No one’s coming. It’s up to us.

The writer.
The BBC Micro videogame Galaxian.
Shuttle.dwg, which came with the 1985 release of AutoCAD
Computers in the Home, The Usborne Book of the Future, 1979
The Electronic Revolution, The Usborne Book of the Future, 1979
A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, John Perry Barlow, 1996
“You know, that part in 2001 when Kubrick masterfully match cuts from a bone-as-tool-and-weapon to a space faring civilization”
Metcalfe’s Law after 40 Years of Ethernet, 10.1109/MC.2013.374
Testimony of Colin Stretch, General Counsel, Facebook, before the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism, October 31, 2017
Computers can help us.
How John Perry Barlow views his internet manifesto on its 20th anniversary, The Economist
How John Perry Barlow views his internet manifesto on its 20th anniversary, The Economist
Just because it isn’t funny doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
We’re responsible to society for the tools we make.
Technologists are not apart from society. Society is all of us.

Getting from here to there

  1. Clearly decide what kind of society we want; and then
  2. Design and deliver the technologies that forever get us closer to achieving that desired society.

What we can do now

For all of us: What would it look like, and how might our societies be different, if technology were better aligned to society’s interests?

For technologists: How can we be humane and advance the goals of our society?

  • We are better and stronger when we are together than when we are apart. If you’re a technologist, consider this question: what are the pros and cons of unionizing? As the product of a linked network, consider the question: what is gained and who gains from preventing humans from linking up in this way?
  • Just as we create design patterns that are best practices, there are also those that represent undesired patterns from our society’s point of view known as dark patterns. We should familiarise ourselves with them and each work to understand why and when they’re used and why their usage is contrary to the ideals of our society.
  • We can do a better job of advocating for and doing research to better understand the problems we seek to solve, the context in which those problems exist and the impact of those problems. Only through disciplines like research can we discover in the design phase — instead of in production, when our work can affect millions — negative externalities or unintended consequences that we genuinely and unintentionally may have missed.
  • We must compassionately accept the reality that our work has real effects, good and bad. We can wish that bad outcomes don’t happen, but bad outcomes will always happen because life is unpredictable. The question is what we do when bad things happen, and whether and how we take responsibility for those results. For example, Twitter’s leadership must make clear what behaviour it considers acceptable, and do the work to be clear and consistent without dodging the issue.
  • In America especially, technologists must face the issue of free speech head-on without avoiding its necessary implications. I suggest that one of the problems culturally American technology companies (i.e., companies that seek to emulate American culture) face can be explained in software terms. To use agile user story terminology, the problem may be due to focusing on a specific requirement (“free speech”) rather than the full user story (“As a user, I need freedom of speech, so that I and those who come after me can pursue life, liberty and happiness”). Free speech is a means to an end, not an end, and accepting that free speech is a means involves the hard work of considering and taking a clear, understandable position as to what ends.
  • We have been warned. Academics — in particular, sociologists, philosophers, historians, psychologists and anthropologists — have been warning of issues such as large-scale societal effects for years. Those warnings have, bluntly, been ignored. In the worst cases, those same academics have been accused of not helping to solve the problem. Moving on from the past, is there not something that we technologists can learn? My intuition is that post the 2016 American election, middle-class technologists are now afraid. We’re all in this together. Academics are reaching out, have been reaching out. We have nothing to lose but our own shame.
  • Repeat to ourselves: some problems don’t have fully technological solutions. Some problems can’t just be solved by changing infrastructure. Who else might help with a problem? What other approaches might be needed as well?

There’s no one coming. It’s up to us.

Afterword

Notes

Some people

Some reading

With thanks to

  • Farrah Bostic
  • Debbie Chachra
  • Tom Carden
  • Heather Champ
  • Dana Chisnell
  • Tom Coates
  • Blaine Cook
  • Rachel Coldicutt
  • Clearleft and the Juvet A.I. Retreat attendees
  • Warren Ellis
  • Cyd Harrell
  • Dan Hill
  • Jen Pahlka
  • Matt Jones
  • Derek Powazek
  • Robin Ray
  • Nora Ryan
  • Matt Webb

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I come from the internet and I can type.

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Dan Hon

Dan Hon

I come from the internet and I can type.

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