Prior to our involvement in Routes to Justice, Etic Lab has been engaged in a range of projects across various fields, including political campaigning, debt management and tenant’s rights. In the course of these diverse experiences we have made discoveries, encountered difficulties and arrived at solutions which have profoundly altered our understanding of the work we are trying to do. Over time these insights have developed into a general ethos which guides our approach to future projects. 

Every day at Etic we experience the marvellous possibilities of modern information technologies, which are capable of extracting, organising and presenting data at a speed and on a scale that was unthinkable up until the last couple of decades. Our ability to conceptualise virtually any aspect of human behaviour as a field of quantifiable data to be analysed for patterns, structures and internal laws is so increasingly powerful that the temptation to view it as a universal solvent can be overwhelming. For this precise reason, we believe it is paramount to remain both humble and sceptical about the utility of such technologies in their practical application, the better to resist the urge to proclaim a solution before we have properly understood the problem.

One of the most destructive assumptions attached to the application of digital technologies to the social field is the notion that such technologies will in themselves provide a straightforward “fix” for hitherto intractable economic, political or organisational dilemmas. Theorist Evgeny Morozov names this belief “solutionism”, arguing that it is a central plank of today’s tech ideology. In short, “solutionism” consists of the conviction that modern digital technologies have the power to revolutionise virtually any area of human endeavour, such that the persistent contradictions or inefficiencies which had previously dogged the activity in question are rendered simply irrelevant. 

Let’s take a more concrete perspective on this issue. The provision of legal aid as a means of guaranteeing equal access to justice in British society is a complex process bound up with numerous social, economic, political, institutional and cultural factors. The definition of legal terms, conventions of legal practise, general levels of public understanding, demographic and geographic variation, the relationship of users to providers as well as between different providers, the relationship of legal aid to other public services, political decisions regarding the extent and allocation of funding – these are all issues which will necessarily bear upon the ability of this or that individual to realize their entitlement to legal aid. Solutionism responds to this complexity by attempting to translate the entire question of access to justice into a set of discretely measurable (and therefore computable) metrics, reducing the whole process to the kind of narrowly defined problem which can easily be “solved” by a single app. The result of this design exercise will likely be a neat, self-contained tool which attempts to bracket out the aforementioned complexities and contradictions by accommodating access to justice to a streamlined set of standardized actions.

In practice, this could mean something like a searchable national directory of sources of free legal advice and representation, or a chat bot designed to respond to user enquiries and direct them towards the relevant support. These are both plausible and potentially useful ideas, and indeed, there is every chance that such tools would perform well under the controlled conditions of a pilot study. However, it is our conviction (on the basis of our experience) that any technological fix – no matter how ingenious – which fails to properly account for the complexity of the context of its use will prove incapable of dealing with the messy practicalities of the large-scale, open-ended system in which it will ultimately be required to function. It may be that the tool proves incapable of responding to the specific structures and competencies of the various institutions to which it is supposed to refer, or that it cannot allow for differences in demand and provision within and between separate regions, or that it does not allow for common assumptions relevant to the behaviour of users and/or providers. The trouble with such contingencies is not so much that they are unforeseen, but rather that they are understood as problems to which technology will provide the solution, rather than realities which must be respected and reckoned with on their own terms.

At Etic Lab we take an organicist approach to digital technology, seeing it as part of the wider ecosystem of assumptions, behaviours, interests and practises which go towards accomplishing a given end goal. As technologists, we cannot afford to ignore or bracket out these broader considerations, and still less to complacently assume that our tools will be capable of simply cutting through the noise and inefficiency associated with so complex a structure. Our technology will interact with this ecosystem in ways that are predictable, and ways that are not. Regardless of whether these factors can be specified in advance, they will necessarily impinge upon our tools’ functionality. Meanwhile, the implementation of data-driven technologies may well necessitate changes in institutional culture and structure which go beyond simply training staff or users how to operate their new digital tools. Digitalisation is not a one-off event, but an open-ended process with unforeseeable consequences. Daunting as it may be, we see it as part of our job to work with this contingency, in part by ensuring that the tools we produce are durable, flexible and responsive to the changing state of their context of use.

In accordance with these ideas, Etic is committed to developing as deep as possible an understanding of the fields in which our products will be expected to function. In the case of legal aid, as with any other sphere of human activity, the route to such an understanding is through the experience of the stakeholders and users for and with whom the technology will ultimately be working. Therefore, as well as consulting the published research on the issue at hand, an essential part of our methodology involves fieldwork and interviews, through which we hope to arrive at a picture of how a given practise (i.e. the provision of legal aid) functions on the ground, as well as an insight into the needs and desires of the people involved. This work flows directly into our user-centred design process, which seeks (to paraphrase the authors of the Principles for Digital Development) to build with, and not for, the people who will directly interact with the technology. The aim is to create tools which are addressed to the specific goals, organisational structures and institutional cultures of the context in which they will be used. To this end, we reiteratively ask ourselves a set of simple questions at every stage of our work: Who are the different groups this tool is supposed to help? What are their various needs? How do they interact with the system as it currently exists? What are their desired outcomes? And how do we ensure that our work responds directly to these fundamental questions?

This piece has sought to explain some of the theoretical background behind our work at Etic Lab, both generally and as it applies to Routes to Justice. Our next post will describe how these ideas are materialised in our methodology and practise.