For prison abolitionists, “we don’t just want better funded schools (although that might be an important step). We also demand the power to shape the programs and institutions in our communities” and to propose a new and more humane vision of how resources and technology are used. This requires us to consider not only the ends but also the means. How we get to the end matters. If the path is that private companies, celebrities, and tech innovators should cash in on the momentum of communities and organizations that challenge mass incarceration, the likelihood is that the end achieved will replicate the current social order.
Let us shift, then, from technology as an outcome to toolmaking as a practice, so as to consider the many different types of tools needed to resist coded inequity, to build solidarity, and to engender liberation. Initiatives like Appolition offer a window into a wider arena of “design justice” that takes many forms (see Appendix), some of which I will explore below. But first allow me a reflection on the growing discourse around technology and empathy (rather than equity or justice).
Selling Empathy Empathy talk is everywhere. I have used it myself as shorthand, as a way to index the lack of social cohesion and justice, and as a gentler way to invoke the need for solidarity. Empathy is woven more and more into the marketing of tech products. I participate in a lot of conferences for primary and secondary school educators and I see how the product expos at these events promise these teachers’ that gadgets and software will cultivate empathy in students. Virtual reality (VR) technology in particular is routinely described as an “empathy machine” because of the way it allows us to move through someone else’s world. Perhaps it does, in some cases.16 But, as some critics emphasize, this rhetoric creates a moral imperative to sell headsets and to consume human anguish, and in the process “pain is repurposed as a site of economic production”:
Imagine a VR live stream of a police killing. This, tragically, will soon cease to be science fiction: within years, you will be able to experience an extremely convincing simulation of what it’s like to be murdered by a cop. Will this lead to the cop’s conviction, or to meaningful criminal justice reform? Recent history suggests the answer is no. But the content will probably go viral, as its affective intensity generates high levels of user engagement. And this virality will generate revenue for the company that owns the platform.