Frontline Lessons from Other Sectors

Back To The Future – How New Tech Might Perpetuate Old Problems

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Happy New Year, fellow social justice rookies! I know I’ve been very absent over the past year, but I thought that 2015 made the perfect reason to reappear. No, it’s not the 6 things that the movie ‘Back to the Future II’ got wrong about the year 2015. It’s what we might get right in 2045. And the possibility that it either makes nothing better, or makes some things worse.

Tech visionary and MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte has been literally predicting the future of technology in the developed world since the 1970’s. And every single ridiculous idea, from touch screens to smart TVs to what is now the self-driving car, came true. Everyone laughed at him when he opened his mouth, ever since the very first TED conference. And he always waited a few years, and managed to see his prophecy come true almost exactly as he’d imagined.

Early last year, the tech Nostradamus highlighted all of these predictions (in the talk above), and then made a new prediction for thirty years from now – people would be able to literally consume information, ingesting a pill that would make them more intelligent.

On face value, it sounds like a future us Millenials can get behind. Finally living our weird dream to become Neo – swallow a pill and learn Kung Fu and how to fly a helicopter. It is indeed a very clever future. It opens all sorts of pathways for education, specification in the workplace, educating trainees in high-risk or complex workplaces to increase productivity and decrease risk…it actually gets more beautiful the more you imagine it. There’s just one problem, one that has eluded us despite all the scientific and technological development that we’ve made. Racism.

(Yep, I did it. I applied racism to a completely unknown frontier in science, technology and education. I ruined the dream for everyone, some might say. But if you can afford to think that racism can’t be applied to almost every single thing that can be experienced by people regardless of skin colour, then luckily you’ve got enough privilege. You’ll get over it.

Think of it this way; an incredibly beneficial (and no doubt expensive) pill to learn an entire Bachelor’s degree in a day gets developed, advanced to the point that no personal biological factors hinder its consumption. Basically, you don’t need a prescription to take the pill. Everything else being equal, the only barrier to access is the price. That automatically means that people and communities that have consistently been underemployed and under the bread line – people of colour, some sexual minorities – will never have access to the pill in the volume that benefits those communities and propagates further access for its descendants. On the other hand, the already wealthy, folks who already have access to the resources and tools of production and innovation, now have a tool to get brighter faster and make the wage gap between people in power and people of colour even wider. Minority university students won’t just be competing against better endowed and better respected peers, but now folks their age who literally got their degree overnight. Or, worse yet, the degree would become obsolete, in favour of individuals who can provide the same capacity for work and intelligence from a much younger age, providing companies more years of their time. The learned 23-year-old graduate is now too old.

Now, luckily, all this is speculation. This might be the one time that Negroponte is wrong. Just another ‘Back to the Future’ world that stays fiction. But there is a lesson here for the future we’re already creating…

Take the cellular phone. In the English-speaking Caribbean, the Blackberry smartphone was the pinnacle of telecommunications technology. Only problem was, we were almost exclusively being sold those phones in the Caribbean when the developed world had moved on to Android and iPhone technology. Only now has the device market for both the US and Caribbean now reached a sort of neck-and-neck race, and even still our 4G market is rumoured to lag behind theirs. The technology that moves our industries in the global South – and our education as well – may all be, in a way, hand-me-downs from developed-world systems that have already found the successors to those tools. Trinidadians might not be able to get their hands on a second-generation 3D printer until the US or Europe develops the sixth-generation one. By then, anything we manage to make with such technology will hardly be innovative enough for us to catch up.

Even if those presumptions are wrong on a regional level, on a personal level they stand true. The person of colour, worldwide, doesn’t have the resources to compete evenly with the white-privileged. When a little black boy, especially from the Third World, gets a scholarship to an Ivy League school and graduates with Honours, it’s more than excellent. It’s a miracle, for that graduate, and his family, and people of colour who see photos of him on Tumblr. It’s no different than the almost forgotten Island Scholarships that Trinidadian teenagers vied for to get into secondary school, where ultimately one poor black child won entry into the white prestigious game that was (and to some degree still is) education.

I’m not saying that this is a reason to not create a pill that lets us learn how to fly a helicopter overnight. That’s still kind of cool. But technological advancement often times goes on without any thought of its sociocultural implications, where some disenfranchised groups are trying to get to the future using tools still lodged in the developed and industrial past. As we move even further into a future of untold possibilities with the past’s baggage weighing some of us down, that future is not as bright and colourful as we are told to expect. In fact, if we don’t pay attention, it may be even darker still…

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