Tech culture is failing communities. How can we make it better?

Californian design principles have taken over the internet, turning people into products. We need a roadmap towards truly community-owned technology.

The shift in internet and technology culture over the last decade has been phenomenal. Most of the services we use today haven’t been around long at all — Facebook is thirteen years old, Twitter ten, and Instagram six. The first iPhone — and arguably with it the modern concept of an “app” — was released in 2007. And yet despite all this technology that’s supposed to bring us together, social isolation is a major player in the current epidemic of depression, loneliness, eating disorders, suicide, and other social problems. How has this happened?

With these new technologies has come a rapid shift in the culture and industry which builds, markets, and owns them. Broadly, this has seen Californian men working alone in their bedrooms suddenly get pushed to global fame, propelled by a seemingly endless supply of speculative venture capital funds, themselves also overwhelmingly run by enormously wealthy men. While we currently find ourselves in many other spheres challenging overly white, rich and male political structures, it feels like there has not been similar mainstream political critique of the ownership of our new, virtual, civic spaces.

The Lean Startup model has sparked a trend towards functionally limited but highly profitable software: doing “just enough” to justify a purchase point or app install. The hype around apps has meant that every new technology product is required to follow the same Californian design principles: vertically integrated, extremely expensive to produce, for the most part free at point of use, and highly branded, with all data stored in the cloud and owned by the company. I’ve found it difficult explaining to clients looking to do something new that there are other ways to do things, or that an app is one solution of many, especially when solving social problems. Honestly, I still don’t quite understand what an “app” is when someone asks me for one — the concept seems wrapped up in a concept of a kind of experience that you’re expected to have with it. But I digress.

A decade ago, technically-savvy activists like me thought news sites like Indymedia were the future. We thought that aggregation with RSS was the eventual endgame for a decentralised, community-owned internet. We were talking about making cooperatively owned mesh wifi networks to provide free wifi for everyone, the obvious and inevitable move towards everyone using Ubuntu (or other Linux flavours), and building thin-client networks from recycled computers in community cafes to provide free internet and computer access. And now we’re talking about commercial apps, corporate social media, and Mechanical Turk. Any mention of communities and working with people seems to have vanished, in favour of an almost pathological focus on software and software culture itself. Something went wrong.

American, and especially Californian audiences at this point might be pointing out that these older values are actually part of a long-standing “maker culture”: and what I’m talking about is Silicon Valley and the “Californian Ideology”, not California in general. I agree that this is unfair, and the irony of publishing this on Medium is not lost on me. This piece is written from a Northern British perspective. The reason for my sensationalism is to encourage internet consumers to think about where their technology comes from in the same way we do with fruit and vegetables or electrical goods. From a non-American perspective it’s sometimes hard to remember Silicon Valley is an actual place, not a metaphor — so please forgive me my clickbait!

Manchester (where I’m writing this) has a long and proud history of labour and human rights progress; I want to explore what this means from a technology culture perspective. I’m developing a manifesto to get back to this kinder, community-oriented tech culture I remember from my twenties. I’m calling it a Community Technology Partnership, or CTP. Starting to write about this, I’ve discovered that the rabbit hole is a lot deeper than I thought. As a result, I’m going to syndicate the development process so I can get feedback and generate discussion along the way. This is the first part. Following this will be more on the methodological principles, the overall aims and objectives, and information about two pilots I’m working on to develop the concept.

What follows is a list of overall values for a CTP manifesto. It was pointed out to me an event on post-fact politics the other weekend that the former concepts are all human; the latter ones all inhuman or robotic and part of that Californian ideology that I critiqued at the start of this article. So maybe it really does all start on this basic, structural level.

Complete > Perfect

Embrace messy data.

Programming is forgetting. All computer systems — from Facebook to Word — throw anything away they don’t understand. You can’t create a Facebook event and set the date later. You can’t do a painting in Word. More subtly, what a piece of information looks like is based on a designer’s desires: the concept of “a conversation” is different and incompatible between email, Facebook and Google Groups, for example. It simply doesn’t make sense to try and synchronise all those things; they are fundamentally incompatible.

Some of these systems are more prescriptive than others. Taking the Facebook event as an example, there’s a surprising amount of prerequisites. Not only you already have a Facebook account and friends on it (to make it worthwhile), you have to know the date and time, location and title before being able to create it. A scan of a flyer simply won’t do, for example.

