How Ferguson should change the way we look at technology


New discussion over police officers wearing body cameras is one example of how Ferguson has changed the way we think about technology. (Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press)

Ferguson, more so than any other event in recent memory, has forever changed our view of race, equality and “the other America.” And, in doing so, it has also changed the way we think about technological innovation and its potential ability to prevent another Ferguson in the future. Here are three ways that our thinking about technology has changed, post-Ferguson.

Body cams

Before the violence in Ferguson, the idea of someone wearing Google Glass around all day, videotaping you, and then having all that video content stored in the cloud somewhere would have seemed creepy. However, with police departments around the country now grappling with how to prevent confrontations in their communities, one solution that has been advanced is the wearing of body cams by police officers. In many ways, these body cams seem like a low-tech, earlier version of Google Glass. They may not be connected to the Internet, but they offer a credible way to corroborate what happens when police officers interact with members of the community.

According to experts, body cams work. As the Wall Street Journal points out, in one case police officers wearing body cams reduced the use of force by 60 percent and the number of citizen complaints by a whopping 88 percent in just one year of use. So it’s no wonder that the police in England and Wales have already extensively experimented with these body cams. The investment required to equip police officers with the new technology and then store all this video footage in the cloud is more than offset by their psychological effects on both police offers and members of the community. Simply put, behaviors change when you know somebody’s watching.

Crowd control technologies

With the militarization of the nation’s police forces emerging as a national (and international) topic of discussion, it’s causing people to rethink ways that technology could have been used to prevent the initial peaceful protests in Ferguson from morphing into something much uglier. There’s a growing consensus that tear gas, rubber bullets and sound cannons are no way to disperse a crowd in 21st-century America. (And, unfortunately, even some of the next generation “non-lethal” technologies being developed to control crowds don’t sound much better than what was used in Ferguson).

However, there are some technologies that could be more effective in dealing with unruly crowds in the future that don’t involve physical violence. Current debate in California over the “kill switch” bill has highlighted the ways that government authorities could “switch off” a protest before it has a chance to morph into something more dangerous. Originally designed to thwart smartphone thieves, the so-called “kill switch” could also be used by the government to disrupt protests, making it impossible for people in a crowd to coordinate activities together (or, alas, for journalists to record these activities). At some point, there is room for technological innovation to come up with a way to control a crowd without the overt use or display of force.

The online filter bubble

One of the more staggering findings that came out of Ferguson was on the impact that social networks had on the way we perceive the world around us. If you are white and you are reading this, you most likely have 91 white friends for every black friend. And that means, on most days, your Facebook feed may not contain a single update from a black friend. In the same way, it means that you are probably more likely to have someone in your social networks post something trivial about Uber or the iPhone 5s than post something relevant to citizens living in low-income, low-opportunity neighborhoods across America.

It’s not totally your fault – some blame goes to the Facebook algorithm. You may not have planned it, and you may not realize it, but you simply lack real awareness of what’s going on in communities like Ferguson. It’s the reason why, unfortunately, demonstrations over events like Ferguson sometimes morph into demonstrations about tech gentrification. What’s needed is social media that’s more “social” — that means media that doesn’t trap us in an online filter bubble, limiting our awareness of the world. If that means fewer #IceBucketChallenge posts in your daily newsfeed, so be it.

***

When we think of technology and Ferguson, we typically think of the many ways that technology such as Twitter or Livestream helps us to report on and follow events like Ferguson in real-time. What’s forgotten, to a large extent, is how some technologies — such as body cams and new crowd control technologies — might have been used to prevent events like Ferguson from ever taking place in the first place.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.

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