Sometimes a word gets stretched and appropriated to fit so many uses that it loses its meaning. “Innovation” is one such word. (Is a washing machine that connects to the internet actually “innovative”? Well, it says so right in the marketing copy!) But when it comes to the word “technologist,” there’s an argument to be made that the opposite is true—that at this pivotal moment, a broader definition is good for the field.
Simply put, in this still burgeoning field, we need all the help we can get. If technology is going to work for the millions of people who fall outside of Silicon Valley’s most familiar territory (which arguably includes people who aren't white, or don't speak English, or have limited literacy skills, or have a disability, or are low-income, or need technology that can do things besides get them a ride or do their laundry or deliver them a pizza) then we need people who understand what it is to live those realities. We need an inclusive definition for who we turn to as experts in building, adapting, and deploying technology, in terms of both demographics and skills.
Expertise is everywhere
Consider how this might play out in another field. If we were looking for expertise about cars, and the only people we looked to were the engineers who build engines for vehicles, we would be leaving out knowledgeable users like NASCAR racers or long-haul truckers or bus drivers. We’d be leaving out the teenagers who obsess over the latest high-performance models. We’d be leaving out the highway engineers, urban planners, and bureaucrats who make the underlying infrastructure and policies that decide where cars can go. We would be missing the point, by failing to understand the value of the underlying question: “Who knows how best to get from point A to point B?”
The same is true when it comes to tech. Luckily, some organizations are embracing diverse perspectives and skill sets, and reaping the benefits. The Engine Room works with civil society to help them repurpose and adapt existing tools and data sets for new contexts. Free Press and the Center for Media Justice advocate for policies that connect and empower marginalized communities in the United States, while the Association for Progressive Communications does the same for those in the global south. Researchers at Data & Society study the ethical and sociological implications of running more and more of our commercial and governmental processes through algorithms. These organizations work with and employ engineers, but the bulk of their staff is comprised of trainers, advocates, subject matter experts, facilitators, translators, organizers, and evaluators. These are people who specialize in applying their expertise through the lens of digital tools—thus, they are technologists.
A technologist looks like...anyone
Our historically narrow definition is the result of a limited understanding of what skills are valuable, but also of whose skills are valuable. (Think of computer scientist Paul Graham’s famous admission about his bias in favor of anyone “who looks like Mark Zuckerberg.” That pretty much sums up our archetype of what a “techie” is.) So the more women, people of color, and other underrepresented and marginalized groups—and activists, advocates, sociologists, and journalists—take ownership of their tech expertise, the better it will be for all our digital lives.
With a more expansive field of technologists, what problems might we see through new eyes, and be better equipped to solve? Thankfully, there’s a large and growing community of people doing just that—we like to call them public interest technologists.
If you recognize what’s described here, you might be one of them! Let’s keep the conversation going. Share this message with others in your community, and explore more ideas and insights about public interest tech—technology at work for the public.