Sociotechnical Spectacle

We are in a moment of sociotechnical spectacle. Back in normal times (before Covid), we experienced technology very separately in our own little bubbles; we were affected by it differently according to our class, race, gender, geography, and technical savvy. It was entirely possible for sociotechnical harm and indignity to be inflicted on some communities, with very little visibility for those in different circumstances. That fragmentation made it very hard to have meaningful shared realities to witness, understand, and remedy.

As Covid accelerates the use of technology to make hugely consequential decisions on prime time television, I have been thinking a lot lately about my past life in media studies (particularly media & spectacle). I've been thinking about how this moment might offer us an opportunity for significant sociotechnical change.

Just look at the shared events experienced throughout the pandemic:

  • Epidemiological statistical modelling to predict waves and outbreaks, that effected day-to-day life, everywhere
  • Fast-paced, highly public scientific discovery systems and processes
  • Vaccination prioritisation within communities (who is up next and who decides)
  • Government and commercial services pushed online almost overnight
  • Digitally mediated environments for everyone, not just those unable to travel or engage in offline events because of disabilities (e.g. Zoom).
  • Disruption in rights of passage like the A-levels exam scoring in the UK
  • The artificial allure of contact tracing apps

All of these have created huge moments for shared experience, and in turn understanding. A middle class kid in rural England probably hadn't thought that much about algorithmic decision-making and yet here she is marching down the high street chanting fuck the algorithm. Her parents can't get her out of this situation with resources or connections. She has to suffer alongside her peers in an unfair system — that was unfair before — but now she's in the same boat as everyone else.

Shared, global experiences have a huge effect on the trajectory of society. Whether it's the moon landing or 9/11, it is an almost unreal experience when we share something merely because we are people. It opens a doorway to our shared humanity.

I think that people that exercise sociotechnical power would very much prefer for that door to our shared humanity remain shut. People with power use digital tools to great effect by taking advantage of the fragmentation of lived digital experiences and digital delivery. On the one hand a politician might micro-target an individual with ads, showing a more palatable side to their party. And on the other, they might build systems that effect her constituents in wildly different ways — knowing full well these two processes will never overlap. We can tell all kinds of different stories about the value and impact of technology when there is no shared reality.

Covid has opened up a window of opportunity to push for change in how technology is shaping our societies. We have experienced something like a sociotechnical spectacle.

Before Covid, most advocacy and exploratory work on sociotechnical harm happened in niche spaces: there were only a few committed people watching what was happening, commentating, and dedicating their whole world to rallying attention to these hugely consequential decision points that seem to pass almost unnoticed by those who weren't experiencing it.

During Covid, we live in a situation where all of the world is trained on a set of complex decisions and technical interventions; a bizarre period in which most of our engagements and interactions are pushed through a fine sieve of technical systems, and everyone is effected by the decisions and policies that are mediated by and embedded within digital tools.

What can we do with this after Covid?

Well, the way I see it: these shared situations have opened up empathy and policy possibilities which were considered to be impossible just a few years ago. So in that same way, I hope we can use these shared experiences to make visceral the human implications of poorly integrated technology. This is a moment of sociotechnical spectacle, a glimpse in time we can see how all of us are trapped in shared systems.

How can we use this moment to shine a light on the way technical systems are engineered to dole out pain in insidious ways, unseen even those who want to show solidarity? How can we see this as a moment to push, not just for solidarity with those subjected to the hard-end of the system, but for co-liberation?

Thank you to Tawana Petty who pushed me to think beyond solidarity and into a mindset of co-liberation. A motivating insight for me that I will be forever grateful for!


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