Recognising that technologies are not neutral interventions, how can we specify, design and develop solutions that ameliorate rather than exacerbate histories of inequality?

Technology is not simply hardware that can be understood separately from society.

A wide literature has established how science and technology ideas, investments and methods are informed by the values of society, yet at the same time shape what society values. 

The production and use of technology occurs in and interacts with its social context. Analysis of these interactions allows understanding of whose interests the outcomes of technology development will serve. For example, the early design phase is imbued with decisions that reflect the underlying opportunities, incentives, training and experiences of scientists and engineers.

This may close down opportunities for alternative visions of the social good to frame the focus of science and technology endeavours, and points to the significance of the circumstances under which technologies are developed. Technology adoption, moreover, is more complex than the delivery of finished products to users: each individual will respond to a technological device in a particular place and time, drawing on their existing knowledge and creativity, the resources that are available to them, and in the context of social and cultural norms that inform their behaviour.

These insights raise significant questions around how new technologies should be developed and – crucially – who should be involved.

Different groups who are (or who could be) engaged in the development and use of technology bring different bodies of knowledge, anchored in their experiences and/or training. However, they also differ in their capacity to influence how technologies are designed and used.

While participation holds significant promise for opening up innovation processes, implementation is fraught with risk. Participatory processes inevitably occur against a backdrop of uneven power relations among participants, with the effect of elevating the voice of some and marginalising others.

This can play out in multiple ways, such as through familiar patterns of authority (where deference is given to the views of, for example, senior staff or village elders), perceived legitimacy of knowledge (where the expertise conferred by formal training is recognised, while experiential or tacit knowledge is not), or deep rooted social norms (where gender, age or ethnicity, for example, lead to elevating, discrediting, devaluing or silencing of some voices).

For these different reasons, participation in technology co-production is no panacea for the social and cultural relations that reinforce inequality. With this theme, we aim to understand how historically situated and context specific social, political and economic conditions interact with processes of technology development and implementation.

Better understanding of how and why patterns of benefit, exclusion and deprivation are produced or reproduced by technology is an essential underpinning to the wider goal of equitable technology development.

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