digital justice

//volunteering the valley: designing technology for the common good in the san francisco bay area//

My current book project ethnographically examines civic technology organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area. Civic technology organizations are made up of technologists—employed or seeking employment in the tech industry—who volunteer in their spare time to build digital technologies to help make civic bureaucrats’ work more efficient, transparent, accountable, and responsive to residents’ needs. Although a commendable goal, I argue that civic technologists’ efforts end up being less about serving local residents and more about proving that, despite current critiques, technology design can still save the world. Many technologists get involved in civic tech because they feel disillusioned with their jobs and want to create the conditions under which tech work can improve the common good rather than only contributing to their employers’ bottom line. As a result, they structure their volunteering experiences to resemble their ideal workplace: minimal hierarchies; the freedom to work on what interests them; and the ability to switch projects when they choose—all with no deadlines for specific tasks. However, in doing so, they bring the epistemologies and ideologies rooted in software engineering work to bear on social problems. As a consequence, they tend to valorize narrow techno-solutions over broader political mobilizations. This tendency extends into their partnerships with bureaucrats, where volunteers try to train city employees to adopt the principles of private sector design practices to serve local residents and end up trying to make local government run like a tech company. The upshot of these processes is that they reinforce Big Tech’s epistemic, economic, and cultural power. For this reason, I argue that efforts to design for social justice will continue to reproduce inequality until they are extricated from the work cultures of high-tech firms.

You can access my dissertation here.

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