The rise of the TechniK-crats

It’s the year 3100. Climate change, political wars, and human greed would have led to the ultimate demise of Earth if not for the rise of the TechniKs-crats. Disillusioned by centuries of political incompetence, the TechniKs-crats came to power almost 300 years ago in a final bid to save the human species from themselves. Brandishing their rhetoric of TechniK-capitalism – a political order that heralds technology as the savior of human ills –  they established the New Earth.

Under the new political order, entertainment is a means of livelihood for 99.9% of the New Earth’s population. Citizens live to entertain and entertain to live. This rhetoric pervades every aspect of life; from social interactions to political structures, the TechniKs-crats track their citizens entertain-o-meter via a gut-inserted electronic pill (i.e. The Pill) implanted at birth. Citizens are required to clock 8 hours of entertainment each day. Failure to do so would activate The Pill’s shock waves, keeping citizens awake and alert all night long.

With the rise of the TechniK-crats, prisons and jails gave way to The Library. Located in every district, The Library institutionalizes citizens who deviate from the philosophies of the New Earth. Here, punishment, unlike in the distant past, is no longer solitary but public and social; prisoners are put on display for social entertainment and public shaming. Citizens’ failure to meet their daily quota of 8 hours of entertainment (and many do, as happiness, joy, and laughter are scarce under the Technik-crats) pay a small fee to visit The Library each day.

In The Library, punishment and torture are gamified. Citizens select their prisoner of choice from a database categorized by crime, age, gender, and ethnicity. Once selected, citizens are brought into a windowless white room where their prisoner of choice is housed in a glass cage. Citizens enter the minds of these prisoners via a virtual portal. Once in their minds, citizens gain access to the deepest, darkest parts of their soul, free to exploit their consciousness and memories however they wish to do so. Outside, these scenes are projected on the walls of The Library to satisfy the cheap thrills of passersby seeking to add extra minutes to their daily entertainment quota.

While citizens experience the psyche of the prisoners through a virtual world, these events have visceral ramifications on the prisoners. If citizens choose to revisit the “crimes” of these prisoners for public shaming or physical torture, these events are experienced by the prisoners in real-time. Beyond curbing physical liberty, the TechniK-crats intentionally designed a system of punishment to severely limit mental and emotional freedom. Prisoners, once institutionalized in The Library, are vaccinated with an anti-death elixir; they are held as prisoners, of the New Earth and their bodies, forever. Meanwhile, pain – physical, mental, emotional – lives on and on and on….

Beyond Recidivism

The U.S. Prison Industrial Complex has been highly debated over the years. With 25% of the world’s prison population residing in U.S. prisons, it is the most incarcerated country in the world. While the prison system has received substantial amount of press coverage, lesser attention has been given to the reentry process that formerly incarcerated experience as they return to life in society. The U.S. sees approximately 641,000 returning citizens each year where they face structural and societal challenges to assimilating back into society. On a structural level, returning citizens face legal restrictions that hinder them from becoming self-reliant i.e. securing housing, gaining employment, accessing education, seeking medical treatment. Beyond the structural barriers to reentry, more pressing still is the profound disorientation returning citizens experience in navigating everyday life. Viewed as “sub-citizens”, many struggle to overcome the social stigma attached to having spent time in prisons and to keep up with advances in technology.

Metrics assessing reentry remain limited. Policymakers default to recidivism however, it is a blanketed and binary indicator of reentry health. It does not account for differences in the definitions and measurements of recidivism in different states, the hyper-policing of communities of color, and focuses on failures rather than tracking improvements in behavior. More than semantics, the re-framing of metrics is important in directing governmental and community resources to programs that rebuild lives instead of imposing monitoring and punishment measures. Further, recidivism as a metric highlights the philosophical underpinnings of the justice system; one focused on punishment rather than rehabilitation. If a justice system seeks to provide correctional support to returning citizens and the incarcerated, it needs metrics to assess the impacts of its social programs.

My work will focus on:

  1. Destigmatizing and rehumanizing of returning citizens and their value in society
  2. Developing new metrics to assess re-entry
  3. Pushing for a shift from a punitive to rehabilitative justice system

The project might culminate in a video zine and/or development of a new set of metrics to assess the successes of reentry.


Facilitating Societal Re-entry for Returning Citizens

5 Core Values:

  1. Transformative justice: Seeing people as humans first and foremost
  2. Reimagining inclusivity: Recognizing returning citizens’ place in society and actively creating space for them to rebuild lives
  3. Radical empowerment: Enabling individuals to reach their self-actualization
  4. Humility: Practice active listening, ask questions when in doubt, leave pride at the door
  5. Communities of compassion: Building allies to extend support to the re-entry process



A 3-day art installation held either in a park or a square along Mass Ave.

