Non-discrimination by design?!

Images of the typical user still largely inform IT development. Mostly, deviations are only considered when designing for a “special” group, like the elderly or people with disabilities. To counter this, a systemic integration of marginalized perspectives throughout all stages of IT artefact and infrastructure development is needed.

sign "think outside the box"

To countervail the discriminatory effects of digitalization the sociotechnical approach towards IT development must be strengthened. Taking seriously that IT systems are always embedded in specific sociocultural, economic and political contexts would mean to regarding “non-technical” aspects as important as the “technical” ones – or rather to dissolving the separation altogether for a holistic course of action. Sadly, in most parts the sociotechnical approach is neither mirrored in computer science or engineering education nor in research departments or tech industries or infrastructure planning.

The failure to educate on pressing social matters like inequality, power relations, in- and exclusion in their interconnection to technology is responsible for a number of problematic effects of digitalization. Examples range from artificial intelligence (predictive policing and people of color, transgender people and facial recognition), online communication (harassment, violation of privacy), smart homes (domestic violence through smart devices) to the transformation of work (job loss, demand for new qualifications), to name just a few. These examples show the importance of always considering marginalized perspectives – not “just” when designing for so-called “niche-groups”.

Realizing that technology affects people differently depending on intersecting social markers is important for every sociotechnical system. Fortunately, there is a growing body of work from activists and scholars that strive for social justice. Intersectional feminist and gender research informs HCI (human-computer interaction), critical and post-colonial thought and experiences challenge computing; anti-oppressive design, design justice, participatory design and inclusive design formulate concrete design approaches. To be effective, however, this expertise needs to be more broadly recognized and supported. Structural integration in academia and research institutions, sufficient resources and funding, acknowledgement from policy makers and the building of infrastructures that support non-discriminatory efforts in IT design are urgently needed.

This article was first published (12th November 2019) online via and is part of the publication "Critical Voices, Visions and Vectors for Internet Governance".