Clearly, real-life is not like this. Community information is huge, and varied, and a tiny fraction of it ends up online in an organised way. Messy knowledge ends up being word of mouth, and reaches very few people. Some examples of this might be:

  • You can book a free room in a community campus building (if you know who to talk to)
  • There is an underused computer suite in a local housing estate
  • The local library runs free computer classes
  • The community garden centre is looking for new directors
  • A new planning application that would affect the area

Yes, you might find these things out via a chance post on social media, if you use it. But we do not have even the mechanisms to store these things and present them to the community in an accessible way. Corporate apps work fine for solved problems for engaged users; they do not work well to enable community resilience. A CTP aims to collect knowledge first, and worry about what to do with it later. Our systems should not be deciding what the important information is: we should.

Let’s build systems that have the lowest possible bar to entry, find out what we don’t know, and develop new ways to record community knowledge.

Communication > Code

We should be flexible and holistic in what we do with information.

If what matters is people getting access to accurate, useful, timely information, then we can say that communication is the goal, not code. In the tech sector we talk a lot about what platform or framework is being used, and very little about what is being communicated. I’ve been to countless tech presentations where the talk has been entirely on the structure of the app, and not a word about the people who are using it and how it’s changed things socially. By focusing on communications as a holistic problem, we can see the internet as one tool of many to facilitate information sharing.

For example, we could automate things like aggregated posters and brochures of local events, enable people to work together to distribute flyers, or create interactive displays of current planning applications. We should not see the technology as the goal in itself, but creating informed and engaged local citizens who are able to get what they want from their neighbourhood.

The 596 Acres project is a particularly good example of this. In their own words:

The seeds of 596 Acres were planted when founder Paula Z. Segal obtained a spreadsheet of all the publicly owned vacant land in Brooklyn and created a map of it to distribute. This map was the first tool designed to let people know about the unharnessed potential hidden in plain sight throughout the city’s neighborhoods. It appeared on a poster highlighting vacant public land in Brooklyn, and as an interactive tool on our website. Getting the word out — in print and online — has been at the heart of the project ever since.

I went to a fantastic presentation on this project where this point was emphasised. The website and open data provided the impetus and structure to get the project rolling, and it couldn’t have happened without it. But it was going to every plot of land and zip-tying the contact details to it, answering the phone, and talking to people that made the project a success.

Let’s focus on making sure people get the information they need in a way that suits them, and stop seeing the internet as an end in itself.

Distributed > Centralised

Facilitate people using the technology that they want, rather than imposing new systems.

Just as the corporate internet is designed to be perfect, it’s also centralised. Many interventions attempt to introduce a new platform, and worry about how to make people use it later. A CTP sees this as completely the wrong way around. We should be enabling people to use existing technology, mapping out what is in use, and providing training to enable people to make incremental improvements. The internet works because it is distributed not centralised — the current top-down order of sites like Facebook almost entirely being a product of massive capitalist investment. We need to start owning our own information again.

This means that we want to help organisations improve their data offering. For example, many community centres have no centralised list of all the services they provide — something we started work on in the StreetSupport project. Very few have their event data in a structured format that allows it to be read by others. Maybe, at a later date, the need will emerge for a centralised platform — but these platforms should not be zero-sum, and should leave behind the education and principles for organisations to understand what is needed for others to be able to use their data.

By owning our own information and publishing it in a structured way, we can open the door to a new generation of co-operative web services.

People > Computers

Focus on improving people’s skills, not on any given technology.

Fundamentally, computers are not that interesting (at least to me). The internet can be thought of as a giant mechanism for handing around Post-It notes — the interest is in what is on them and who they are being passed between, not the notes themselves. Technology professionals have so neglected human needs that now an entire sub-industry has had to be created with job titles like “human centred design”, “user interface design”, and “usability designer”. In my experience, talks at technical events almost never feature feedback from people who use the platform, focussing instead on technical minutiae and evidence-less theorising. The industry’s current focus is on getting toasters and toothbrushes online — apparently more interesting goals than getting poor people, old people, or people with learning difficulties online.