Aims of the installation:

  1. Humanize returning citizens by providing a platform for them to tell their stories
  2. Educate public on the struggles of re-entry


In my recent conversations with returning citizens, the topic of dehumanization has been a recurring theme. Many returning citizens have been subjected to dehumanizing practices whilst incarcerated and continue to feel “sub-human” in their re-entry process. Further, they talked about a sense of liberation that comes from sharing their personal re-entry stories. Co-designed with returning citizens, this installation is meant to reclaim their humanity by giving them a platform to share and talk about their re-entry struggles. Depending on the medium preferences of the individual, the installation can take the form of spoken word, visual art, and/or photography depicting their re-entry process.

My hope is that the installation can spark conversations and dismantle preconceived notions about returning citizens in the public sphere. This can then lead to the building of communities of compassion where the public can come alongside to support returning citizens, whether it means changing employment/housing/education policies or creating opportunities for them to succeed in self-actualization.


Beyond Wishful Thinking..?

Societal re-entry for returning citizens

Citizens seeking to re-enter society after a period of incarceration face several structural and societal challenges. On a structural level, they are denied housing and employment because of their criminal record. The societal challenges may pose as even greater obstacles to overcome because of the nuanced nature of these challenges. Re-entering society after a period of incarceration can feel very disorienting that navigating the minute details of daily life are overwhelming.

Law: A law can be passed to remove the need to state one’s criminal record status in a job application to give returning citizens an equal chance of getting through the front door.

Norm: Societal stigmas and norms are huge obstacles to societal re-integration. Some serious campaigning/conversations/awareness rallies are needed to address society’s mental stigmas toward returning citizens. Universities, given their societal and cultural standing, can facilitate such conversations to transform society’s attitudes.

Code: Many returning citizens feel completely overwhelmed by the re-entry process that few can take advantage of support programs available. The architecture of social programs can be better designed to ensure that there are consistent check-ins with each individual and that they are connected to the right resources.

Market: Corporates can partner up with social programs to either train, hire or create new markets for returning citizens.


Homelessness in urban cities

The U.S. prides itself as one of the world’s wealthiest nations, yet the country’s homelessness crisis remains an epidemic. 2017 saw a 1% rise in the total number of homeless people in the country, with the percentage of unsheltered homeless rising by 9%. Unsurprisingly, the rise of the tech elites is proportional to the rise of homelessness in cities – in California, Oregon and Washington, overall homeless population climbed by 14% in the past 2 years, while Seattle’s unsheltered population grew by 44%.[1]

Law: The law can eradicate homelessness in 3 ways: i) Increase housing subsidies; ii) Build more affordable houses, ii) Implement Housing First policies.

With the influx of tech elites into cities, daily living expenses have increased, making it hard for many to maintain a home. State and federal governments can increase housing subsidies and vouchers for those earning below a certain wage level. Further, the number of affordable houses is in dire short supply. Governments can fund affordable homes that are well-integrated within diverse neighborhoods.

Homelessness is a multifaceted problem; rather than aiming to solve all the social problems that result in homelessness, governments can implement Housing First policies that primarily ensure a roof over someone’s head before addressing the social issues.

Market: The law and market need to work in tandem to better regulate the housing market as housing prices continue to rise especially in cities that have experienced an influx of tech elites in the recent years.

Private capital, which comes with fewer restrictions than federal funding, can also be used to build affordable homes and support social programs to alleviate the homelessness epidemic in the US.

Norm: Similar to returning citizens, the homeless population is commonly viewed as second-class citizens and a liability to society. Such stigma strips them of their humanity and acts a mental barrier to their social progress. Social programs and campaigns can be implemented to re-build confidence and self-esteem of these individuals and their role in society.

Code: At a recent design conference, a non-profit revealed a 3D printer capable of constructing a 3D home in less than 24 hours. Whilst this is a temporary solution, these homes serve as transitional housing and at the very least, gets people off the streets faster than waiting for the government to build more affordable homes. Ideally, these 3D homes are means to an end of securing permanent housing for the homeless.


Digital wellbeing

By now, it comes as no surprise to learn that the technologies we use every day were intentionally designed to keep us hooked. As a UX designer, I’m concerned about the ways in which persuasive design has diluted our human interactions. More importantly, I’m concerned about its impacts on our human psyche i.e. our reduced attention span, our need for societal validation, our digital proxies over human connection.

