Who Decides Who Gets to "Fix" Tech?

Who Decides Who Gets to "Fix" Tech?

10 min read

Technologists, including some who were responsible for the rise of surveillance capitalist behemoths, are declaring technology broken and proposing humanist solutions. What could be wrong with that? And what does this mean for museums?

A common cycle of digital transformation in museums has been this:

  • Leadership decides new technologies are necessary, in the name of improved visitor experience, so that
  • Leadership hires a CDO and gives them the power and budget to hire lots of new people doing lots of new things (some of which are necessary to maintain the organization, collection, working ability of staff), so
  • Some long-time staff complain about priorities, mission drift, redistribution of resources, and neglect of existing audiences (let's assume that this isn't just get off my lawn sour grapes), causing
  • Organizational misalignment reflected in staff working on new and legacy projects if there was no broad attempt to control workload, leading to
  • Budget problems, both because of too many projects and higher costs of new projects, along with no immediate spike in revenue, which likely means
  • Layoffs engulf existing staff and recent hires (who were both doing what the organization hired them to do), and then
  • Priorities are reset, though everyone who's still there seems to be busier. Perfecto!
If only someone could have foreseen that we'd just be going around in circles (Photo by Eduardo Flores on Unsplash) [Description: a time-lapse night view of a traffic circle]

Museums and other cultural institutions have been going through an existential crisis for a long time, and while the current debate is over the use of technology in the organization, it's just the audience retention issue in new clothes. (Museums' role in the white supremacist superstructure of western capitalist society is deeper and not-so-existential.) Museums are spending billions on technology to maintain relevance, but beyond visitor numbers and website hits, it's not clear just what relevance means to most museums. (Nina Simon wrote a book about it, which led to her founding a great new relevance platform for cultural organizations).

Now, this vacuum creates opportunities for museum workers at all levels to define relevance, which might just mean a chance to do some cool work and then get fired for doing that work. Relevance is a long game, and museum budgets, all too often, are not.

Your Digital Transformation, Already in Progress

What does this have to do with techno-fixologists?

Tristan Harris, former Google Design Ethicist, founded the Time Well Spent movement and the Center for Humane Technology to publicize the deleterious effect that attention tech is having on, well, everything. Other influential technologists have come out with the same variation of if only we'd known … 

After a couple of years of this, there's been a welcome backlash, from technologists like Dan Hon calling BS:

A bunch of technologists decide they want the input of sociologists, anthropologists and the wider social sciences and think the best way of working with them is to *blame them for not working with them properly in the past*, when that group was shut out in the first place. FFS.
AND I am very worried and personally upset and angry that they’re increasingly becoming the dominant voice and treating what they’re doing as a game of winner-takes-all of “who gets to fix tech”.

Tech-meets-physical-world technologist Daniel Latorre added, in the same thread:

TBH it wasn't just CHT [Center for Humane Technology]. It's been the network & elite class of people & conferences across mainstream tech & civic tech that have been gatekeepers, only letting in what normative awareness can comprehend. A lack of cultural & class diversity led to this reductionist insular loop.

Let's look at another example of if we'd only known (well, we sort of knew, but now that powerful people who aren't us are exercising power/making money with this thing, we need to do something … well, at least say something …). Take it away, Albert …

My participation in the production of the atom bomb consisted in a single act: I signed a letter to President Roosevelt. this letter stressed the necessity of large scale experimentation to ascertain the possibility of producing an atom bomb.
I was well aware of the dreadful danger for all mankind, if these experiments would succeed. But the probability that the Germans might work on that very problem with good chance of success prompted me to take that step. I did not see any other way out, although I always was a convinced pacifist. To kill in war time, it seems to me, is in no ways better than common murder.

—from Albert Einstein's 1952 essay about his involvement in the atom bomb project

But personal revisionism is a dangerous thing, depending on the stakes. In a world where the FAAMG companies have unparalleled levels of power, saying sorry not sorry but we have to stop the thing I helped create has real consequences. Here's what Canadian historian John Ralston Saul wrote in his amazing 1993 book Voltaire's Bastards, on the attempt to close cage doors long after the monster has escaped (quoted at length):

Read this. Seriously. [Description: the cover of John Ralston Saul's 1993 book, Voltaire's Bastards]
The scientists who produced [the atomic bomb] felt themselves obliged to discuss, in secret, as the times required, the implications of their work. These discussions produced a report which was delivered by hand in June 1945, a month before the first atomic bomb test … [then ] … put away, to be ignored by the political and the administrative structure.  
… the scientists were attempting to take responsibility for the unacceptable application of their inevitable invention. That is the optimistic interpretation. A more cynical view would be that they were declaring pure science to be an innocent participant in the whole affair and shifting responsibility for any application to the politicians. … All considered themselves to be humanists, and many were pacifists. Their call in 1945 for nuclear restraint by the politicians was sincere, but was it honest?
**Einstein, who wrote to President Roosevelt in 1939 encouraging him to build the bomb as fast as possible in order to stay ahead of the Germans, said after it was dropped, “If I knew they were going to do this, I would have become a shoemaker.” If Einstein did not understand the process of development and did not help the public to understand it, what responsibility was he taking in his letter of 1939? To put it crudely, just because Einstein thought himself a nice guy doesn’t mean he was.
The real problem is that during four hundred years of scientific revolution, the continual message has been that invention and change are virtues. Rational virtues.** (pp. 304–6, Kindle edition)

