Democratising Technology

Where did it all begin? In 2007, Democratising Technology (DemTech) set out to explore creative aspects of discussing digital technology with groups being marginalised by it. 

We invited five groups of older people to represent those excluded from discussions of future tools and help design some ways of involving them. Led by researchers in performance and computer science at Queen Mary University of London (Pat Healey, Ann Light, Gini Simpson and Lois Weaver), the goal was twofold:

1) to discover a method for inspiring people whose voices are ignored in discussions about technology to consider the values they would like to see embedded in networked tools of the future; and

2) to provide a platform for showcasing those views through the creation of artworks and an exhibition (see fig 1). We used collaborative art practices throughout the 18-month project as a means of achieving these goals. Indeed, the exhibition served to show the results of two kinds of collaboration: it was a means to display pieces created by artists and older people working together, and it allowed us to assess the effectiveness of engagement between artists, researchers and the groups of older people who had come together to work on promoting greater digital inclusion.

One group who participated in DemTech was The Geezers. They followed the general path of helping develop the workshops for use to engage others and were then invited to stay on and work with Loraine Leeson to help her produce a piece representing their experience for the exhibition. This pairing led to the envisioning of GeezerPower: an alternative energy source based on water turbines in London’s Thames.

Fig 1: An overview of DemTech activities

We based the work on a number of premises, including: that digital networks herald significant and hard-to-grasp changes in technology; that new pockets of marginalization will result from this; that older people represent a good cross section of society and yet a statistically marginalized group; that everyone has something to offer the design process; that overcoming exclusion is as much about values as skills; and that art methods provide a means of involving people that science or technology education cannot. When we set off with this aim, we were optimistic that people had opinions to share about future tools and could be supported in sharing them. What we didn’t know was that 5 years later, an idea born in discussions about future technologies and those that had been ‘lost’ during our participants’ lifetimes, linked to their concern about environmental challenges, would be the spur to actually innovate and make new technologies with an environmental theme.