Jessica Weinkle

science, risk, politics... and society

Uneven foundations

Hidden underneath discussions about risk are the technologies people use to inform the debate.  Most regard these technologies as mere purveyors of information- a means of compacting a lot of things together to create a useable factoid that (often) needn't be accurate it just needs a shared understanding.  Yet, technologies also influence the organization of people and (through their inaccurate but useable factoids) create a shared reality in discrete communities.  As such, technology can and often do harbor significant political battles.  Consider for example, Uber, a smart phone app that significantly altered the way people get rides from here to there.  One need not make eye contact with a driver, negotiate who got to the corner first with other travelers, or literally put themselves out there to grab that cab.  Cheaper fares and easier ride hailing creates a more preferable world for many.  Yet, recent public outcry about employment conditions of drivers and equity in the workplace bring to light the personalities and moral value preferences hidden by a simple black and white icon and a user friendly interface.  Lurking behind a virtual world that maps pixilated rides near me is a hostile underbelly.  

In a report headed up by Joseph Stiglitz, The Roosevelt Institute, a think tank focused on issues of income equality and welfare economic policy, depicts the American economy as an iceberg. At the top or 'the tip of the iceberg' are people's daily experiences- the grind, if you will.  The middle are policies and the bottom the biggest and most unseen part of the economic iceberg are broad trends such as, technology and globalization.  

Image from Page 19: http://rooseveltinstitute.org/rewriting-rules-report/

The Roosevelt Institute advocate for addressing the parts of the iceberg that are unseen but that create the conditions of our daily life.  The Roosevelt Institute seek such things as transparency in banking, reduced costs of debit and credit card transactions, and a reduction in intellectual property rights to improve access to ideas.

The significance of the graph is to illustrate how the decisions made about the ways technology is used and how it will function is significant for the the lived experience.  In 2009, scholars Yuval Millo and Donald MacKenzie, made a similar argument in an article in Accounting, Organizations and Society.  The article argues that financial risk models so prevalent in financial activities, became popular for their usefulness in communication but not for accurate information about risk.  So, while the models revolutionized the financial sector by placing a greater emphasis on risk management the models were actually ineffectual when risk management was needed going into and during times of financial crisis.  

Contemporary politics indicates the severity to which many are discontent with their lived experience especially, their economic experience.  Who benefits from embedded assumptions reveals power relationships in society.   this experience rests on technology that has embedded assumptions that are known to be inaccurate than might we employ different assumptions without concern for accuracy but for improving the lived experience?