Things aren’t Always What They Seem – But is that Bad?

By Aditi Sethi, MALD’16

We use technology like Skype, Twitter, and Facebook daily to help us connect with other people, and we depend on it for information on a myriad of subjects. Recently, enterprises have successfully connected private charitable givers or lenders with those in need using the internet. Crowdfunding platforms like gofundme, kickstarter, and indiegogo have been used to raise funds for everything from  movies to beard masks and medical treatments. An important part of raising funds for something or someone with whom one may never come into contact is to present a convincing story. The Technology Through Inclusion panel at the 2015 Conference on Gender and International Affairs urged us to think about the role of technology in obfuscating narratives, and what might be the longer-term impacts of this obfuscation.

At the Technology Through Inclusion panel, Professor Smitha Radhakrishnan of Wellesley College discussed the use of technology in obfuscating realities to paint an intentional picture. Technology provides a quick way to share information, an integral aspect for today’s world of low attention spans. In order to grab attention, fundraisers must condense information as much as possible and often omit parts of the narrative, thereby making decisions about which parts of the narrative are more (or less) likely to motivate people to give. It is evident that the power in recreating narratives lies with the fundraisers and not with the potential fund recipients, and it is important for givers to be aware of this power dynamic in shaping stories. Professor Radhakrishnan urged users and consumers of these websites to be aware of who shapes narratives, their motivations, and the possible impacts.

Professor Radhakrishnan’s research also illustrates how some of the myths regarding microfinance can obfuscate the role of women in their narratives and play into lender bias. There is a widely-held belief that poor women in developing areas are under patriarchal oppression and in need of empowerment, and that providing capital will help them break free of this oppression. According to Professor Radhakrishnan, female recipients of microfinance usually use loans in partnership with their husbands, fathers, or brothers to improve the lives of the entire family unit.  The story featured on a fundraising site, however, may present the woman alone, requesting and using the funds independently. This feeds into the narrative of helping an oppressed woman break free of patriarchal pressures and creates an obfuscation of the narrative to fit into the preconceived notion held by donors and appeal to their charitable nature. There is also an implicit assumption that the family unit is defined by man, woman, and children, and may negatively impact opportunities for non-traditional family units.

Organizations like Kiva use stories to help connect private microfinance lenders to borrowers. Kiva presents a lender with a number of potential loan recipients and includes the borrower’s plan for the money, as well as details of any previous loans made to that borrower. The lender then selects a borrower and the amount that they would like to lend, with the understanding that the sum they have lent will be provided to the borrower they selected. A closer look at Kiva’s model, however, reveals that the borrowers illustrated on the website have already received loans from the company and that monies provided by lenders are deposited in a common fund that is used to make loans. The loans are, in turn, repaid by the borrowers into the common fund, from which lenders are repaid. Thus, the lenders do not choose who gets funded, and Kiva is able to appeal to them using a variety of narratives.

This example illustrates an interesting way in which technology can be used to obfuscate reality. Kiva’s aim is to provide microfinance by tapping small private lenders, which it accomplishes admirably. How important, therefore, is the accuracy of the depiction of the mechanism? The illusion of control is an important factor in making humans comfortable about using technology. The new driverless Google car, for example, has had to install a steering wheel and brakes, though they are not supposed to be used. This is to make the people inside feel that they have a measure of control.  Additionally, focusing on individuals rather than trying to solve a larger problem encourages people to be more generous.  Small et al have illustrated how individuals allocate greater value to lives when presented with identifiable individuals rather than with bigger causes. Further research by Professor Ramakrishnan showed that, after the first few loans, people no longer read the stories, thus seeming to be more concerned with the greater cause than with assisting individuals. This could also illustrate that once lenders are confident of the technology, they no longer require a story to motivate them to lend money.  

As we become more and more dependent on technology to connect with and help others, it is important to consider the questions brought up by Professor Radhakrishnan’s work. As consumers and users, we must consider the potential consequences of unequal power dynamics dictating a narrative, even if that results in more generosity, and the extent to which the advancement of microfinance myths affect the actual behavior of potential loan recipients. Our decisions as donors/lenders or as fund raisers can result in unintended changes in behavior. As such, it is our responsibility as consumers of these narratives and participants in online giving platforms to ask questions, consider the implications of tailored narratives, and make informed decisions.

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