Who says they are marginalized people?

I’m back from an intense four days at Santa Clara University for IEEE’s Global Humanitarian Conference. I have written elsewhere about the presentation I was giving on technology due diligence in humanitarian contexts.

I first introduced this idea, that we needed an enhanced form of due diligence when considering technologies for humanitarian projects, last year in the pandemic-caused all-virtual conference. I described each step, from idea to innovator’s view of markets to engineering and go-to-market, as it related to accounting for the voices of marginalized people.

Lately I have been rethinking that term–marginalized people. It has struck me as part of the luxury of describing others through a power lens. It stands in contrast to a view of people from not-western cultures as the innovators we must hear and celebrate.

All this was provoked in one of the final panels at the conference. The topic was Web3 and Human Rights. Web3 meaning Blockchain and all of its accompaniments, crypto, NFTs, smart contracts, and DAOs. (Apologies for not defining each term here but it’s not my main point.) One of the panelists referenced, somewhat vaguely, how Web3 is about empowering marginalized people. It seemed some variation of this theme came up in every other sentence in her comments.

I broached the subject with her after the session, noting that I had been thinking this language through myself. Her immediate reaction suggested she received my comments as a critique of her using non-woke terms. I’m still processing that. Could I have started the dialog a little differently? Was I more out to pick a fight than I thought?

I did follow up with an explanation that I wasn’t telling her to stop saying marginalized people but simply sharing my own evolving thought process including the vision of innovators, especially those coming from far outside Silicon Valley. Maybe this aside was my biggest concern. Silicon Valley has been “Silicon Valley,” the world headquarters for all things innovative for so long. Being there for the first time in over five years (as I’ve become more and more New Yorker), made it seem acutely self-absorbed. But then that region does not have a monopoly on self-absorption. It’s important to keep that in mind all the time but especially when presenting ourselves as especially qualified to talk about technology and human rights.

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