Notes from the Tech for Good Meetup

Last night I went to a meetup in New York for progressive technologists to discuss responses to the recent election. People shared thoughts, feelings, and ideas for ways to move forward, and I’d like to share them. In the conclusion I’ll try to summarize what I heard.


These are my notes written as fast as I could jot them, so not all quotes are accurate, and I’m keeping everyone anonymous.

One person talked about being frustrated and being angry at the electorate that voted on Tuesday, and content staying angry. She said “Anger can be beautiful, and powerful. It doesn’t let you stand still.”

Another person talked about how he was shocked. “Surreal. Like it’s not really happening. You knew the world was broken but you didn’t know how broken it is.”

Another: “We don’t understand the country as well as we think we do. I want to question my bias.”

Another: “I don’t understand half this country. All of us don’t.” He asked those in the room how we’d feel if one day we came to work to find the entire staff laid off and replaced with UX designers overseas for half the price. How would we feel? In that scenario, maybe you’d willing to overlook the sins of your candidate if it meant addressing that issue. “Don’t fight your fellow citizens; find a cause, and fight for that.”

A woman said that “we as a group [the tech community] have so much more power than we realize. We can influence minds more than we realize. This is not over.” She discussed how it had been easy to become complacent with the idea that the last 8 years were forward progress.

Another man brought up a quote: “Bringing facts to a culture war is like bringing a knife to a gunfight.” He recommended a number of steps privacy-minded folks should take moving forward:

1) Get Tor
2) Enable 2 factor authentication everywhere it’s available
3) Get Signal
4) Get a VPN

Another: “I’m just realizing that half the country voted to endorse sexism, and racism.” She was hearing lots of people encouraging folks to be open minded, understanding, and how the other side has their reasons to vote the way they did. Her perspective was that all the people espousing sexism and racism had been validated; that those views were now mainstream, and ok. And that that viewpoint is the first thing that needs to be addressed.

A woman brought up the fact that, the fact that Trump is egotistical, could work in progressives’ favor. That he could be baited.

Someone else expressed surprise that the other speakers were surprised. She brought up Brexit. Russia, Turkey, and China. She talked about how we don’t need 70,000 more apps; it was a homeowner who found lead in the Michigan water. It’s information like that that needs to be collected, and shared.

An immigrant spent the day after the election walking around the National History museum, thinking “How could someone want to destroy this?” He encouraged people to get out in their communities, and teach, as a way of empowering people. Help those that need it the most.

A recent transplant from Silicon Valley asked a question: Why did the United States allow the election to come down to a choice between Clinton and Trump? He said people voted for Trump because he told them what they wanted to hear. That Americans did not want to hear about Syrian immigrants. That she did not address her money issues. As an Indian immigrant, he talked about how his it was a dream that coming to America would make a huge difference. “I did not come to this country to be in despair. I want to focus on hope.”

A first generation American, son of a single mother talked about feeling defeated for the last 48 hours. Not knowing how to process his emotions. Feeling scared of the inevitable racism to come.

A man was thrilled to be discussing activism, as a coping mechanism. About scouring for ideas, and figuring out how to leave the bubble of NYC. “What can we do to make sure technology doesn’t give us blinders? And not turn people into cartoons?”

A woman talked about how she felt guilty for not doing more. And feeling guilty about thinking technology can change much.

A man was deeply worried about Trump, domestically and abroad. He wanted to build a stronger sense of personal connection, and think about ways of encouraging compassion, and solidarity.

Someone suggested we go to where the other side is, places like Breitbart, and engage, and start commenting. And speak up even if others don’t share your political views.

A man implored everyone to “shake the surprise off. This is how the world is.” He talked about how he gave out the number for the suicide hotline to folks undergoing extreme stress and anxiety. “This is where our country is. This is where it’s been. A person basically put up an effigy of things we believe and won.” He said that, just as there’s a diversity gap in tech for women and minorities, there’s also a political diversity gap, “created by our insistence to publicly shame and excommunicate those of opposing positions, which then instilled a fear in those who would prefer to simply not speak up in order to maintain relationships.” And that prevented folks in the community from understanding how the other side voted. And that “they’re afraid to talk to us too.”

A man talked about how folks in the community have tons of ideas. Tons of energy, engagement in open source. “I recognize a lot of opportunity to do what we do best. And be there for each other, and for the rest of the world.”

A woman talked about being a technocrat and feeling a dull rage. She talked about her Southern family seeing her as living in a fantasy land. A vote for Trump was like throwing a brick through her window. “Are you looking now?” she asked rhetorically. She talked about how tech can’t solve everything, about her desire to get out of the bubble, but not knowing how. She implored people to meet in person, not on the internet.

A woman talked about how she’s “not in a hopeful place.” About how data failed. She said “White people failed us. I only focused my outreach on the black and LGBT communities. I didn’t try to change white people. As programmers, we understand where the bugs (aka, the problems) lie.”

A man talked about how the long term is important, but short term things were important to, like addressing an oncoming uptick in bullying, white power chants, and worse. And how it’s important to let victims know they’re not alone, even if they live in a very conservative place.

