At our February Meetup we had the incredible Dr Kim Foale arguing that modern technology is an integral part of the arms and security industry.
Kim (they/them) is a community activist with over 15 years’ experience working with a wide range of campaign groups in Leeds, Manchester and Nottingham. They have built dozens of websites and apps for a large range of community organisations over the last 20 years. They also co-founded Resistance Lab, a collective that brings community organisers, scholars and technologists together to fight state violence.
Kim started the provocation by announcing that we will never destroy Facebook or Amazon if we are using tools that were built by Facebook or Amazon. Taking down power structures won’t work if we continue to use the tools that those structures provide for us, as tools embody the value set of the people who create them. This is not a new idea and comes from the work of Audre Lorde:
"It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master's house as their only source of support."
Lorde, Audre (1984) The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House
Another idea that Kim explored in this provocation was the consistent and willful ignoring of urgent social problems, in lieu of solving problems that are more “interesting” or lucrative (technosolutionism). Lorde’s example of this was white feminism: the feminists who fought for equality in the work place, without considering the challenges that all women (queer women, women of colour, older women), face in our patriarchal society.
What are the master's tools?
In the technology sector, these are tools that we use, knowingly or not, nearly all the time -- but these are tools built by the very institutions that many of us are fighting against. Tools are not neutral conduits that live in isolation. They exist because there is a human, social, or capitalist desire to make change. Amazon Web Services (AWS) and React.js by Facebook are two great examples of this.
AWS is possibly the most dominant hosting service in the world: 6% of all websites run on it, as well as 90% of Fortune 100 companies. It offers over 200 sub-services, many of which you can't get without AWS. Learning to be a software engineer also means learning how to use AWS: there are 4,600 tutorials teaching you how to use it on Udemy alone. So despite the fact that it’s squarely aimed at enterprise applications, it has taken over tech pedagogy as a default way of doing things -- the 90% vs 6% stat is demonstrative of this. Where at first Amazon's goal was to have a piece of every financial transaction in the world, it's clear that with AWS they also want a piece of every digital product -- and can therefore potentially control what is even possible to talk about if it breaches Amazon ToS.
By using these two tools, we inevitably behave more like Facebook and Amazon: they both encourage and prioritise global scalability, with an implied business model of creating a captive audience whose data you can sell. Because they make it 'so easy' to do what was before, very difficult.
The third 'master's tool' that Kim highlighted was Human Centred Design. This is an approach that claims to focus on the needs of humans (or users) at every step of problem solving when building new products and experiences. So while this framework seeks to 'help' users as much as possible -- within an implicit framework under which lots of white designers are given a load of money to make an app or other intervention -- it does nothing to address the underlying systemic problems that consistently bring harm to several user groups.
Kim cited Vroom as the perfect culmination of AWS, React, and Human Centred Design. It's an initiative founded by the Bezos Family Foundation which uses all three of these tools. The purpose of Vroom is to improve early child development in readiness for formal education. This is given as a sort of “gold standard” example in IDEO’s “Introduction to Human Centered Design” course.
Jeff Bezos could almost certainly simply choose to end poverty for parents in the USA. But instead he chooses to siphon off negligible amounts into projects like this, which use fluffy language and provide high paying jobs for tech professionals. Kim summed up this section of the discussion by saying that Jeff Bezos and the like do not want to tackle underlying problems, because they won't make any money that way. HCD seems perfectly placed to make it look like you are doing something and to win a few awards without actually changing anything - the fact that this is also a tax writeoff for Bezos makes it extra gross. We can’t underestimate how much this kind of work warps the perception of what tech is.
Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire had no time for this. He wrote: “False charity constrains the fearful and subdued, the ‘rejects of life,’ to extend their trembling hands. True generosity lies in striving so that these hands — whether of individuals or entire peoples — need be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work and, working, transform the world” (The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1970). It’s fair to say he wouldn’t have had anything nice to say about IDEO’s training materials, which almost read like a training manual for doing the opposite.
The tech industry is an offshoot of the arms trade
This is quite clear when you consider how Alan Turing developed a ground-breaking machine in the second world war, which cracked the German military codes, and thus was instrumental in the UK 'winning' the war.
Dr Kim also outlined further concrete examples of this, and how Western societies have continued their colonisation via computing and the internet, leading right up to the present day.
