The political economy of technology

Opinion by Anna-Sofia Lesiv
Oct. 27, 2016, 8:55 p.m.

I sat across from Mark Mancall as a flock of SLE students, eager to pick the mind of their program’s founder, gathered for dinner. As the conversation drifted to technology, the man who urged us with vehement confidence to do our homework on the works of the canon, leaned back, perplexed.

“It’s out of control,” he sighed.

The spectre haunting us all — the spectre of technology — frightens not only thinkers like Mancall, but entire hordes of philosophers and social theorists who see no historical precedent to parallel its intrusive role in daily life. Even Marshall McLuhan, author of supposedly the ninth most read book at Stanford, who presaged the invention of the World Wide Web, called humans the “sex organs of machines.”

As Mancall suggests, the pace of technological advance may indeed be unpredictable. Yet history contends that whether in brutalist Soviet factories policed by state officials or in the sleek gadgets engineered by the brightest of the hackerati, technology has always been controlled by the dynamics of social hierarchy. Its implementation and design always fell squarely into the hands of the elite.

Even the Internet, pictured as the freest and most inclusive of gathering places, shows evidence of this. The “sharing economy” — that overly charitable name we’ve given to the space that lets us share our homes, cars and labour — is riddled with disenchanting examples exposing the mechanics of privilege. Gregory Selden was denied accommodation on Airbnb twice by a host who consistently re-listed after rejecting requests from Selden’s profile depicting his black skin. The viral response to the hashtag he created after neither the company nor the host would respond to complaints, #AirbnbWhileBlack, unearthed this uncomfortable truth.

After scouring through thousands of listings on the app, Michael Luca and Ben Edelman at HBS confirmed that guests with “distinctively African-American names are 16 percent less likely to be accepted,” while black hosts too on average earn 12 percent less than white hosts using the platform.

This economy of “sharing,” designed to liberalize individuals’ revenue streams and offer the opportunity of entrepreneurship to all, revealed rather stark internal barriers of its own — namely those preventing certain groups from unobstructed participation in the market.  

After Selden sued, the company hired a swarm of civil rights leaders, a former director at ACLU and former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder to investigate. When questioned, Holder told Forbes, “It will take an entity or individual to come up with something that is paradigm challenging and gutsy to help solve [this implicit racial bias].”

This “challenge to the paradigm” might just be found with Andrew Feenberg, professor of philosophy at Simon Fraser University. Feenberg is one of the last descendants of the Frankfurt School who emerged unscathed from the visions of techno-dystopia espoused by many of the institute’s earlier social theorists. Technology doesn’t frighten Feenberg. After all, it only embodies the values already prevalent in our society. His work asserts that whatever the technology we engineer, it will always reflect the social biases that go into its creation.

Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb, illustrated Feenberg’s point when he acknowledged that concerns over discrimination never popped up on the radar since the app’s founders are “just three white guys.” The multiplicity of voices impacted by most technological innovations are never included in the initial design. In contrast, an alternate version of the app has appeared in Noirbnb, which casts itself as a distinctly discrimination-free platform.

Though Selden’s lawsuit and Twitter campaign have produced impressive discourse, Feenberg suggests that we establish a more participatory and institutional means of incorporating public concerns into technological design.

He calls this “democratic rationalization” a means of designing technology to achieve not only economic efficiency, but social efficiency as well. The idea doesn’t stray too far from its natural cousin, Marx’s political economy. The Vancouver-based philosopher is merely overseeing a revival of century-old ideas at a time when their realization may be easier than ever. As the ‘sharing economy’ has shown, entrepreneurial programmers and engineers today are not only bestowed with the power to introduce new products to market, but with the unprecedented ability to shape the markets themselves. So long as we insist on socially-oriented design, these innovations could easily help advance, rather than stymie, social justice.

Amid students’ thoughtful munching, Mancall, like Feenberg, expressed his wish for a re-admission of the political economy into contemporary discourse. Though Mancall’s words seemed to sink with the regret of an unrealized past, to me, they gleamed with the potential of a future yet unrealized.


Contact Anna-Sofia Lesiv at alesiv ‘at’

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