programming for cognitive justice


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Programming for Cognitive Justice: Towards an Ethical Framework for Democratic Code
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Paper accepted for publication in "Interacting with Computers'" special issue on Designing for Civil Society (late 2004/early 2005).

by Maja van der Velden (draft May 2004)

Abstract: This paper contrasts two approaches to knowledge sharing for socio-economic development to examine how assumptions about knowledge are reflected in computer-based information systems. The paper argues that socio-technical systems for global knowledge sharing posses a bias resulting from choices about technology and from assumptions about knowledge, and that this bias may adversely affects the diversity of knowledge. To overcome this bias, the concept of cognitive justice is proposed and, on this basis, a framework suggested to guide the design of information systems based on a principle of the equal validity of all knowledges.

1. Introduction

The message of the spinning-wheel is much wider than its circumference. Its message is one of simplicity, service of mankind, living so as not to hurt others, creating an indissoluble bond between the rich and the poor, capital and labour, the prince and the peasant. That larger message is naturally for all. (M.K. Gandhi in Young India, 17.9.1925)

M. K. Gandhi took up spinning to protest the fact that Indians had to buy expensive British-made textiles, produced with cheap Indian-grown cotton on industrial looms in the UK. Gandhi’s spinning wheel became a symbol of liberation and development. His example was widely followed and played a crucial role in the protection and cultivation of diversity in Indian textiles (Shiva, 2001).

Gandhi’s understanding of technology seems mostly forgotten. It has been replaced by today’s dominant technological rationality that obscures the fact that all technology is socially and culturally constructed. In an age in which technology mediates the access to and content of much of our information and knowledge, we are confronted with questions about not only what we know, but also how we know. We need to critically assess how information technology affects the conceptualisation of knowledge and its diversity and how concepts of knowledge influence technological designs.

In this paper I propose a critical approach to information and communication technology (ICT) for global communication, with a focus on the social and economic development sector. Two examples of ICT-based knowledge sharing will be discussed to show how knowledge is conceptualised in a system’s design and how this creates a bias that affects issues of control, trust and access. I argue that the way these systems structure user interaction shapes how users conceptualise knowledge and establish trust with other users, as well as the institutions that own or operate these systems. This bias of technology affects the diversity of our knowledge, in particular the knowledge of the people whose interests social and economic development claims to support. In order to overcome this bias, I will suggest an ethical framework, based on the concept of cognitive justice, to guide new designs and initiatives that can support civil society’s global communication.
Programming for Cognitive Justice
The importance of cognitive justice for the design and development of information systems is that it provides a framework that challenges the assumed neutrality of the technology and the technology designer. With cognitive justice there is no objective ‘expert’ position from which to design and develop technology. Cognitive justice focuses information systems design on the knowers and the environments in which their knowledge is situated. As a result, the design process itself becomes a dialogue of diverse interests and values. The importance of this dialogue is that it takes place during the design of the "technical arrangements that precede the use of the technology in question”.
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