Technology and Privilege

20 03 2017

“Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
Ephesians 6:14–17

Technology too often gets associated purely with computers and electronics when it applies to the most simple of implements as well, like a spear or a tent. Technology is the result of methodical, iterative crafting of a tool. And its purpose is to amplify already-present capacities, behaviors, and social dynamics. It is not the smartphone that brought maps to our fingertips — rather, it was our insatiable need to know where we are and where we are going. Smartphones’ mapping technologies amplified that behavior, just as the cartographers of old did through sextants and compasses. These amplifications make minor tendencies appear larger than life precisely because small differences play across orders of magnitude. The thrill-seeker that once jumped from high cliffs into waters below can now plummet towards the earth from thousands of feet in the sky. The writer whose writings were read by the literate few can now share their thoughts with millions with the click of a button. The murderer wreaking havoc on a township by killing one person at a time over the course of weeks can now, through technological advancement, wreak the same quantity of havoc in mere seconds. Such developments may make the underlying causes of such behaviors more immediate, terrifying, and hotly debated, but they were always there.

As he approached Lehi, the Philistines came toward him shouting. The Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon him. The ropes on his arms became like charred flax, and the bindings dropped from his hands. Finding a fresh jawbone of a donkey, he grabbed it and struck down a thousand men. Then Samson said, “With a donkey’s jawbone I have made donkeys of them. With a donkey’s jawbone I have killed a thousand men.”
Judges 15: 14–16

It is a well-covered topic, and rightly so, how technological advances confer privilege upon those with the access and means to use them. This can range from a new means of protecting a waterhole, to a novel use of clay for documenting transactions, to an updated commute system that grants economic and social opportunity to those otherwise isolated. There is no denying that countless aspects of daily life, especially in the West, are privileged because of the plethora of technology at our disposal. However, I cringe at polemics against the evils of technology, as if the tool bears responsibility for its users. Rather, the focus ought to be on usage by those employing the tool, and access to the tools themselves. Are they used for the enrichment of others or for selfish gain? Who can get to the tool and who cannot? What behaviors are revealed, enhanced, or enabled by its implementation? That last question cuts to the heart of technology-as-privilege: technology itself often exacerbates the very capacities, behaviors, and social dynamics of privilege since it amplifies the already-present, socially-endowed benefits. To see this in an historical example, let’s look back at the phenomenon known as White Flight.

The post-war boom of the 1950’s led to countless African-Americans flocking to cities for the economic opportunities found there. Consequently, White Americans fled to the suburbs to escape this influx. This social movement by Whites was made possible by, among other things, the proliferation of the Interstate Highway system and Whites’ access to cars for the family. Thus, while urban centers remained centers of industry, the vast majority of wealth and political power moved to the intentionally homogeneous, White suburbs. As poverty and social dislocation consumed urban centers, the suburbs flourished and became the idyllic emblem of the American Dream. In this social dynamic, it is not difficult to see the already-present preference for Whiteness over and against Blackness in America being played out economically, socially, and politically. The desire of Whites to maintain their way of life is enacted through redlining, blockbusting, and other de facto segregating mechanisms (including municipal, state, and federal laws themselves). The capacity for putting one’s self and one’s in-group above others plays out on a national scale through massive social movement. We see racial superiority, community gatekeeping, and social mobility are examples of technology-as-privilege all encapsulated in the phenomenon of White Flight. More tangibly, we also see highways, cars, and home ownership as tools of privilege being employed to marked effect.

“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?”
Luke 16:10–12

But I would like to flip this script, not to disagree, but to offer yet another lens for understanding the crucial-yet-divisive concept of privilege. Rather than thinking of technology as privilege, consider privilege as technology. While the analogy breaks down, as all do, with over-reliance upon it, this may help bearers of privilege employ it justly and rightly. While both immutable and mutable aspects of one’s being and social location unequivocally confer privilege, the conversation often gets mired in defensiveness against the accusation. Usually the defensiveness revolves around two axes: either the person of privilege has had an undeniably hard life and therefore it rings hollow/condescending to be told they benefit from privilege, or there is an outright denial of the entire notion as the person of privilege’s worldview is (professed to be) meritocratic.