Law: At present, there are no laws regulating types of persuasive design, yet countless research has shown that these technologies are fundamentally transforming how we think and approach the world. Lawmakers need to figure out a new vocabulary to talk about and enforce restrictions on the use of behavioral psychology in design.

Norm: We need a cultural shift in our digital hygiene practices i.e. taking digital sabbaths, setting aside our phones during social gatherings etc. We also need to cultivate habits to rebuild our short attention spans.

Code: Google’s recent Android Pie is a good example of the use of architecture in reducing our screen time. Their latest update allows users to greyscale their phone as a means of working against persuasive design and color psychology that underpins digital design.

Market: Social media companies need an overhaul of their business models since the bulk of their profits comes from selling ads and collecting data.



Stranger with a Camera


you still want to travel to




you could not take a camera with you

– a question of appropriation” – Nayyirah Waheed

In Elizabeth Barret’s 2000 documentary film, Stranger with a Camera, she explores the murder of a filmmaker who sought to capture the War on Poverty in rural Appalachia in the 60s. She questions the role of the storyteller in shaping the narrative of a place. I find myself circling back to this film whenever I reflect on my past stints in the social impact world.

Who gets to tell someone else’s story? What is my responsibility in telling a story as an outsider?

Barret posits the extent to which the camera is a weapon, capable of representation and misrepresentation, and in doing so, has the power of creating or destroying worlds. She asks: What is the difference between how people see their own place and how others represent it? Similarly, as we saw in class last week, the journalist Amy Costello had a key role in crafting the narrative(s) of PlayPump which led to its initial success.

In 2011, I took the year off to volunteer with an NGO in the Western province of Cambodia. The NGO sought to “achieve sustainability and self-sufficiency through wells, irrigation systems, schools, training and empowerment.” In a country still recovering from the reeling 1979 genocide, access to clean water, sanitation, food, and education remains low. Further, widespread corruption stifles the distribution of international aid.

I worked on 2 key projects: i) grant writing, ii) healthcare and sanitation. In the former, I found myself looking for and hoping to tell a certain narrative; that of poverty-stricken Cambodia. I sought pictures to affirm donors’ perceptions (and perhaps, my own perceptions) of a “third-world” nation. Consciously and unconsciously, I was complicit in re-perpetuating the political and cultural domination of Cambodia through the images I had captured. To what extent did my camera serve as a tool to re-colonize the Khmers?

In the latter project, I worked with the health and sanitation department to design and assess the quality of water programs. My biggest takeaway from this project was the importance of co-design in impact work. Whilst the NGO had implemented wells in villages, my conversations with the villagers revealed that the shared wells had become a source of tension in the community. While the NGOs had assumed that the villagers would have no issues with the communal wells, in reality, the families wanted their own individual biosand water filters.

In retrospect, the extent to which I was least-positioned to tackle the issues I had sought to address couldn’t be more jarring. Fresh out of high-school then, I had nothing else to offer besides good intentions; intentions that fell short of redesigning water systems or implementing public health curriculums. Those were some sobering months indeed!


Strangers with cameras. Taken by Rubez Chong, 2012.

Observing the Everyday

Greetings all –

I’m a first-year master’s student in the Media Lab, Civic Media. I grew up in Singapore before leaving for Norway at 16. Since, I have lived, studied, and worked in 6 countries across the globe. In several of these places, I worked with NGOs on topics ranging from health and sanitation, to peace and conflict, and community development.

After getting a degree in Anthropology, I returned to Singapore where I worked for a tech policy consultancy. I became unsettled by the discrepancies between tech development and societal transformation; technology was (and is) developing faster than it is bettering communities and I needed to find a way to narrow the gap. I began looking for ways in which the worlds of technology and social change intersected. What I found was either tech giants profiting at the expense of societal ills, or social change organizations struggling to find resources to “digitize” their processes.

For the past year, I have been working as a design ethnographer. Having lived and worked with vulnerable communities, I am (in part) convinced that some of life’s most complex problems require lo-fi (if not, no-fi) solutions. And perhaps it starts with sitting a little more with the problems and observing the everyday; listening to the seemingly mundane to uncover the silences of human relationships and the interplay of technology and humanity.

Nonetheless, I believe that tech has a role to play in building a better world. My hope is that our conversations in class will pierce into new portals of reimagining the old; to uncover tools to assess technology’s role in meaningfully addressing any problem.