A CTP prioritises people’s needs directly. The goals are education, cooperation, and building community strength. The technologies we use to do this should reflect community needs. The digital divide is growing again, and evidence suggests that as time goes on internet use will come to simply reflect existing social divides.

Existing social media platforms are designed to try and replace real-life interactions with online ones, so they can be analysed and used for marketing. Services from Amazon Prime to Uber attempt to simply remove them altogether.

We should build internet services to enable and facilitate real-life interactions, and in doing so work towards reducing the social isolation epidemic.

Locality-based > Interest-based

Focus on communities of location, not communities of interest.

Your postcode at birth is still the single biggest guide to your life’s chances: from employment opportunities to life expectancy. However, the communities we tend to make online — be they for work are leisure — are even more selective than those based on our location. In order to redress some balance, we must urgently turn our attention to our own neighbourhoods.

Almost any night of the week in Manchester you can go to a tech event in a fancy Northern Quarter office with free pizza and beer; it’s so common it’s barely remarked upon. On some level, why would you go anywhere else? Of course, from a community activist perspective it’s hilarious to even think that a company would consider sponsoring your meeting of a group working against austerity, racism or sexism with free pizza and beer. And yet the demographics between these two sorts of meeting could not be more stark. The last tech event like this I went to was about 30:1 men:women by by estimation, almost all I would guess age 20–40. Most community meetings on the other hand are a much more diverse mix of people: age, race, gender and other issues much more in balance.

I’m not blaming anyone for this state of affairs — I’m grateful for free food and beer, a good talk and a warm office too. My point is more that we need to redress this balance: we need more people with technical skills working in local communities, and more tech events that specifically focus on community needs rather than individual technologies.

By focussing on one specific geographical area — where we live — we can attempt to break this impasse. Anyone who’s been in enough meetings knows that the real progress happens before and afterwards, in the pub, a chat on the street corner on the way out. This chance emergence of ideas interactions and friendships can’t happen if people simply aren’t meeting in this way. People spend a lot of time looking at how to make the tech sector more diverse; and yet this always seems to be initiatives from within, not without.

As people with a background in technology, let’s re-engage with our communities and find out what we can do for them and what they can do for us. And maybe it’ll fix a bunch of other problems along the way.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Use fewer, better technologies.

Most organisations and individuals have tiny budgets (or no budgets) for technical products and services. Money spent on these things is explicitly not going on services for their users. And yet the tech industry is constantly trying to sell people expensive products and services, and work with five- or six-figure website budgets. Of course, a good web-presence and good quality design are positive things to have that organisations should aspire to. But in general we should be enabling organisations to do more with the limited resources they have.

Reduce means to simply use less technology, in order to improve the offers that are there. There is a massive amount of duplication. Most low-budget websites end up being over-specified (I should know, I’ve built a few). We should be helping organisations to use fewer, better technologies, and understanding what is necessary over what is nice.

Reuse means that people are constantly re-inventing the wheel at a low level. There are multiple organisations who maintain a database of voluntary organisations in Manchester, for example. We need to build trust and inter-operability to enable people to pool resources to build systems that work better for everyone.

Recycle means that we should have a patternbook of solved problems for small organisations that can be easily used as off-the-shelf fixes. For example this could be bits of code to convert a Google Calendar or Facebook Events feed into a static page on a website, or a set of supported, tested templates for organisational brochure sites.

This post is the start of a discussion about the axioms of the technology we product: the things we think so self-evident we barely inspect them. It’s time to start being more critical about the nature of the things we are making, who they are for, and what impact they have on people, community, and planet. We need to get back to a more holistic, community-grounded technology culture that we own and develop ourselves, for the good of everyone. I’ll leave you with Tony Benn’s classic five questions about democracy that we should perhaps start applying to to technology we use and create as well:

  • What power have you got?
  • Where did you get it from?
  • In whose interests do you exercise it?
  • To whom are you accountable?
  • How can we get rid of you?

Stay tuned for more on the CTP concept, including details on the pilots due to start in the next few months! Comments and suggestions welcomed with open arms. If you like, find out more about my work and practice on my agency site: Geeks for Social Change.

Artwork by Rebecca Michalak. Thanks to everyone who contributed to or gave feedback on this draft, and especially to Erik Davis for the reminder California is a big place.

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