Firstly, how IBM directly facilitated the Holocaust: the relationship between IBM and The Third Reich was not incidental, as if IBM happened to be the only source of the kind of technology Hitler needed. IBM in fact reached out to the Hitler regime to make clear that they could provide any solution the Nazis needed. The result was a 12-year relationship, in which IBM constructed a centralised database containing key information on Jewish citizens, and all work and prisoner data from all concentration camps. These systems were custom made, especially for the Nazis.
It’s worth noting that IBM’s prestigious AI - Watson - is named after the CEO who facilitated this relationship.
War is a tool that is consistently used by colonialists, so once it was over technology was once again harnessed to continue colonial activities. After the second world war, British computer companies managed to uphold imperialism just by the way they sold computers: just like women in Britain were sold as part of the computer in a range of advertising, women of colour computer operators were routinely exoticised as an attractive extra feature of this new export. This is because, at this stage of the 20th century, programming was seen as menial work — like a secretary. So, with every computer came a hot woman to set it up for you. Kim quoted Mar Hicks, author of Programmed Inequality:
"Images of British computing abroad presented unsubtle messages of triumph and control that presented women’s bodies and trophies. Pictures of women considered “exotic” by British standards often accompanied articles that tried to show British ingenuity structuring economies, bureaucracies, and […] lives abroad."
Mar Hicks (2017), Programmed Inequality
Don't miss the next meet up! Sign up to our newsletter today.
It's not just private companies that perpetuate these attitudes and methods — universities are not much better either. The act of research has been adopted by Westerners to continue, what is essentially, colonialist behaviour. The researcher pulls apart indigenous communities and categorises them into different groups in order to understand them. Art goes into museums, and research goes into universities.
“From the vantage point of the colonised ... the term ‘research’ is inextricably linked to European imperialism and colonialism. The word itself, ‘research’, is probably one of the dirtiest words in the indigenous world's vocabulary …
It appalls us that the West can desire, extract and claim ownership of our ways of knowing, our imagery, the things we create and produce, and then simultaneously reject the people who created and developed those ideas and seek to deny them further opportunities to be creators of their own culture and nations”
(Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies, 1999)
Kim then outlined some research done on how many technology companies in Manchester are working in arms and security today. Consistent efforts are made to paint Manchester as a 'thriving tech hub', to attract work and investment to the industry there. This has involved getting into bed with some of the largest arms companies on earth such as BAE systems, Elbit,and Raython. Defence and cybersecurity now makes up nearly a quarter of Greater Manchester Cyber Advisory Group (GMCAG). By contrast, the charity and community sector has no representation at all.
Finally, here are some basic contradictions
Technology is individualistic, but social change is collective. Therefore, social change will not necessarily be brought about with the support of new technologies — and yet, there is a consistent flow of new technologies that are developed in the name of social change.
Here are some further contradictions running in a similar vein:
Hackathons: these celebrate the corporate/VC logic of building things fast, and towards the desired goal of whoever is in charge, yet are seen as a good thing.
Human/user Centred Design is seen as a liberator for those who need support, whereas it's just a tool to create more white saviours. Furthermore, user centred design is easily translated into customer centred design — therefore, they only need to prioritise the needs of the people who give them money.
Facebook, Uber, and other large tech firms are seen as a 'gold standard' workplace for engineers, despite the sheer amount of harm they bring to the world.
Kim wrapped up the provocation with a few adjacent ideas. One was that the tech industry seems to reinvent jobs in their own image -- there are design and research roles which seek to ‘solve problems’ but isolate themselves from much larger issues. Tech ethicists are included in this.
We must stop this cycle of picking the battles that specifically interest us, and engage in actual rights going on right now in every city. Furthermore, we must stop seeing tech as a success story, and look at it as a very key part of the Western military-industrial complex.
As a guideline and starting point on how to actually engage with more pressing problems that are right in front of us, Kim pointed to Sherry Arnstein’s ladder of citizen participation:
The tech sector, at the moment, hasn’t made much progress beyond tokenism, where a company or organisation might consult on minority groups for a few pre-selected things. True citizen participation would mean giving communities decision-making power of budgets, so that we avoid being at the mercy of things like the Bezos Family Foundation.
In order to truly move forward, we must look past seeing the human or individual as the centre of everything. Instead, we should value the bonds that connect people and places together; this is hard to quantify right now, so it requires a constant focus on having conversations and building partnerships -- and not on prioritising the individual.
Kim ended the provocation with a good and bad questions:
Bad: can technology be used for good?
Good: who is technology harming right now? What are the victims of those harms asking for? How can we support them? How can we make sure that our work doesn’t add to the harm?
And a final paradox: Technology is individualistic, but social change is collective.