Substitute "attention engineers" for "nuclear scientists" (no such substitution needed for "invention" and "change"), and take for granted that attention abuse can swing elections, which might lead to some nukes being dropped, or at the very least the climate catastrophe being further ignored, never mind the untrammeled rise of fascism, and you have the same situation. Only Einstein didn't start a think tank, and the Union of Concerned Scientists didn't have Medium and TED talks for thought leadership. And he didn't cash out his Los Alamos shares for the money to do whatever he wanted (not that he was doing badly). These technologists often made out very well after they left the companies that made them rich, and they are now speaking with intention and authority—rarely things which those laid off from museums have. These post-techs have the best of both worlds—the authority (and riches) of the victor but also the wisdom of the monastic, the secluded hermit.

The technologist ponders his work and the future. (Hermit-Fisherman on a Spring River, Lan Ying, dated 1632. CC0, The Metropolitan Museum of Art) [Description: a vertical Chinese painting with a man in a small boat, near cliffs and trees]

Back to Museums …

The stakes are different for museums as they try to fix the technologies which have stressed out their workplaces—not just because of added digital work and reallocation of resources, but because the modern platform economy values the arts, for society's sake, even less. But the way museums are going about solving the problems are very much the same—letting the leaders and managers and technologists who tried to fix a problem and created another problem fix the new problem. It's a systems thinking feedback loop of the damned.

Which brings up the point—well, anyone can play guitar write about technology [ahem, author clears throat], but it takes a certain kind of psychopath to believe that you have the solution for the ills of any organization. As Shoshana Zuboff wrote in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism:

Any consideration of the division of learning must resolve these dilemmas expressed in three essential questions. The first question is "Who knows?" This is a question about the distribution of knowledge and whether one is included or excluded from the opportunity to learn. The second question is "Who decides?" This is a question about authority: which people, institutions, or processes determine who is included in learning, what they are able to learn, and how they are able to act on their knowledge. What is the legitimate basis of that authority? The third question is "Who decides who decides?" This is a question about power. (p. 184)

Well, it's FAAMG deciding, and that scales outward to their fallen angels—almost always white males. Like with the rise of the Cheeto, blacks, Hispanics, anyone non-white, especially women, have been calling this out for years. But now white men (and the white women who feel compelled to act like white men) feel bad about what they have wrought? Is it because they're no longer the one calling the shots, and their "importance instinct" is telling them that this is how they're going to get back into the game?

Readings and gatherings like MASS Action and the excellent toolkit it produced, and those cited in LaTanya S. Autry's Social Justice and Museums reading list, are telling the powerful (and just because you're not a high government official or titan of finance doesn't mean you don't have and exercise power, museum peeps) that the solutions to the problems they created will no longer come from them. This radical decentering (or recentering) is the first step. There's no humility in the attention technologists. Just influence by a different name. (Check out MASS Action's biweekly reading group here and on twitter.)

It's the next level that the technologist, and anyone in museums who was part of and benefited from the legacy white power structure, have to ask—not just what have we done, but what have we done wrong? What are we going to do now to make it right? And not centering ourselves and getting rich while doing so.

Look, I get it—you did something bad and now you want to make it better. But do you really know what you did? What system did you help? Why did you do it? (Because what were you going to do, not get rich? Why did your parents move you to that great neighborhood with great schools? Why did you go to that elite university, where afterward you had the luxury of turning down the most money you could make?) The time to say no was back when you were working on this tech. The time to speak out is BEFORE you make the thing. Yes, white men know this.

Silicon Valley and museums have this in common, a long-standing centering disease combined with a sense of being outsiders. It's an easy position to lecture from. It's time for the lectures to stop.

I've had a long time to think about my role in technology … [Description: a bearded hermit emerges from his cave]

What I'm reading/listening to

Beyond what I've listed the last two weeks (scroll to the bottom of my last two posts to see longer lists), it's been:

  • Obliquity: Why Our Goals Are Best Achieved Indirectly, by John Kay. Just started it, but it has a vibe I like.
  • The above-mentioned MASS Action toolkit—the chapter 6 discussion is July 8. Seriously, people, the readings are amazing. Chapter 3, Organizational Culture and Change: Making the Case for Inclusion, is a deep dive into the how white patriarchal supremacy and anti-humanist org culture are so powerfully intertwined. The readings, along with worksheets and facilitation guides, are available for download at The Incluseum's website.
  • Otherwise, I'm still in podcast catch-up mode, including new episodes of This is HCD [human-centered design] and Curbed's Nice Try series on Utopia.

In case you didn't see the cover image, it's here:

Not sorry? Just as long as I still have a TED talk and a foundation … some interviews would be nice, too … (Photo by Felix Koutchinski on Unsplash) [Description: a bearded man wearing a t-shirt which says "I'm sorry" holding a sign which says "Forgiveness"]

Thank you for reading! Museum Human will take this week off from writing, hopefully working on some new features for the site and preparing to co-lead this workshop in Dortmund, Germany, looking at how agile ideas can benefit the cultural sector (since I'll be the print and org culture person in the room, the focus will be not just on digital, but across the organization) later this month. Check it out.

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I work on a bit of everything in museum content. I find human solutions to tech problems. I geek out on workflow. No, really. I learn and teach and write everything down.