Tech as a temporary force multiplier

Thomas Wright's An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe (1750)

Cross-posting from a recent Twitter thread:

In 2016, I started talking about IoT as an amplifier and multiplier of harms. At the time, focusing on connected devices seemed wise. The capabilities and ubiquity of smart devices was growing. Amazon Echo, for example, was just rolling out.

Talking about the physical features of IoT made the issue tangible. More cameras, microphones & location tracking led to more data collection, surveillance, security breaches, etc. Mozilla’s Privacy Not Included campaign is an example of how to highlight these issues.

That was a misstep in analysis. Of course it’s not the “device” that causes these harms. It was the people making them. So I focused on professional practitioners. Let’s advocate for them to make more responsible decisions & build alternatives. This work fell under the umbrella of the Open IoT Studio.

The “responsible IoT” discourse transitioned to the “AI ethics” one. Again, we were lured by the uniqueness of the technology. Machine learning produces results that can’t be explained or audited. Or the datasets are biased. So let’s solve for that. Mozilla’s Trustworthy AI agenda lays that out pretty clearly.

Meanwhile, the open movement felt stagnated. Like the idea of openness wasn’t generative anymore. It had be co-opted or made into a licensing footnote. It wasn’t getting to the heart of things. We ran a consultation called Reimagine Open to ask if the term was still getting us where we want to go.

Btw, Tim Hwang brilliantly describes this disillusionment in his archetypes of Depressed Former Internet Optimists (DFIO).

The greatest gift of the techlash for me has been breaking the spell of “emerging technologies.” Yes, we need to understand the capabilities new technologies, who’s driving them and what challenges and opportunities they yield. Yet the same old root causes will still be there.

Another aside: If this thread needed an anthem, it’s Penelope Scott’s Rät, a break-up song with Silicon Valley.

Tech solutionism, internet exceptionalism and “innovation” keeps distracting progressive forces from getting to those root causes.

For the last decade, my hope and effort was in open technology.

For this next decade? I’m loving Cory Doctorow’s lines in Attack Surface:

“To make structural changes, you need to use technology to change politics. Tech can give you a temporary force multiplier to take on the powerful. And what you do in that window is reform your government so it is just, responsive and transparent.”

Cory Doctorow, Attack Surface

I’d add ecologically sustainable to that list and then say: Let’s figure out what reforms we want, and go for it.

Image: “You may if you please, call a partial View of Immensity, or without much Impropriety perhaps, a finite View of Infinity.” from Thomas Wright’s An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe (1750) in the Public Domain Review.

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