From hype to nuance: Civil society and technology

Julia Keseru

In 2020 and beyond, civil societies will play an increasingly important role in making the world a better place. They will fight inequalities that fuel civil unrest, demand changes to how people are being governed, document and confront power abuses, defend democratic institutions in light of growing extremism and support populations most affected by climate emergencies.

To thrive in competitive and hostile environments, nonprofits will be increasingly reliant on technology. From information management platforms, to communication tools, to more advanced digital experimentation, being tech-savvy is no longer seen as a luxury but rather a necessity.

In recent years, however, we have seen how emerging technologies have become part of the very problems activists have been trying to solve. They have reinforced injustices, wasted resources and facilitated new avenues for power abuse. This tendency has become clear: exploitative data practices and intrusive tech systems are now mainstream and wide-spread. As a result, trust in technology has eroded greatly.

Last year, we at The Engine Room set our mind on a big goal: to help civil society embrace the complexity of working with technology without losing sight of its tremendous potential. 

As nonprofits increasingly engage with digital innovation, we want to shape civil society’s collective thinking around the complexity of working with technology and data. In the coming years, we want to dedicate more focus to defining the nuance between tech-solutionism and tech-pessimism. Together with our peers, we will work to create a vision for a more ethical, sustainable and inclusive approach to our digital ecosystem. 

As we kick off 2020, we’re looking forward to exploring the following questions:

1. How can we mobilize local civil societies to work more effectively on issues connected to digital systems?

In the context of technological progress, marginalised communities tend to suffer further marginalisation. Working on social justice today means we cannot ignore the impact of digital systems on society. Nonprofits need to understand how tech facilitates new forms of abuse and power imbalances. However, many local activists do not have the resources to keep up-to-date with the latest advancements in tech. We want to understand the role our team can play in supporting social justice groups as they explore how new digital systems impact their work. We also want to identify the most effective–often tech-enabled–avenues to advocate for issues connected to digital innovation.

2. How can we help less tech-savvy activists distinguish between impactful and overhyped tech solutions?

Hype around particular tech and data ‘solutions’ have come and gone, but social justice activists are often left confused about the nuances of working with tech. What is the difference between certain types of artificial intelligence? Which emerging tech solutions are helpful for civil society and why? In what cases are they irrelevant or even harmful? What part of tech’s embedded bias cannot be cured by fixing the underlying technology? Moving forward we want to find new and better ways of sharing our collective knowledge on what truly works for nonprofits–and what is just ‘snake oil’.

3. How can we create a vision for value-driven tech that matches the politics of social justice activism?

We want social justice groups to turn a critical eye on the ways in which they’re using technology. Technology is political, and our technical choices are political too. We want to support groups to make tech choices that match their political values and encourage them to be just as critical of power dynamics playing out within tech and data as they are of power dynamics in the offline world. 

4. How can we incentivise the reuse of existing tech solutions that have proven to be impactful?  

Over the past years we’ve been exploring what a more principled approach to managing civil society’s digital waste could look like. Our overarching question was whether or not re-using existing tech makes life easier for nonprofits. We’ve found that reuse may not always be our best bet, but it has a lot of benefits. It enables quick learning and testing, increases technical intuition among teams and even improves organisational culture. As we go into 2020, we want to keep exploring how we can contribute to a more systematic approach to reuse in the civic space, reducing the sector’s collective waste. 

5. How can we help under-resourced activists take back their digital infrastructure? 

As ‘digital pressure’ grows on activists, robust infrastructures will play an increasingly crucial role in the survival of those constantly under attack. In order to create resilient civil societies, short-term digital interventions won’t be enough. Proactive and strategic investment in data and security practices, as well as in underlying technical infrastructure of under-resourced groups is critical, especially for those who are seeking to confront power. We want to bolster the cultural practices that shape how social justice activists think about their infrastructure, and ultimately, help them take back control of their operations. 

6. How can we inspire healthy and sustainable work cultures across the entire sector? 

None of this work can happen without a fundamental shift in how our sector approaches the workplace. We see how many of our peers fall prey to unhealthy work environments, or struggle with burnout and misconduct. And yet, failing to prioritize the well-being of our very own staff will jeopardise our collective ability to achieve greater social justice. As a remote and diverse team, we at The Engine Room have long been trying to reimagine the building blocks of the ‘good workplace’. In the hopes that we can influence the sector and learn from others, we will continue to share our journey as we move into the next decade.

Image by Gus Moretta via Unsplash.


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