📢 Five Rousing Calls to Action

Visions for the future of digital space

From day one of the Biden Presidency, we are seeing ambitious new tech enforcement initiatives, including the already established Justice Department’s lawsuit against Alphabet’s Google, the continuation of an FTC lawsuit against Facebook, and antitrust probes of Apple and Amazon.

And small symbolic gestures occurring online at WhiteHouse.gov bring back some decency into American civic life, from the dropdown menu including gender pronoun designations on the contact form to accessibility features like dark mode and larger font size options. Craig Newmark even tweeted about the source code, “US Digital Service is a really big deal to help rebuild the country.” 

We are curious to see where these new administrative actions, big and small, will leave us. And while these are important endeavors, our focus continues to be further afield in the future of developing safe places for our digital public futures. Last week, at the New_ Public Festival we heard from five esteemed colleagues from different disciplines share their vision for the kind of digital public space we want to see exist and what it would mean to build towards that vision. 

Below you will find edited excerpts of the calls to action from video game designer and researcher Brenda Laurel, economist Glen Weyl, media scholar and Internet activist Ethan Zuckerman, software programmer Audrey Tang, and co-director of UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry Safiya Noble.

Five Rousing Calls to Action

The Future of Technology Lays in Centering Human Beings
Safiya Noble, co-founder and co-director of UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry

Most of my career has been focused on vulnerable people, people of color, women, people who can't always speak back to systems of power. I invoke this image by Kai Löffelbein of a worker who is in a cloud of smoke that comes from burning down hardware. I wanted to remind us of the cost of the unevenly distributed Internet.

I want to invoke these visual metaphors of the Internet, because what often gets lost is the human beings who are so profoundly connected to this idea of an interconnected web. So many of the conferences that I attend are obsessed with the future of technology, rather than the future of human beings. 

An image by the artist Nicole Dixon shows a black woman at peace, in stillness, and freedom. For me as a light-skinned black woman, this is the imaginary of the future. This image stands in contrast to the kinds of images we see on the news in the United States since the recent white supremacist uprising, and attempt to take over the United States government. 

I want to remind us that the problems we face, as human beings, are not solved by a better application. They're not solved by a better platform. They don't rest in platforming and deep platforming. These are fundamental issues that stem from things like global wealth inequality, social inequality, and environmental collapse.

While we imagine a kind of future that is driven by technology, let us not forget about the important research, and studies and art that are highlighting the way many of the technologies that are in our imaginary are over determining more inequality. Without a future of equality of wealth, redistribution of environmental protection, there's very little point in talking about technology.

Building Participatory Digital Democracies Through Free Markets
Glen Weyl, economist and founder of RadicalXchange

I want to imagine a future where our social, political, and economic institutions evolve as much as our technologies do. Where they keep pace with the change in our technologies. We've invented labor unions and democracy, we can invent new social and political economic governance institutions, as radical as the technologies we create.

I want to invite us to imagine a future where markets and democracies are like Yin and Yang. Where every time we see new market power, emerging new corporations, concentrations of wealth and power, they become new sites of democratization. 

I want us to imagine a future where corporations and governments fade behind an emergent, civil and social society that is supported by those institutions, but not overshadowed by them. Where the center of the services that we consume comes from the social life rather than out of the power relations that exist within corporate private property or government coercion.

Imagine a world where taxes were distributed, not by Central Bureaucracies, but as matching funds for crowdsourcing — matching funds built on a democratic principle. Where more people with small contributions got much more than a few people making large contributions. Rather than artificial intelligence doing things for us, learning our data, it helps us imagine a future where the core role of those technologies is to facilitate democracy.

I want us to imagine a future where wealth taxation is viewed as the foundation of a free market. Where what makes markets work, what makes them dynamic, is precisely the decay of existing structures of power through high rates of wealth taxation. There are places out there that are building real participatory digital democracies — Estonia, Taiwan, or Wikipedia and blockchain — that help us reimagine things. I hope that we can look to those images as — not science fiction or dystopian — as living inspiration. 

A Call for a People Public Private Partnership
Audrey Tang, software programmer and Taiwan’s Digital Minister 

In the very beginning of Taiwan's democracy, we had the idea of people, public, private partnership. The social sector sets the norms. The social sector— having a higher legitimacy than the public sector—can demand the real time open-data publication of all campaign donations and expenditures by the public sector. When a National Audit Office started to publish campaign donations and expenditures, the two sectors applied pressure to the business sector, not only the domestic ones, but also global ones like Facebook. We said, you can either conform to the social sector norms or you may face social sanctions. In 2019, Taiwan was the first jurisdiction where Facebook worked with the local civic tech communities to publish the open data of audit advertisements during the election.

