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Technologically Illiterate? We Need You

By Tim Hardy

Some of the most exhilarating recent conversations I have had about ways in which to use the internet to drive real world change have been with people who self-identify as technologically illiterate. This is not a coincidence.

If you already know a domain then your proposed solutions to problems will be informed by knowledge of what has worked before. Unlike in the arts, there is no anxiety of influence in engineering: a common trap for software developers may lie in the temptation to reinvent the wheel but the challenge is always to make the same wheel, more efficiently. Solutions build on known solutions using well established practices embedded in mental toolboxes and personal libraries of code snippets. It takes great cognitive leaps to escape from the established forms and patterns; awareness of the risk of failure in software projects makes developers less likely to propose radically different ideas where success seems unimaginable.

I believe that technology can play a key role in driving social and political change but I also believe that the structures of social media embed certain assumptions and that this increases the risk that we might engage in tactics that are fundamentally at odds with our ultimate goals.

Zadie Smith in Generation Why? in the New York Review of Books last November beautifully drew attention to the way in which Facebook is informed by the personality of its founder.

Shouldn’t we struggle against Facebook? Everything in it is reduced to the size of its founder. Blue, because it turns out Zuckerberg is red-green color-blind. “Blue is the richest color for me—I can see all of blue.” Poking, because that’s what shy boys do to girls they are scared to talk to. Preoccupied with personal trivia, because Mark Zuckerberg thinks the exchange of personal trivia is what “friendship” is. A Mark Zuckerberg Production indeed! We were going to live online. It was going to be extraordinary. Yet what kind of living is this? Step back from your Facebook Wall for a moment: Doesn’t it, suddenly, look a little ridiculous? Your life in this format?

Doesn’t it, suddenly, look a little ridiculous? Your protest movement  in this format?

I personally loathe Facebook. It is a personal data Ponzi scheme the perceived value of which requires that more and more people sign up all the time. If someone organises an event on Facebook, you need a Facebook account to see it. If someone posts a critique on Facebook, you need a Facebook account to see it. I fundamentally disagree with walled gardens. You wouldn’t organise a demonstration inside a private shopping mall so why would you engage in political debate inside a virtual one? Twitter has its failings but at the very least it is open. Post on twitter and anyone can see it.

Evgeny Morozov is brilliant on the dangers and advantages to using social media for political activism in this interview. We need to embrace his goal “to find a better way to use the Internet for promoting democracy”.

All social media platforms fail in their quantitative approach to friendship and the way in which they give primacy to the new. This urge for constant novelty has been identified as part of the cultural logic of late capitalism. Does posting a political critique on a blog instantly reinforce the system it seeks to question through the act of posting?

There are many possible strategies of detournement and evasion that are at odds with the best practices encapsulated in the mainstream software tools and platforms which people use to communicate but engineers are unlikely to consider them.

Those of us who work in software need more conversations with artists, philosophers, writers, actors, directors, offline activists – and the more Luddite the better.

If technology seems like magic to you then you will have the broadest sense of the possible and will have ideas for things you might like to see that have never been done. Talk to us. You have the ideas we could never imagine. We have the skills to make them real.

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