Campaigners and activists have (largely) untapped power to significantly and positively impact the technology landscape. In the information age applying ethics to technology choices results in a positive feedback loop due to network effects that can quickly achieve scale. This is not just technical utopian resistance to The Man (though it is that too!), it's an important part of how we will change the world .
Whether you're an activist making personal tech choices about what browser to use, or a campaigner deciding what tech solutions your organisation should rely on, your day-to-day decisions have huge collective societal ramifications.
The People United
In aggregate activists and campaigners represent a substantial chunk of economic & social activity in our own right. We also influence the decisions and behavior of an order of magnitude more people again through our campaigns, community engagement and other activities. And we speak with authority on issues of privacy and protecting the non-monetary value society places on the individual.
We can, and should, be an influential voice nudging society towards a more utopian digital future (or a less-dystopian one if it's one of those days) and not leave it to the giant tech companies who got us into this mess in the first place.
It's easy to start doing this.
By consciously and deliberately applying an ethical decision-making framework to our tech choices we actively program our own minds rather than letting the increasingly sophisticated marketing world program it for us.
Exercising ethical procurement muscles is like working any other muscle: strength improves over time and action becomes effortless.
Our own behaviour and growing consciousness begins to positively influence our own social circles passively and actively, especially in this new age of ethical tech.
Age of Ethical Tech
2018 feels like the year we finally emerged from the hedonism of our tech innovation party to deal with the hangover of privacy and power imbalance issues it has created.
We're at a global tipping point digitally where the growing awareness of the harm of surveillance capitalism may see the destruction of this model, hastened by the power of exercising deliberate, personal browser choices.
The recent commencement of the GDPR by the EU (if you didn't receive 100 emails about it, or more to the point, read them, it is legislation which enforces stricter privacy requirements on businesses globally) has surveillance capitalists on notice.
Tech giants like Apple are responding to society's demand for ethical tech - in their annual developer conference keynote recently they made two significant announcements:
new features to deal with tech addiction
a new version of their Safari browser which blocks even more surveillance capitalism spyware (but not enough to chose it over Firefox or Brave).
2018 feels like the year we finally emerge from the hedonism of our tech innovation party to deal with the hangover of privacy and power imbalance issues it has created.
It won't be a neat and discrete transition, and it's still anyone's guess on where we will head as a society, but it certainly feels like we have momentum towards the beginning of a new relationship with technology.
Each of us in the progressive movement has responsibility (and power!) to keep this momentum going:
We've already discussed browser choice as an obvious, and important personal, and collectively impactful, choice.
Going further all personal tech choices, from our phone and operating system, through to the social and messaging apps we use and contribute to, should be made with ethical considerations in mind:
- What's the business model? Is it a simple, transparent paid 'transactional' service (with up-front fees and clear terms like Do Gooder), or is it "free" - meaning you're the product being sold (like Facebook, Google et al)
- Who are the owners? Who are the investors? Where does the money trail lead?
- What are their values?
- Do they deserve our support?
- How is society shaped, positively and negatively, from our use or participation in this technology?
- Does the benefit to our causes outweigh the damage to society by supporting this organisation?
Installing apps and buying devices with these questions in mind is a very under-rated form of direct activism.
In case you are wondering what "smart" - as in "smart city" or "smart home" - means:— Evgeny Morozov (@evgenymorozov) February 1, 2016
Sure the gloss may come off the modern 'wonders' of things like SMART devices with an ethical framework in place, but dodging a big-brother dystopia surely has to be worth risking being labelled the digital kill joy at parties?! Your friends will thank you later, trust me.
All the same questions above can and should be brought to bear on your organisational tech decisions: what messaging and group chat tools and communities we participate in, what digital channels we spend campaign dollars on and what digital platforms we use to achieve change matter. A lot.
Taking a values-driven approach to procurement as a campaigner is an additional burden, but by deliberately choosing to partner with and support tech that is truly values-aligned helps feed into a supportive network of like-minded orgs.
When we began Do Gooder we made a deliberate ethical call on which campaigns we would accept, and we regularly have to make decisions that deny access to our platform by groups who aren't working for the common good. (You wouldn't be surprised how chameleon-like some of these no-good campaigns have become too!).
It's more work, and harder to do globally for sure – but then again we're in this to amplify the network effects of good so it's worth the effort.
We're continuing to evolve our own ethical tech procurement process right now by evaluating our own digital supply chain to make sure we're supporting the right networks, technologies and platforms.
(Stay tuned for posts on specific, actionable campaign advice you can implement once we've completed our own evaluation).
Of course it's not so simple. But we know the one thing absolutely necessary for things to change is for citizens to do something. While in our darkest moments individual acts can feel futile and invisible, in the digital world everything is tracked, measured and analysed.
The market share of browsers, apps and devices is endlessly reported, and those signals can upturn whole industries and models. We know this because it's happened before.
Take Ad blockers for instance. What started as a small open source project in 2002 by lone coder Henrik Aasted Sørensen in Copenhagen, has grown to the point where 1 in 5 Americans will soon be using Ad blockers. That's one very big signal to the entire digital advertising and related industries. They now know they need to change their business model, and fast (those figures grew 41% worldwide and by 48% in the U.S. between Q2 2014 and Q2 2015).
Doing this takes control back from those who track our behavior and tech use to create 'shadow profiles' without our knowledge or consent, instead using the monitors of surveillance capitalism against itself by projecting the shadow we want them to see. Thus signaling to the watchers through their own surveillance and reporting mechanisms, that society's expectations are shifting. One Ad blocker, one browser, one Signal install, one campaign placed outside Facebook and Google Adwords, at a time.