As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”
Luke 21:1–4 NIV

Imaging privilege as technology means, rather than privilege inhering to one’s very being, it is a tool. A tool that can be used actively or passively, like a scalpel or a dwelling, to either maintain oppressive and unjust social realities or dismantle them. This is not to suggest that social categories deemed desirable aren’t still inextricably bound to who one is. This does not externalize privilege so that it can be simply discarded like a conductor’s baton; for example, skin color, sexual orientation, or your first language cannot be set aside and ignored. Such realities are carried daily, as mantle, spectacles, noise-cancelling headphones, and winged shoes. The goal is for the frame to shift from questioning if society has benefited you unduly or not, to discerning how the implements in your toolkit enable you to combat injustice and inequity. Rather than thinking privilege somehow protects you completely from adversity, think of it more as a shield: it deflects a lot, though not everything. Something as simple as a mundane American accent can prevent countless antagonistic interactions, thereby shielding you from the emotional duress, economic costs, and relational strain they can otherwise cause. Will that accent guarantee you’ll get a job for which you interview? Of course not. Does it fail to raise flags or question marks in the listener? Of course. Your ordinary accent is privilege-as-technology precisely because it is an innocuous tool of communication.

And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” ’ “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”
Luke 12:16–21

In conversations where someone calls out a privileged action, filter the charge through this privilege-as-technology sieve. “The producer of La La Land does not deserve praise for simply doing that which is expected: vacating the stage for the rightful winners, the cast and crew of Moonlight. That he is heralded for this unremarkable act is White, Male privilege.” This critic is pointing out that the intersections of White and Male privilege are being used as amplifiers of what is otherwise a completely unremarkable action. They are technologies being employed to enhance the rudimentary actions of a human being. The fact that this entire event occurred to the detriment of an African-American cast and crew makes it all the more stark. Rarely did you hear a commendation of the grace of Barry Jenkins, despite him showing more.

The tools of privilege are used to amplify, to elevate, one action, one person over the other, thereby telling (confirming) a story to the world of whose grace, whose behavior, and whose presence is socially desirable. The question to ask yourself then is, “What tools do I have at my disposal to mitigate injustice now and prevent it in the future?” It may be your Whiteness, it may be Maleness, or it could be a TV show you write for; an Internet forum you participate in; or a conversation with a group unaware of the layers involved.

“A rebuke impresses a discerning person more than a hundred lashes a fool.”
Proverbs 17:10

“The institution of marriage is for only one man and one woman.” This declares that those who wish to participate in the institution of marriage and together constitute a “man” and a “woman,” are used as a means of highlighting the differences between heterosexual relationships and every other kind. Emphases on procreation, tradition, or the nuclear family make each of these institutions into technology. They all, in turn and in unique ways, get employed in the efforts to amplify certain capacities, behaviors, and social dynamics to the detriment of others. Privilege is an implement that must be regarded with the same seriousness as the countless instruments we recognize as carrying both great power and great danger: weapons, transportation, communication, etc. It is not a matter of whether the tool exists, it is a matter of how it is used.

Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.” “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”
Mark 3: 31–34

Just like the more conventional forms of technology we all interact with regularly, privilege is born out of the same process of systematic iteration that gave us rocket ships and water desalination plants. It is a methodical, though not linear, historically-conditioned crafting that builds upon, and goes beyond, its products. Privilege constantly manifests in forms familiar yet novel, that exaggerate, undercut, overwhelm, or minimize perennial aspects of our shared humanity. It is incumbent upon those who have privilege-as-technology at their disposal, whichever they possess, to apply diligence, responsibility, and empathy in their implementation even unto the point of actively forsaking their benefits. Especially if there is an adverse pattern to their use, effects, or availability. To do otherwise ignores the amplification of injustice flowing from the very capacities, behaviors, and dynamics that make us human, together.

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good — except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’” “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”
Mark 10: 17–23

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