Section One - Accessibility
A story about living forever and the six million dollar person (13 minutes)
Technology should be fair. Yes, but can you define fair?
Technology should be inclusive. Yes, but what is inclusive exactly?
Inclusivity and accessibility
This is a crash course on inclusivity in technology. This can be definied as:
providing equal access to opportunities and resources for people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized.
Inclusivity is in part about accessibility. Has everyone access to a certain technology? If not, this can create inequality. That is the topic of this first section. Later in this crash course we will look at biases, which are often part of technology, that result in technology not being fair for everyone.
Let's start with human enhancement, a potentially extreme example of how the (in)accessibility of technology can create inequality.
First, enjoy this one minute video of The Jetsons.
George Jetson was the patriarch of a cartoon called The Jetsons. It was The Flintstones of the future. The Jetsons depicted an average suburban family of the year 2062, but the family of the future looked a lot like the family of 1962. Patriarchal dad, well-coiffed wife, tyrannical boss. What marked their world as different were the gadgets. Things like flying saucers, holograms, 3D printed food and a robotic housekeeper wearing an apron called Rosie.
Historian Michael Bess called this the 'Jetsons Fallacy.' He states that the gadget-rich world encapsulates misconceptions of the future. Technologies will evolve while we humans remain the same. We often think like that. Everything will change, except most humans. Maybe there is a cyborg or an android, but in science fiction most humans remain the same.
It is, of course, way more likely that technology will also cause us humans to evolve.
Let’s look at a 3.30 minute video on human enhancement.
In the video there is a cameo from the Six Million Dollar Man. The Six Million Dollar Man was a TV series about colonel Austin who, after a flight accident, is rebuilt with superhuman strength, speed, and vision due to bionic implants. Maybe one day we will all be a Six Million Dollar Man. Or, better, it is 2021 after all: a Six Million Dollar Person.
Note: The TV series was from 1973. Today for six million dollars you can't even buy a decent defensive midfielder.
Quick question: Do you want to become a better human? Live longer? Be stronger? Be smarter? A superhuman?
Next, watch this 4 minute video on transhumanism and – watch for it in the video – a very unrelated but very cool idea called utility fog.
For a long time, people have been improving with the help of technology. This often had a medical reason, such as glasses, or a pacemaker or built-in hearing aids. Often the reason was cosmetic, such as plastic surgery. However, there is no doubt that in the coming years the goal of technological improvement will increasingly be to become a better, stronger, smarter, healthier person, driven by the rapid developments in biotechnology.
Technology will create superhumans.
The real interesting question, that is also asked in the videos above, is: will everyone will get access to this?
Suppose in a few decades it will be possible to use (bio)technology to become smarter, live a lot longer, be healthier and stronger, chances are that in the beginning this will be very expensive and only for the very rich. But, what if the rich get stronger, older, healthier and smarter? What if they use CRISPR to enhance? What if they have designer babies? Then they may not need the rest of the people anymore. Maybe this will create a race of superhumans.
This is maybe an extreme example, and maybe it will never happen, but it underlines the importance of thinking about the accessibility of technology.
Today, when people are still just people, however, accessibility is also a very important topic. A technology that gives you an important advantage, but is only accessible to a small group, creates inequality.
Of course technology can also improve accessibility. Technology makes things affordable and easy to access.
There are more people in the world with access to a smartphone than there are people with access to a clean toilet.
Wait a minute, you might say, if you were paying attention in crash course one, this is a pretty bad example because a toilet is also technology. That's very true. Sorry. We just liked the example.
Technology is often cheap and it often becomes more cheaper over time. People like Larry Page, co-founder of Google, predicted that a massive deflation is coming.
"New technologies will make businesses not 10 percent, but 10 times more efficient, he says. Provided that flows through into lower prices: I think the things you want to live a comfortable life could get much, much, much cheaper."
Also technology makes other things easier to access. A car makes it easier to go to your relatives. Glasses help you to do groceries on your own. Social media gives you access to your friends, and so on. Also technology is very good at offering solutions for people with disabilities. From software that can read a website, to prosthetic arms and brain-computer interfaces.
But often technology creates inequalities when it comes to accessibility. Maybe not on the scale of the superhumans, but there are many other examples. In a corona outbreak you see, for example, that students with a laptop and a decent internet connection are favoured. Also, grandparents with digital skills have have fewer problems keeping in touch with their grandchildren.
That is why it is very important to ask questions like these:
- Is a certain technology affordable for everyone?
- Does the inequality between people increase because of the access to a certain technology? For example, if you build an app that is really helpful, but only available on expensive types of smartphones;
- Can people with disabilities use it?
- Do people are 'digitally skilled' enough to use the technology?
People. People. People. What about animals? There are also people who think we should also use our powers to make animals smarter. What do you think? More in the additional materials.
The questions above are just some examples. You can ask more and better questions. The key is that thinking about the accessibility of technology is very important. Thinking about people not having access to a certain technology or certain services and how to mitigate or accept that, can help you thinking about, designing, programming, implementing or using a certain technology.
So, technology becomes more accessible, it can make things more accessible, but it can also create inequality because for some people it is harder to get access to the technology. Being aware of that is very important.
We can also look at it the other way around. A well-known quote by William Gibson is: the future is already here - it's just not evenly distributed. In its original context, it alludes primarily to the fact that the things that will constitute the normal or everyday within the lives of those living in the future already exist for some today. For example, first the rich have electric cars or printed organs, but one day everyone has access to them. This fits with the examples above.
What we increasingly see, however, is that new technology is first made available to the disadvantaged. A cheap apartment complex where facial recognition is already being used, low-skilled people who are controlled by AI, etc ...
So William Gibson's statement works both ways and that casts a completely different perspective on 'accessibility' to technology.
Also, technology itself can contribute to equal access to opportunities or not. Often technology, consciously or unconsciously, is biased.
That is the topic of the next section.
Take aways from section one:
- Technological human enhancement is inevitable;
- Chances are that this will be only for the happy few;
- This is an extreme example of technology accessibility creating inequality, but accessibility is also an important topic today;
- Technology becomes more accessible;
- Technology can improve accessibility to other things;
- Technology can make accessibility more difficult for certain people and create inequality;
- Being aware of the impact of the accessibility of technology is therefore very important.