The volume and speed of emerging technologies that are impacting Australians can feel overwhelming at an individual, community, and societal level. Where do you even begin to gauge technologies’ ramifications?
The effects of technology can be categorised along three different axes:
- Intended vs unintended
- Immediate vs distant
- Hard vs soft
Intended, Immediate, hard effects are easier to predict and protect against. Whereas it takes a sophisticated analysis, and imagination, to even notice let alone predict unintended, distant, soft effects. But these effects often have incredibly weighty implications for human rights.
History is replete with examples of unintended, far-reaching and ‘soft’ impacts. For example, who would have imagined that the introduction of the mobile phone would eventually result in job losses – e.g. of receptionists no longer needed by tradespeople, who could field their own calls while on the job? Who would have imagined that decades after the mobile phone was introduced, taxi drivers clientele would be diverted to ride-sharing services like Uber, or, equally, that restaurants would acquire new business by preparing meals for people at home that would be delivered by yet further services like Deliveroo, Foodora and Menulog? And did it ever occur to anyone that not even a decade after the mobile phone and email were introduced, people would get annoyed if they did not receive a reply to their message within a few hours?
Many soft impacts involve changes to our norms and values – and we may want to think hard about what those changes could be before we allow them to occur. But here we hit a double-bind: once technologies have been fully deployed, they can become socially entrenched. We cannot properly evaluate some technologies until after we have experienced their effects. To experience their effects we may need to allow them to be deployed. However, by deploying them, the technology may become socially entrenched and impossible to withdraw from use in society. This is known as the ‘Collingridge dilemma’.
When we become aware of social issues born of technology use, a common response is to regulate. However regulation is not sufficient to ensure human rights are protected, or that technology benefits people to the fullest extent. This is because regulation in response to technology effects tends only to capture the intended, immediate, hard impacts.
Instead we need a more proactive, creative, participatory and, yes, imaginary approach to technology and innovation. One that involves a broad range of stakeholders’ perspectives.
Value Sensitive Design (VSD) allows for the involvement of ethicists, designers and developers, and diverse stakeholders including vulnerable and at-risk groups, in developing new technology, which helps identify intended opportunities and also surface potential unintended consequences, and then embed the solutions into its design from its inception.
It means designers and developers treating considerations like privacy, equality, responsibility and accessibility as equally important to technical specifications like power consumption, features and materials.
This proactive approach is the alternative to reactive regulation.
Sometimes regulation is necessary – not all effects are able to be predicted, no matter how wide-ranging the dialogue or how many voices are included. But on many occasions, it may be possible to predict at least some of the potential issues and problems that a technology may create, and take proactive steps before they materialise, in the hope of preventing or mitigating them.
Our best hope for identifying important concerns and problems is through engaging in inclusive predictive exercises, which is where a transdisciplinary approach is required.
The transdisciplinary perspective allows for a holistic and wider ranging inquiry that, for example, considers the interaction between technologies, bringing into focus systemic influencers.
Recognising the value of this approach, UTS has included contributions from every faculty, as well as from students, in our submission to the AHRC Human Rights and Technology issues paper.
Engaging multiple disciplinary approaches, as well as industry and users, to understand and develop solutions to complex problems, is necessary to imagine futures where emerging technology can promote human flourishing.