller companies that are not Victoria's Secret.

But a lot of times there isn't a one-to-one business opportunity of designing things that can serve for diversity. In Mukherjee's article, "I can Text you a Pile of Poo, But I Can't Write my Name" it's clear that having diverse users doesn't mean technology will be designed to accomodate them. This seems to be the case that these relationships between what users need and what creators of technology offer is so constrained by capitalism. There was probably no business proposition to going in and doing the work to include Bengali letters, so it went ignored.

The "Center for Inclusive Design Report" further complicates the discussion of how users can truly influence the inclusivity of technology. The report advocates for design processes that closely involve underserved populations. On its first page, opens the report from a very profit-conscious perspective: "If products and services are designed with unique needs in mind, organisations have the potential to reach four times the number of intended consumers.” And at the end it acknowledges that "inclusion and accessibility is not guaranteed; a shift, whether behavioural or cultural, needs to take place that supports the successful use of this methodology, with broader leadership and regulation, design principles and the ultimate goals of businesses and governments to support the communities in which they operate.”

This document reads to me in many different ways. In one way, it provides an outline for a democratic future, where we challenge ourselves to consider broader audiences and serve the needs of marginalized people. On the other hand, it frames this altruism with the incentive of maximizing profits (which, if the goal is to serve marginalized people, maybe they won't be able to afford said designed product). Perhaps this is simply a negotiation in the constraints of living in a capitalist world. As someone who does do some product design, I have learned "inclusive design" practices to be an accepted Good, but I also wonder what are the limitations to this mindset? To what extent does "inclusive design" act as a stamp of approval on companies, to show that they are doing broad social good?