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Society is the System: Beyond Individual Empowerment to Structural Negotiations

Contribution to the PDC 2020 Interactive Workshop "Computing Professionals for Social Responsibility: The Past, Present and Future Values of Participatory Design".

Published onMay 25, 2020
Society is the System: Beyond Individual Empowerment to Structural Negotiations

Society is the System: Beyond Individual Empowerment to Structural Negotiations

By Aakash Gautam and Deborah Tatar

Virginia Tech, USA

Contact: {aakashg, dtatar}


Over the past three years, we have been working with an anti-trafficking organization in Nepal and exploring prospects for human trafficking survivors living in a protected home. We shall call this partner NGO “Survivors Organization” (SO) as it was founded by a group of sex- trafficking survivors and many staff at all levels of SO are trafficking survivors.

The over-arching goal of this project is to understand whether and how we could help in the reintegration process. But as computing professionals, we are prone to see what is and what out to be through the lens of technological solutionism. Thus, a part of work has been on careful reflection of knowing what is the right thing to do and how we would know we have done it. This has led us to follow a path of mutual discovery, co-ownership, and commitment that avoids doing damage, including being open to the idea that the best intervention could be to not intervene[1].

We firmly believe that technology alone is not enough in circumstances like these. Technology provides resources that (we hope) can benefit the marginalized groups such as the survivors, but it alone cannot be framed as a sustainable approach for support. We argue that there is a need for researchers and practitioners to go beyond individual empowerment and use their position and power to leverage resources from larger institutions to create sustainable support mechanism.

Approaches to support individual agency and aspiration-based design have become increasingly popular in the Global South within the aegis of PD and HCI4D/ICTD practices. Promoting individual agency and aspirations are critical for it provides a sense of control to the individuals. But we also need to deepen the engagement beyond the individual level and add focus on the institutional and structural issues. This will open possibilities for the individuals to exercise control which is what we believe PD practices should aspire towards.

By arguing for the expansion of computing professionals’ role from promoting marginalized group’s sense of control to the group’s exercise of control over their circumstances, we bring an amenable way to center the activist aspect of participatory approaches as part of computing professionals’ responsibility.

Cases from Our Study in Nepal:

Towards a Greater Sense of Control:

In working with a group of ten survivors in Nepal, we observed that the survivors expressed limited agency with respect to their family and the institutions. They felt that they were on the fringe of their family’s decision-making process, felt that institutions were too distant to care for them, and did not see themselves taking action to bring about change[2].

We designed a series of activities aimed at supporting the survivors’ agentic-future-envisionment where we narrowed the focus on problems they had seen in their villages. It ensued a discussion on ways they could change their families and other members of society and, more importantly, to imagine themselves playing an active role in bringing about the changes they wanted. There was a growth in the sense of control over what they could do within the realities of their lives.

But imagining oneself to engage with others is not the same as actual engagement. Additionally, the various known and unknown social pressures the survivors face in society may restrict their actual engagement with other actors. This is a limitation that needs to be overcome by facilitating ways in which the survivors can exercise control.

Opportunities to Exercise Control:

We have been conducting workshops with groups of survivors where we provide computer training and introduce the Internet. The workshops have been contextualized around crafting, a skill that all survivors learn at SO.

During the sessions, we have heard the survivors discuss details of their crafting practices where a prominent theme was that they felt they had limited control over their crafting practices. They felt that they had little say in the kinds of crafts they made and had to work even when they were not interested. In a sense, this reflection could be seen as a growing sense among the survivors to desire greater control over the existing crafting practices. But given that the survivors are dependent on the organization, they have little or no power to negotiate. We, as well-intentioned researchers, could and we did. We followed up on this observation by discussing with the trainers who promised that they would seek ways to provide greater control to the survivors.

The computing activity also opened a possibility for greater control as they thought about their future. For example, S2 wanted to be a dance teacher. After encountering YouTube videos of other people teaching new dance moves she shared that she felt more confident in being prepared for her students as she could learn new moves over the Internet. This growth in self-efficacy was heard in S3’s comment that she felt she could now ‘become an office worker’ (a common phrase for office assistant) after having learned how to type using computers.

While both of these observations pushed back on the structural inequities to some extent, there is much to be done. It is quite evident that the additional decision making over crafting or computer training would not suffice to support the survivors in the long run. Making additional institutional resources available such as opportunities to different vocational training programs could help the survivors to explore skills they value; they would not be limited to the training in local handicrafts. Likewise, negotiating with training institutions and organizations to provide apprenticeship programs would provide concrete paths for the survivors’ long-term reintegration.

However, this kind of work with institutional resources may not necessarily look most impressive from a technological standpoint. It is, nonetheless, critical in circumstances like these. We thus need to expand the way we think about the responsibilities of computing professionals. One way to do so, that we have argued before, is to look at policies as designed systems, that is, expand the scope of design beyond the screen[3] and see the society as the system.

Wolmet Barendregt: Thank you for your thoughtful contribution. I agree that we should see technology as a resource and not as a sustainable approach for support, and that we as researchers and practitioners should use our position and power to leverage resources from larger institutions to create sustainable support mechanisms. However, personally, I still don’t know how to practically do this. Where should we start? How do you deal with that on a personal level?