Patrice Riemens on Tue, 28 Feb 2017 13:28:59 +0100 (CET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Kim Foale: Tech culture is failing communities. How can we make it

Original to:
Bwo HacktionLab/Mick Fuzz

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

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

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 white 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, 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.

I’m developing a sort of manifesto to try and combat this, and 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 
process of writing it up so I can get feedback and generate discussion 
along the way.

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

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 focussing 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 

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 

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 

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 

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.

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime>  is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info:
#  archive: contact:
#  @nettime_bot tweets mail w/ sender unless #ANON is in Subject: