The impending CS crisis

A penny for your bytes - Part VII

We try to avoid policy and business questions, as much as possible.

Getting Started in the IETF

“Who is the Oracle? She’s the glitch in the matrix. What is her archetype? She represents civil society.”

Kiu Jiayaw (paraphrase)

Strange contradictions

The above first quote can be found in the “Getting Started in the IETF” page and is the perfect manifestation of the separation between technologists with policymaking and, ultimately, civil society.

For those who may be not acquainted with the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), it is, broadly speaking, the organization that imagines, manages and updates the communication protocols of the Internet. Yes, a decisive technical organization does not feel enticed to get involved in policy if ever possible. If this doesn’t deeply bug you (or at least perplex you), it should.

And why?, you may ask.
Because civil society’s future depends on technologists and without them it is doomed to extinction.

Maybe a good start would be to define what civil society is. Aggregating a number of definitions, we can understand it as the ensemble of organizations and individuals that manifest the interests and will of citizens, separated from the government and corporate sectors. NGOs, individuals and even academia are members of civil society. In other words, it is all of us whenever we wear our citizen hat.

One of the main reasons why civil society has been able to achieve remarkable leaps in protecting citizens is because it was able to translate its different advocacies into actionable language; this in turn helped recruit people who specialized in those advocacies as well as train newcomers who, led by passion and purpose, entered the field.

Who are the experts in technology civil society is recruiting? And which purpose would anyone want to ascribe to when we can’t even describe to technologists what they will be defending in a language that they understand?

As things stand, civil society is not getting any technologically younger. It is failing to connect with technologists. This is particularly troubling when considering that technology enables transparency and accountability options that weren't widely available until recently. These are great tools that properly employed would drastically advance all advocacies put forward by civil society.

If that wasn’t bad enough, technologists at large are not encouraged to participate in crafting policies that will affect their work (and by extension all of us).

In the Malaysian context, it is worth noting that not enough technologists are involved with international events or authoritative organizations, something The IO Foundation is trying to change.

Simply and bluntly put, civil society experiences a mix of lack of digital knowledge marinated with a non negligible degree of technophobia.

Technologists do not understand what is expected from them and, mistakenly, believe that technology is devoid of politics. In their defense, we should grant them that what they mean (in general) is that they don’t want to create technology based on who is in cabinet at a given time; unfortunately that seems to be conflated with taking positions to protect citizens, something they often do.

To the technologists reading this: The best example is how encryption moved from Layer 7 to other Layers in the OSI model. That was technologists understanding privacy was necessary by design and not dependent on service providers getting to the task.

So yes, technologists can care and they indeed care about citizens and the impact of technology on them. So why aren’t they drawn into civil society?

Applicable precedents

Back in the 80s & 90s, with the advent of personal computing, we witnessed the rise and might of technology magazines. Hundreds of publications came to life in an absolutely thriving business. Here’s a quiz for you: Was it content creators or journalists who learned about technology… or was it technologists who learned how to write? Of course the latter; by. the. buckets.

Civil society needs to stimulate a similar diaspora, with technologists either joining existing NGOs, creating their own Tech NGOs or at an individual level. At The IO Foundation, we’ve been asking ourselves what is failing and how to instigate it. So far, we have identified the following major points of friction:

  1. Purpose (via lack of language)

    This is for us the number one item missing. We keep talking to technologists in ways they don’t understand, creating difficulties for a purpose-driven approach.
    “Build me a social media platform that respects Freedom of Expression” does not translate into any immediate algorithm they can work with. Neither do Data Protection Laws, for that matter. Even the current definition of Digital Rights by civil society is vague and unfit for purpose. How are we expecting that technologists help build better and safer technology if they don’t even know how to express what they should be defending? Unless we frame it in a way that they understand, they won’t find their purpose.

  2. Money & Career

    The average NGO struggles with steady funding (never mind independent), as it is. Where is the money going to come to sustain Tech NGOs, let alone to even attract this needed talent.
    At TIOF we’ve been arguing that micro funding is likely the future, a natural evolution from micro payments for tech products/services if you consider that generating an impact is, per se, a product that people subscribe their trust into.
    Then comes to the traditional funders’ space, that complex supply of money to which most NGOs are beholden. Analytically speaking, one can organize their attention to technology following 3 stages:

    • Tech as a medium, where technology is observed for the services it provides, not how it is built.

    • “Digital Infrastructure” (the new buzzword), where there is growing interest in how digital technology is built.

    • The people behind the infrastructure, where we would be looking at who builds the digital technology.

    This last stage is the true holy grail and pretty much no one is looking into it. In recent years, traditional funders have worked out the first 2 stages and timidly have considered the third one. Without them properly aiming at closing that gap, NGOs are not going to be able to attract technologists amongst their ranks.

    And I’ll throw an extra concern: A LOT of the funding is coming from the Big Tech that civil society is expected to deal with. See the problem?

  3. Strategies

    Civil society in general, and NGOs in particular, are having it all wrong by engaging in the same traditional and remedial ways with governments and corporations when it comes to digital technologies. Instead, we should be having technologists participate in standards’ working groups so that the necessary protections are embedded in them. When governments legislate technology they usually make use of these standards and a ripple effect would be produced. Work smart, not hard.

    To put it bluntly, civil society won’t be able to protect Human Rights, climate and pretty much anything in the not-so-far future if it doesn’t adequately tackle tech.
    Running a working session on biometrics without one single biometric expert in the room is not a winning proposition; acting offended when this is pointed out won’t tame the elephant in the room. And yes, that happened.

Putting it all together, NGOs are heading towards their digital extinction and civil society is slowly yet surely falling into digital irrelevance by refusing to understand the nature of technology and persisting into looking at it from the outside, as a mere provider of services.

Civil society needs a transfusion. It needs new blood that can bring not only the energy, but also the knowledge necessary to effectively address the challenges posed by our ever present digital societies, Big Tech and digitally confused governments. And funders need to massively help them in this effort.

Wrapping up

Civil society desperately needs to embrace technology both as an integrated advocacy and as a tool to improve their operations lest it wishes to spiral without control from its already impending crisis. To achieve this, we need to generate interest around technologists and provide them with value propositions that make sense to them; and in their language. We also need to encourage them to create the next generation of NGOs: Tech NGOs. 

Be it as individuals or as members of Tech NGOs, we badly need them to join the ranks of civil society if we want to have a real opportunity.

What’s at stake? Building digital societies that advance humanity. 

The alternative? Building the digital dictatures that will turn us into… well, androids.

The upside is that we may finally know if we would dream of electric sheep.

So what’s next?

In our last installment of this series, we will try to consider what living in the future may look like. Yeah, those “smart” cities.