I have written before about how technology often makes life easier for a large number of the population while simultaneously disenfranchising others. The good news is that this does not have to be the case.
The example I used in the past was the Starbucks App which allows customers to use, gain rewards for, and reload their account on their smartphone, while making it more cumbersome and difficult to tip baristas. This again does not have to be an inevitability, but requires Starbucks to enhance the functionality of its App.
So I was pleased to discover (special thanks to my student Marissa for bringing this to my attention) this week that come Wednesday March 19th, Starbucks will be rolling out an update to their smartphone App which allows just that. You can read more about it at Forbes here. You will be able to download the update from places like iTunes, and include your tip easily.
While some may dismiss this as a first-world problem, I cannot emphasize how powerful a shift I consider this to be in terms of workers’ rights in the service sector. I am convinced it comes in part as a result of advocacy by and for workers, and sets the bar higher and yet attainable for corporations to maximize their value to customers while not disenfranchising their employees.
How can you help advocate for social justice in the technology you use? First, simply by mindful usage. Take a few minutes today to open your smartphone and make note of the Apps you use most frequently. Next, ask yourself, who, if anyone is disadvantaged by my using this App? Just thinking about the connections can be a powerful mental exercise. Notice how complicated it can get fairly quickly: If I use Evernote frequently, I am less likely to write things down on paper, which may be good for the environment but may also disenfranchise industrial workers in paper mills. Hold on, did I say that you had to stop using Evernote or lobby for paper mills? No, I’m asking us to sit with the complexity of a problem here for a minute to see the larger systems at play. Technology has always resulted in job loss for some even as it may provide workplace improvements or quality of life for others. It’s when we don’t think about these things in a more complex way that we stop innovating social justice itself.
Part of what I’m trying to encourage us to see is that social justice, workers’ rights, unions, and any person or group committed to social justice needs to keep pace with innovation and in fact keep innovating themselves. Technology always runs the risk of disenfranchising people, especially workers. If the McCormick reaper in a few hours does the day’s job of three workers, what happens to those three workers? We are still living in a capitalist society in the US, and it is unlikely that as technology improves and reduces the need for human workers that all of these people will be able to afford to turn their minds and lives to the pursuit of art and culture. Everything isn’t always getting better for everyone in the current system, and we are seeing overcrowding in occupations ranging from factory to legal work.
If social justice advocates, and social workers are to continue to help the disenfranchised, they are going to need to keep pace with technological developments and continue to think innovatively about 21st century equity in complex and sustained ways. And by the way, thinking, “the gap is just going to get wider, the social fabric is unraveling,” is not an example of innovative thinking, but defeatism that exempts us from the work of innovation.
This brings me back to my social work colleagues, and my continued urging for them to keep pace with emerging technologies, especially if you are touting the concept of social innovation. Social innovation without leveraging emerging technology will ultimately lead to future disenfranchisement. If you have a social innovation department in your social work program that doesn’t leverage technology you are not being socially innovative. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I know that the answer to social injustice will inevitably need to integrate emerging technology into it.