Community Technology — Narrative Adventures and Adaptations

AKA footnotes for fellows :)

Yesterday I had the opportunity to speak with Cassie Robinson about a few things that are on her mind, and the minds of many of us, for part of a session this week with the Community Tech Fellowship Programme. Our conversation reminded me of one I’d had with Immy Kaur a few months back during the lovely Department of Dreams event. It was a continuation in a way. Both conversations made me reflect on the need to keep track of what we’re doing in community with each other, and to tell our stories and pass them along. And how challenging that can be when there is so much work to do. It’s certainly not something I have been great at, but as the months pass I feel more capable of doing it and was grateful for the chance to keep thinking about collective action in the context of community and technology with Cassie. We talked about how to keep expanding the ways we work collectively on public technologies and digital infrastructures, as well as the standards and policies and laws that impact them. We talked about The Mushroom at the End of the World for a quick minute, because it always feels like it’s hard to efficiently tell our stories and maybe that’s not just ok but necessary and wonderful. We also talked about what exactly digital public infrastructures are, but that’s for another time. This here post is for the fellows (hi fellows), and I’m posting it here for anyone else that might want to read it because hey why not. I’m posting it here because I realized there were a few more specific stories lurking in me that I could surface in case they’re helpful to our shared work.

I said to Cassie that things were honestly feeling quite grim, given the dual forces of (1) austerity-driven technology for efficiency being adopted ever more quickly by governments for everything from policing to program delivery while (2) technology as economic development continues to makes governments as vested as technology companies in allowing commerce to define how tech works.

While those things are true, it’s also true that there has always been resistance to these forces and there are ways to continue growing that power. To do that, it helps to be as specific as possible about what might work so that we can learn together.

It’s hopeful to think about how to keep bringing more of us into discussions about technology procurements and projects and policies that are happening at any level of government, whether they are on the defensive side of things (tech we know is harmful and want to stop) or on the proactive ‘what kind of policy and technology do we want’ side of things. Doing both concurrently is definitely the way to go. To that end, I wanted to share a few small but practical things that have been helpful in growing collective narrative and public engagement power as a footnote of sorts to our conversation.

Nothing here is novel or original, as with everything, it’s all old and been said and done many times in many contexts. And these suggestions all assume privileges of time, access to resources, language, and more — for these reasons, these ideas should be considered as only a tiny slice of the work within a much broader diversity of tactics. The common thread of these suggestions is the development of collective narrative. But it’s important not to downplay how we can take part in this type of work and understand how it ties into broader organizing and engagement, for which there are many excellent resources and so many incredible projects on the go, particularly in the realm of digital infrastructures.

So, a few specific ideas:

Ask questions about a proposed project or technology as a group advocacy exercise. We talked about how technology advocates have a big role to play in making more of us feel comfortable challenging new technologies — the general public, civil society, and even politicians. When the Sidewalk Labs project began, a small group of us laid out some questions we were looking for answers to about the project. We then opened that list up to others to add their questions. We created a participatory action that allowed people to learn by reading other people’s questions, and realizing they weren’t alone in having them, and adding their own. By the end, we had hundreds of questions in a shared document, which created a solid footing for people to join in and get involved in the conversation. By virtue of a blog post and a (irony alert, we know) Google document, we had a low-cost action that helped build community. When you see projects or policy exercises going on, consider if and how you can augment the processes so that more people can participate in them. And what’s vital about this is that you don’t have to have the answers — but your governments most certainly do, and this is work to hold them accountable to that fact.

Consider both greenwashing and pandemic rationale as cases to call out troubling technology in partnership with other civil society groups. In the smart city context, there are significant unchecked assumptions and declarations being made about how more data means more efficiency which means technology is good for the environment. The lesser discussed part of this equation is that technology has an environmental impact and that impact is not small — to begin to get a handle on this, take a read of this post by Roel Dobbe and Meredith Whittaker at the AI Now Institute. One interesting and connected piece of work that needs to be done is a push for corporate transparency on the environmental impact of computing. Perhaps consider how we might all be able to work on that from a policy perspective — how to pressure governments to consider this and answer to us about it in their technology planning. The pandemic is also being used as rationale for many types of surveillant or invasive technologies, as has been detailed by Sean McDonald among many others, in terms of digital response options. By working across sectors with environmentalists and healthcare specialists, technology advocates can bring arguments forward that force governments to respond to broader and more established policy and civil society communities (environment, health care). This is a tactic to consider when thinking about partnerships across sectors to design shared narratives.

A final note on this topic: this post by Frank Pasquale on ‘The Second Wave of Algorithmic Accountability” is an excellent touch-point to think about the kinds of technology where efficacy and impact are worth debating and considering and seeking more information about vs. the kinds of technology where an abolitionist/hard no/under no circumstances is the collective stance to take so as to avoid taking part in technology theatre.

Write detailed blog posts about an issue, technology, or project. In 2018 I had a conversation with Rob Kitchin, who does a lot of work on smart cities, about the power of the blog post — he told me about a blog post he had written on a housing issue in Dublin (I think?) and how it was just a blog post with some related data, but how that blog post led to significant engagement with civil society and pressure on the government. I share the story because the same goes for all of us. You don’t have to be an amazing writer to be helpful through writing — you can do a lot by simply documenting the details of a particular project or technology on a persistent basis. Commitment over time and super granular details are key. Journalists often struggle to keep up with some of these tech stories, as do governments. Don’t worry too much about how little or much your writing gets passed around publicly. You may never know who reads it but you should know that documenting the details of any technology issue is probably helpful to more people than you might imagine. So don’t overlook the humble blog as a space for documentation and education.

Leverage and translate academic knowledge. In Toronto and the Sidewalk Labs case there were SO MANY helpful and generous academics that had lived, studied, taught, researched and written about the social impacts and issues related to smart city technology. Some have also defined patterns that can help us understand how corporate capture of democracy works. One of the successes from this experience that can be replicated is engaging with academics directly to confirm narratives, get examples, co-author writing, etc. When we need to react fast to a situation, we may not have time to read everything. Send emails, make phone calls, ask for help. Several academics participated in community workshops, explaining concepts and terms and histories to help continually build knowledge and confidence in a larger group of us so that we could take it and continue to spread it. Keep track of words and phrases that land with people and keep working on how to tell the stories and ask the questions. This translation and engagement work cannot be shortcut, but if you grow and share it, it’s possible to speed up the process for people to feel comfortable engaging with a topic politically and holding their elected officials accountable by asking hard and important questions.

Ok… end of these footnotes for fellows :) I’m excited to keep this conversation going. Thanks Cassie and thanks to all of you for the opportunity to think on this together as ever.

“diptych” by gfpeck is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0