How Afrofuturism might provide a framework for thinking about technology charities
Technology charities of the future
As charities go through digital transformation and use more and more technology in their work, we should expect that technology to fundamentally change what it means to be a charity and to have a positive effect on the world.
It’s likely we’ll see ‘technology charities’ emerging in the not too distant future in the same way technology companies have come about over the past few decades. For charities using technology to enable their work, and those that use it as core to how they create social value, now is the right time to start to consider how to understand and approach the technology of the future.
“Technology is never neutral and it’s always concerned with the future. So why not look to a frame that’s also about imagining futures and takes questions of power head on”Taylor Owen
The problem with tech-optimism
The idea that technology makes things better, by default or purely because it exists, has come to be known as tech-optimism. The tech-optimist perspective believes that any social and environmental problem can be solved by developing more technology. But this belief, and it really is just a belief, has history and it has issues.
Much of the tech-optimist perspective with have today grew up with Silicon Valley entrepreneurial culture and the ideal of the young white male founder. This perspective gets epitomised in the tech billionaires like Bezos and Musk but really it’s deeply embedded in all tech culture that prioritises convenience for the user and effects at scale. What it lacks is an understanding what it means for someone to not have access to things, or any consideration for the people who get left behind or who are negatively impacted.
Lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese, and graphite for making mobile phone and electric vehicle batteries is mined in the Republic of the Congo, by hand, often by children (Frankel, 2016). Would mobile phones be different today if Congolese children had been involved in designing the first iPhone?
The problem with tech-optimism is that the people designing the technology have never been affected by it. They don’t have enough experience of the barriers that discrimination and inequality create. They are removed from the consequences. And the problem with almost all technology is that it is rooted in this kind of tech-optimism.
Charities then, as a force for good in the world, have to think critically about how they view their use of technology in achieving their mission. It isn’t good enough to adopt an academically-unsound, environmentally-damaging, socially-unequal tech-optimist perspective just because it’s dominant and because using technology helps ‘their’ people.
There has to be another way.
Finding a shared perspective
In 1994, cultural critic Mark Dery came up with the term “Afrofuturism” in an essay titled “Black to the Future.” Black people, he wrote, have “other stories to tell about culture, technology and things to come.”
Afrofuturism, it’s aesthetics, stories and philosophies existed long before Dery named it.
Jone Johnson Lewis, a women’s history writer who has been involved with the women’s movement since the late 1960s, says, “Afrofuturism can be seen as a reaction to the dominance of white, European expression, and a reaction to the use of science and technology to justify racism and white or Western dominance and normativity.”
Julian C. Chambliss, Professor of English at Michigan State University, says, “Afrofuturist works ask audiences to think about how society can be made safe for everyone.”
Ian Forrester describes Afrofuturism as, “not just an aesthetic — it’s just as much a framework for activism and imagining new technologies”.
Add all of this up and Afrofuturism, with its recognition that the global status quo is one of political, economic, social, and even technical inequality, offers a way of looking at technology, how it is developed and used that challenges tech-optimism. Charities recognise and share that worldview too. When they look at the world they see its problems. So there’s some overlap there. Perhaps afrofuturism offers a lens to help charities look at technology in a different way.
Looking at charity technology
It’s this lens for imagining more inclusive technology that makes afrofuturism a useful framework for the future of technology in charities.
It means not only grappling with technical considerations but also the sociocultural implications of how the technology works and how it might be used. It means including people who are affected in the decisions that affect them. It means going beyond recognising and then accepting algorithmic bias and access issues. It means charity technologist educating themselves about the issues in the global supply chain. Perhaps it means using refurbished laptops to take a stance on cobalt mining, or selecting hosting services that run on renewable energy, or collecting less data. And it definitely means making conscious choices that are for the greater good.
There is no perfect solution that immediately ensures a charity’s use of technology is net positive, but challenging the dominant tech-optimist way of thinking about technology and considering other perspectives like afrofuturism will be vitally important for the technology charities of the future.
Chambliss, J. C. Why Afrofuturism matters: Deep dive into the cultural movement and its tenets. https://www.news9live.com/art-culture/the-tenets-of-afrofuturism-177546
Danaher, J. 2022. Philosophy & Technology 35: 54. Techno‑optimism: an Analysis, an Evaluation and a Modest Defence. https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007/s13347-022-00550-2.pdf
Frankel, T. C. 2016. The Cobalt Pipeline. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/business/batteries/congo-cobalt-mining-for-lithium-ion-battery/
Königs, P. 2022. Philosophy & Technology 35: 63. What is Techno‑Optimism? https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007/s13347-022-00555-x.pdf
Ogbunu, C. B. 2020. How Afrofuturism Can Help the World Mend. https://www.wired.com/story/how-afrofuturism-can-help-the-world-mend/
Owen, T. 2021. C. Brandon Ogbunu on Afrofuturism as a Tech Framework. https://podcasts.google.com/feed/aHR0cHM6Ly9mZWVkcy5zaW1wbGVjYXN0LmNvbS9GSlNpN2dMbA/episode/MTUyZGFmNmUtZTMzOC00NjE2LTgwNWUtOTZkYTQ4YjE3ODM1?sa=X&ved=0CAIQuIEEahcKEwiQl6KR9KP9AhUAAAAAHQAAAAAQLA
Johnson Lewis, J. 2018. Afrofuturism: Imagining an Afrocentric Future. https://www.thoughtco.com/afrofuturism-definition-4137845
Winchester, III, W. W. 2019. Engaging the Black Ethos: Afrofuturism as a Design Lens for Inclusive Technological Innovation. Journal of Futures Studies, December 2019, 24(2): 55–62. https://jfsdigital.org/articles-and-essays/vol-24-no-2-december-2019/engaging-the-black-ethos-afrofuturism-as-a-design-lens-for-inclusive-technological-innovation/