The Rush of Needed Change
We’ve all felt the rush of learning something new. Asking for directions in a new language. Learning to ride a bike. Switching from a Dell to an Apple computer. For me, my most recent rush has been participating as a Fellow with the Social Work Health Futures Lab over the past eight months. Learning about foresight practice coupled with my exploration of what is driving or impeding social work’s relationship to technology has brought on many layers of novelty and frustration, which always comes with something new.
Riffing off the Tik Tok trend, “Have you ever been in love? Do you want me to describe it to you?”, to help illustrate my journey into foresight at the crossroads of technology and Social Work, here’s how I would describe the experience. Imagine you are in a Twilight Zone episode with a hint of Rocky Horror Picture Show sprinkled in (cue the confetti).
It can feel exhilarating, disorienting, overwhelming, inspiring, dystopian and mind-blowingly awesome all at the same time. Sometimes I wonder which of my social work colleagues are sitting in the crowd at the Rocky Horror show uncertain of the harms or benefits of technology. How many of them want to jump up on stage but are uncertain of what to look for, what to do, what questions to ask, (or what to wear? 😊) when it comes to technology. It can feel like taking a leap into another dimension.
Let’s try to imagine together, but first let’s lay some groundwork. Technology. Ahh… technology. Take a minute and try to Google its definition. In the “tech” world there is no consensus, or one agreed upon term, used to describe what fits in the opaque box of technology. It’s like art, which rightfully resists to be defined. That space of imaginative futures, the unknown, the unexplored, is what drew me to it. There are many layers and categories of tech and as a profession, we have only skimmed the top. After coming to work in academia, after practicing in the area of social services for twelve years, I was curious why the curriculum of my university, my alma mater, lacked classes about how technology is impacting society 21 years into the 21st century. Yes, core values such as social and racial justice, advocacy, ethics, empathy, etc. still matter greatly to our foundation, but what about what’s happening below the surface? What about helping students and social work practitioners consider how to weigh and react to the intangibles of society’s shift in the third technological revolution?
In 2019, I started reading headlines similar to these, Depression and Suicide Rates Are Rising Sharply in Young Americans, How the Racism Baked Into Technology Hurts Teens or Machine Bias: There’s software used across the country to predict future criminals. And it’s biased against blacks and began to wonder why the Social Work profession hasn’t talked more about these topics and their affiliation to technology. In the past ten years, the evolution of life with cellphones, faster processers and sensors, and constant information at our fingertips have changed the fabric of everyday life, especially our wellness, our privacy and our ___________ (you fill in your own blank.)
In technology companies, they call their clients – users. For those of us in the helping profession, we have heard the term, “user”, be exploited in a derogatory way to reference those who are addicted, unwell and desperate. It feels all too familiar to us. We must ask ourselves, what is the feedback loop our profession needs to know and act to disrupt the hold that technology has on our well-being? Bring your listening ears so we can ask ourselves, what is happening to our neighbors, our local governments, to our profession, and most importantly to our clients when discussing technology’s impact.
How will the profession stay relevant as the world zooms ahead with “innovation” and technology giants shaping our society without our input? To stay relevant in the long-term, the discipline needs to reconcile our historical complicity in human rights injustices and consider what’s way beyond teleservices and wellness apps. What roles can we shift into that cultivates our future to help identify ways to smash the perspective that humans are disposable users. We can use our strong advocacy skills, fight for justice to contest the unethical practices of design, delivery and data inequalities being committed in private and public sectors.
Where can we find a seat at the table as these new social issues unfold or, do we need to create our own table and invite others to it? Either way, for me, one step to finding an answer to this question is through exploring a new role as Tech Justice Social Workers. Cue the Justice League theme song.
Tech Justice Social Workers will be imaginative and interdisciplinary in their skills. They must apply an ethical lens, understand technology (coding not required), listen to the unheard voices, take risks, and be agile. The Tech Justice Social Worker will be equipped with skills to provide a tech justice lens that has a critical focus on advocacy and wellness with and for people of color first. There are also many benefits to technology, which we need to carefully leverage while being keenly aware of technology’s cycle of oppressive socialization. As technology’s wires interweave into society, this renewed purpose will ensure the profession is equipped to identify and intervene before the next wave of injustices occur and catch us unprepared or worse, sitting in our movie theater seats unable to jump up on stage and support or understand our clients’ changing needs.
Tech companies are looking for Social Workers to enter these roles, but are we prepared with the necessary skills? What tables and roles do we want to avoid? What roles and skills do we want to ensure? What’s our future? Below are some proposed job titles of our future in technology. Can we see any of these titles becoming as popular as say a Telehealth Therapist, a Care Manager, or a Social Services Director? We must ask ourselves, are we ready to face our future? If so, which one of these job titles fits the script for 2021, 2031 or both?
- Public Interest Tech Social Worker
- Social Justice Tech Social Worker
- Social Work Tech Specialist
- Social Work Tech Transparency Officer
- Social Tech Impact Consultant
- Certified Ethical Emerging Technologist
- Tech Relationship Developer Advocate
- Tech Inclusion Advocate
- Transparent Tech Specialist
- Human Accountability Specialist
- Human-Machine Accountability Specialist
- Human-Machine Consultant
- Social Tech Impact Specialist
- Responsible Tech Impact Specialist
- Human Rights Tech Specialist
- Transparency & Human Rights Advocate
- Director of Ethics, Technology and Human Rights
To start equipping our students with news tools in social work, in 2019, I developed a bachelor’s level class entitled: Technologies: Social Issues, Ethics and Design, which I am piloting for the second time this fall. We are integrating a semester-long Service Learning project with local agencies to assess their needs and understanding of both the practical aspects of technology to the ethical questions about things such as client data. If you would like to read more on these related topics, here are some helpful places to start:
Podcast: inSocialWork Podcast Series. (2016, October 12 ) Episode 177. Dr. Virginia Eubanks: Casework, Social Justice, and the Information Age (part 1 of 2). Retrieved from: https://www.insocialwork.org/episode_category.asp?cat=Technology%20in%20Social%20Work
Podcast: Marx, P. (Host). (2020-Present). Tech Won’t Save Us. https://techwontsave.us/
Book: Benjamin, R. (2019). Race after technology. Medford, MA: Polity Press.
Book: Broussard, M. (2019). Artificial unintelligence: How computer misunderstand the world. The MIT Press.
Book: McIlwain, C. (2020). Black software. New York, NY: Oxford University.
Book: Noble, S.U. (2018). Algorithms of oppression: How search engines reinforce racism. NYU Press.
Hi! I am a generalist and a specialist of many forms. I am currently exploring the role Social Workers have at the intersection of emerging-tech, ethical design and implementation using a social justice lens to consider the future of the profession beyond traditional practice methods. My practice experience before academia was in infant mental health, residential psychiatric care, two federal start-up projects one related to health care access and disabilities and the other related to community wellness and nutrition. I am a fierce anti-violence veteran rooting for peace through relationship and advocacy building. I am also currently a Fellow with the Social Work Health Futures Lab, where we are collectively exploring the future of social work.
Please feel free to connect with me via Twitter: @juliemunoznajar
Written by Julie Muñoz-Najar