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You Are a Technologist

October 5, 2017

In a previous post for Re:CAP, I cautioned against the dangers of ignoring cybersecurity, because risk management is a powerful tool for self-determination. The danger is real, but it is also not the only story worth telling. Don’t worry about the robots taking over; you have more pressing matters. Technology developed in the past shaped our present, and you have an active role in influencing the new technologies that will shape our future.

There is a generative, exciting element to introducing technology into our lives. Technology provides access to knowledge and can help to free us from physical limitations. It can be a force for great efficiency in production and a cross-pollinator across disciplines and over time.

Private sector companies own and operate the vast majority of the infrastructure in tech. This means that technology is man-made and malleable. It is a story being imagined as we go, and it is premised on participation. You are in the story, whether you are a financier or a teacher or an artist. Technology is now the medium through which we interact with – and produce things in – the world.

Code, of course, is a fairly concrete representation of the thoughts of those before us. We are constantly surrounded by the artifacts of coders who came before us and conceived of these technologies. But it is equally true of more creative disciplines. For example, when a fashion designer sees shape within content (this month, I was inspired by van Herpens), she creates new ways of conceptualizing movement, or transacting value.

Technology is always a series of accumulated acts – whether  they be writing code, designing dams, or configuring X-ray machines to be more accurate. Those actions are a result of several human thought processes building off of each other. So, when you walk through daily life, your lens on the world is shaped by the thoughts, or the lenses, of those people who came before and encoded themselves into your technological present. Looking at a VCR or an iPhone, you can see concrete exhibits of the reality we live, in a landscape dotted with thought skeletons from those who came before us.

In this sense, we are a part of this constant series of processes and interactions that are constructing our future as we live our present. Technology doesn’t happen to you (yes, even those of you who are thinking, “but I can’t even program my TV!”). We experience the world through a lens particular to our experiences. To interact as a human is to help re-imagine the future.

Sometimes, school lesson plans conflate science with technology. Technology is man-made and therefore it is knowable. That is to say, you may not understand how a particle collider machine works, but someone (or more likely, a group of people) does. This is different from the science of actual particle behaviors, which may or may not be ultimately understandable at a human level-- sure, we are studying them but they have a set of behaviors and characteristics that exist, independent of humans’ awareness or acknowledgment.

Technology is man-made. In fact, the Internet, arguably our most imaginative feat of technology so far, is so man-made as to have become a Hobbesian landscape where women are ridiculed and threatened, and teenagers incite each other to die. How very human and imperfect of us to encode our own biases in the stuff we produce! We do this in artificial intelligence and robots too, by the way. The fact that our code reflects our human thought shortcuts, aka cognitive biases, is one of the reasons I advocate for diversity in development teams.

Sometimes, I remind myself that we see the sun not as it is, but as it was 8.3 minutes ago. It is an imperfect comparison, but I use it as a device to remind myself that we see the world not as it “is” in any objective sense, but as we perceive it, from where we are and the lens we have.

So, be mindful when you interact with technologies, behind which lies a developer team—an imperfect set of humans who always encode products with flaws as well as functionalities. Take from that a more coherent strategy for how you want to rely upon or alter the offerings of technology in your business and your life.

We interact with the world around us not in any objective way, but as the product of ourselves, both individually and collectively. We live in a landscape dotted with the vestiges of those who came before, and our interactions with those technologies change them--and change the landscape. To be alive is to be part of these interactions. You are a technologist.

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Merritt is a cybersecurity and emerging tech expert in Washington, D.C. The views expressed here are the author’s personal views and do not reflect the FCC or the US Government, for whom she works. She will be developing content and curricula for Fels Institute of Government. Follow her on Twitter at @MerrittBaer and on the Fels website.

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