Inside Taiwan, we have GOV as the domain name for most digital services run by the government. There's tens of thousands of people online everyday that look at these digital services. You can make G0V, by changing the “o” to a zero, you get into the shadow government that is more fun, more fair, and also changes more quickly. All of the zeros work by using Creative Commons and Free Software principles and because of that, the open source licensing strategy and developing strategy, make sure that when the government sees the light, the fork becomes merged. Every place in Taiwan is guaranteed broadband as a human right. If you don't have that kind of broadband access, it's my fault, personally.

As a digital minister, I'm not working for the government. I am working with the government. My job description is a call to action. I will read you my job description and invite you to join this people public private partnership. When we see the Internet of Things, let’s make it the internet of beings. When we see virtual reality, let's make it a shared reality. When we see machine learning, let's make it collaborative learning. When we see user experience, let’s make it about human experience. And whenever we hear that the singularity is near. Let us always remember, the plurality is here. 

Create Digital Public Spaces that are Designed to Make Us Stronger Citizens
Ethan Zuckerman, digital infrastructure visionary

We are facing new technologies that are capable of incredible power. They're able to spread propaganda and disinformation. They can move people towards violence. We're not sure how to harness their potentials for good rather than just fall victim to the evils of it. So I wanted to take us back in history. If we go back a century, there's a revolution that happened a lot faster than the Internet and it was radio. Radio became this huge cultural force, with three different models.

In the Soviet Union radio gets used for propaganda. Everyone hears the radio there, no one owns one. It's broadcast through loudspeakers and town squares. In the US, advertisers would pay major money to reach people in their houses. Capitalism moved into radio full speed. 

In the UK, radio was significantly independent, of the government that was in power and of the commercial sphere. And it had this goal of making media that was good for members of society. 

When a new technology comes to town, we have choices about how to use it. We can create digital public spaces that are actually designed to make us better neighbors, and better, stronger citizens. If you want to hear about how I want to build this stuff, you can look up the phrase digital public infrastructure. 

We want to find ways to build social media that's smaller, that's more distributed, that's moderated and governed by the people it serves. Some big lessons that we might take from radio: the ways a particular medium works are never inevitable. It wasn't inevitable that social media would be free and supported by surveillance capitalism. It's never too late to change. 

The barriers to change in the worlds of media are not technical or financial. They're actually the bearers of our own imagination. Imagine building spaces that aren't just less bad for us, but actively work to make us better neighbors, more effective citizens and better connected to the world.

Public Guidance Systems Can Ground Our Actions in the Common Good
Brenda Laurel, pioneering developer and video game designer

All organisms and their inorganic surroundings on Earth are closely integrated to form a single and self-regulating complex system, maintaining the conditions for life on the planet. This principal is the Gaia hypothesis—formulated by the chemist James Lovelock and co-developed by the microbiologist Lynn Margulis in the 1970s.

Today, gardeners and farmers who use organic or regenerative agricultural practices are in right relationship with a symbiotic balance. Industrial farming disrupts it. Slash and burn agriculture disrupt it. It's worth remembering that it wasn't until the 19th century that we were unaware of human causes of global warming.

We are in symbiotic relationships with forests and meadows.That means our actions and our inactions count. As my indigenous friends remind me, colonial culture thinks of nature in terms of rights. Indigenous culture thinks in terms of responsibilities.

This is my call to action. We have to live in the right relationship with Gaia, if our biosphere is to survive. This requires active propagation of an understanding of how Gaia works as a new center of gravity for our actions. We need to take action in the polis, that is the cultural, social, and political contexts we live in. A polis as a group of citizens that share common moral and ethical ground.

From defenders of wildlife to climate 4.0, each has its focus from elephants to carbon neutral, low latency, high-performance computing. Laser light focus on such policies make them siloed from one another. We need to seek horizontal communication and common cause among these polis. I am proposing a political movement that consolidates and amplifies the power of the many polis working for the good. Working together, we will normalize a public Gaia in understanding our world at a scale that can lead to real political change.


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Civic Signals is a partnership between the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas, Austin, and the National Conference on Citizenship, and was incubated by New America.

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