An immigrant discussed using work as therapy, and encouraged people to help as technologists within campaigns, and identify on a meta level, what approaches were most successful.

A product manager encouraged the crowd to treat the electorate like you would a client (sometimes clients can be very frustrating, but necessary to deal with effectively).

A man made the point that the room had been “referring to the other side as ‘the other half’. Just want to point out that less than half of the population voted. So it’s important to understand that only a quarter of the country voted for this man. And it’s important to understand why the half that didn’t vote sat this one out.”

A woman discussed how she had been adopted, as a result of being born into a country that rejected her for being a girl. To see the rejection of the first female nominee was heartbreaking for her. She recounted how her cousin’s little girl was scared to go to school now. And how it was unconscionable for children to feel like they don’t belong.


At that point, the conversation moved to asking for action-oriented ideas to move forward.

A CS student talked about the US digital service, and how technologists were excited to work there under Obama but running in the other direction from Trump. And about how maybe there was an opportunity there, even though it felt like the antithesis.

A man suggested updating apps’ algorithms to suggest more things from outside of your bubble. Maybe periodically seeing stories you don’t agree with.

Another man suggested supporting specific organizations you support. And as “technologists, who probably have high salaries, who will probably get large tax cuts over the next four years, why don’t we donate that extra money, and volunteer as well?”

Somebody suggested using data to find out who voted in previous elections, that didn’t vote in 2016. Find those people who didn’t think it mattered and listen.

A woman suggested studying the Tea Party’s methods, specifically their early focus on small and local initiatives. She mentioned how folks she knew had very little understanding of how things worked at the local level. She also suggested putting together a mailing list to document the first 100 days.

Another woman also discussed the Tea Party, and how disparate groups were able to pick a cause and focus on it. And how, conversely, the left is fractured; “I’m on five different environmental group emails”.

A man pushed back against the idea of piercing his bubble: “I am in a bubble. I’m queer and it’s hard to deal with discriminatory stuff on Facebook. Growing up, I internalized a lot of queer discrimination. So we do need to think about ourselves, too. We don’t have to pretend we’re entirely different, because I don’t think we are.”

A man talked about voter suppression, and ways to mobilize people for future elections. He talked about how the next midterm would be an uphill battle and how “things can definitely get worse.”

A man said, “I’m been using PGP since 1995. And the interface is the same as it was back then. What the fuck? No!” He implored people to make it easier, from a UX perspective, to encrypt text. That we should make cryptography a standard.

A UX teacher from Tallahassee just purchased her first subscription to a newspaper. She talked about how “we’re used to getting media for free because we’re cheap millennials. But we need to support institutions doing the real legwork. We’ve been promised that the first amendment will be attacked over the next four years.” That Trump supporters shouldn’t be shut out, and that we can learn from the right, and on how they promoted legislation from the bottom up.

A man talked about not knowing a single Trump supporter, and feeling that it was likely that some people around him were supporters that didn’t feel comfortable speaking up. Just like progressive supporters in deep red states probably didn’t feel comfortable speaking up, either.

A woman talked about people not knowing their congresspeople, and another man talked about making voting easier, as easy as voting over your Xbox. And encouraged people to build something allowing folks to communicate more effectively.

A woman recommended the book “Integrated Activism” by Alexis Zeigler.

A man recommended Code Corps.

A woman talked about how the Civil Rights movement redirected resources away from discriminatory businesses. She implored people to use their privilege to help the less fortunate, impoverished communities.

A woman said “it’d be cool if we had people from the other side in the room. To comprehend what they’re thinking.”

A man talked about how we need to “protect ourselves and fight back”. That Trump’s model of a ruler is Putin. He implored everyone to learn how to organize in a surveillance state. That it’s hard to imagine that kind of thing coming to America, but that Trump will have control of everything: the executive branch, the legislative branch, the supreme court. There’s nothing holding him back but us.

Takeaways

Some common themes emerged:

  1. People wrestled with how to respond: engage the other side and try to understand their viewpoint, repulsive as you might find it? Or draw a line in the sand and say this (racism, sexism) is not ok?
  2. Many, many people talked about being blindsided as a result of living in a bubble. And more than a few did not know how to address that.
  3. For a group of technologists, there was a fair amount of consensus that tech could not be the sole solution; that engaging people in person had to be part of the solution.
  4. There was discussion around focusing on local, state-level politics, and studying how the Tea Party rose to power.
  5. Folks talked about supporting specific organizations you believe in with time and money. And in particular, supporting journalism by subscribing, as those organizations are already struggling financially and may be under political pressure in the future.

And, recapping what one participant recommended as protection against surveillance and hacking:

  1. Get Tor. Tor is software that aims to protect your privacy.
  2. Enable 2 factor authentication everywhere it’s available. 2FA makes it harder for people to hack into your email and other sensitive information.
  3. Get Signal and start texting there. Signal is a private messaging app for iOS and Android that encrypts your messages and protects against their being intercepted.
  4. Get a VPN. A VPN will encrypt your data, and increase privacy. There are free options but you should find a paid VPN provider. Here’s a list. Comment if you’ve got other recommendations.

To the idea of being in and getting out of your social media bubble, the WSJ recently published a red feed / blue feed I found fascinating.