If we're trying to build a world that centres life and everything that sustains it, we need our tech to do the same thing. Currently, our technology industry and its outputs reflect the worst impulses of the heads of several dying empires (business and political). They were never and have never been reflective of the needs, wants, and dreams of most people.
A world or even a community that considered the needs of people within it on every step of the way between 'eureka' moment and final production would look radically different to what we have currently inherited and built. That radical difference is what makes me think that abolitionist thinking is a key way in which we'll move from where we are to where we want to be. You can't reform systems that are doing what they were designed to do. Changes that will prevent or at least mitigate the worst of climate change and enable the majority of people and other beings on the planet to have good lives will require massive changes.
A slogan for prison abolition is “we keep us safe” and I thought it often whilst writing this piece; we are the ones who have to weather the consequences of whatever new world we build, and who better to make sure we don't mess that up than us?
To give two examples of ways in which abolition can shape two ways the tech industry interacts with the world; through the university, and through the field of psychiatry.
To become technologists at all, people are usually funnelled into either universities or for-profit bootcamps. These are both modes of education that don't serve their students interests first and foremost, and keep knowledge locked behind paywalls.
Software accreditation, even from a university, in any case gives no one any guarantee that anything you code will be sound or that you are held to some ethical standard. Within industries where university is seen as some kind of obvious gold standard, such as medicine, there are still years of practical learning and on-the-job assessment necessary. It takes years to go from the “book learnt” portion of being a doctor to having any substantial skill.
Spending money on qualifications keeps people locked into cycles of debt, jobs they hate or are not suited for, and generally grinds down the spirits of millions across the globe. And as we all know, it often doesn't even result in a job that was worth the investment in the first place.
In terms of enacting this, there are many efforts, both legal and not, to free information locked behind paywalls that was only found out through the use of public funds. There are few not-for-profit or entirely free tech schools, at least that I know of, and those that do exist are mostly focused on getting people into the tech industry, but it's still a promising route for the in-between.
Prison abolition is frequently mentioned in these conversations for good reason, but I think that it has been discussed in greater depth and with better clarity from a tech perspective by many other thinkers.
The tech industry's stake in this is perhaps less obvious, but from BetterHelp to online GPs, we provide tech that gets the job done, for better and for worse. There are countless horror stories of crisis hotline data being monetised and used in ways that were not clear to users, such as sending data to Facebook. Data was used in these ways to satisfy profit motives (for profit healthcare could have had its own section in this), with no benefit to users and often without consent.
Mental health apps frequently fail in less toxic ways, simply failing to deliver any benefit for the money handed over, and using CBT in the most cost-effective but low human interaction (and thus low wellness increasing) of ways. The lack of resources available freely or cheaply to people means that they are more like to come into contact with the police and be further victimised, and more likely to have poor outcomes and become further marginalised through hospitalisation, incarceration and resulting homelessness.
Benefit systems for disabled people who are out of work or need support whilst they work due to low earnings are designed oppositionally, supported by technology built by engineers who think that they're helping build the fairest, most efficient systems. These systems, which in the UK use AI to try to find fraudulent applications, lack transparency and show bias even according to the government themselves.
Visions for the future
The two main things I think that would help achieve the abolitionist vision in tech:
- community owned and produced tech, in every sense, as much as possible
- everyone having a stake and a say in how their data and technology is collected and built
Seeing abolition as both a lens and as a technology in itself has helped me to identify the best of all the options and imagine better outcomes and futures where compatible options do not exist. Abolition means creating so much new stuff, and so many new ways of doing things; it is not only or even mostly about tearing down.
- Abolish Silicon Valley(mostly the last few chapters where she talks about ideas; I don't agree with everything but cool for the broad strokes)
- Mad World
- The Future Will Be Technical
This piece is part of my attempt at Alphabet Superset, a 6 month creative challenge.