What comes next? Building a resilient and accountable digital ecosystem

Julia Keseru

Things are changing, fast. Even the most optimistic projections predict that physical distancing will remain our new norm for the foreseeable future amid the coronavirus crisis. In the meantime, the pace with which many will need to transition to remote culture, the amount of data that will be generated in the coming months (both by and about us) and our reliance on digital services will all increase exponentially. If there’s one thing that seems certain in these bizarre times, it’s this: we need stable, sustainable and inclusive digital ecosystems more than ever before.

But in the rush to convert to digital, we should keep a few important things in mind. Much of our current digital reality is headed in a direction that is in sharp contrast with our physical norms. Exploitative data practices and intrusive tech systems are wide-spread and mainstream–as seen through the proliferation of facial recognition systems in public spaces or the increasing use of emotion recognition tools in workplaces. We are entrusting our survival to an industry fueled by coercive and predatory business models and a stark lack of diversity. 

Understandably, critical moments in our history like this generate intense feelings of anxiety and desperation. They also provide an opportunity to reimagine the contours of the societies we aspire to live in – plenty of policies previously considered unrealistic are now a reality, such as eviction suspensions, rent pauses and state subsidies to whole sections of the private sector. This chaotic period has also created space for harmful changes–in fact, some of our hard-won freedoms may evaporate faster than thought. (As I’m writing this piece, the Hungarian government is debating a bill to extend the state of emergency that would enable them to rule by decree for an unlimited period of time.) 

But just as the coronavirus pandemic encourages unseen levels of solidarity, we can think of this moment as an opportunity to refocus our energies, re-prioritise our values and reimagine the work we want to accomplish in the coming years.

At The Engine Room, we’ve already written about what measures we’re taking to support our staff, and how organisations can make remote work truly work in the long run. Additionally, I wanted to share some insights on what actions and measures I think will be crucial for an increasingly digital social justice movement. Our team works in tandem with many excellent organisations, some of whom are already working hard to provide new solutions to these problems.  

Resilience. One of the most obvious areas where we all need to ‘grow up’ fast is digital resilience. Many individuals and organisations are now moving the bulk of their conversations online (including sensitive ones). At the same time, a crisis of this enormity will likely increase authoritarian tendencies, with governments around the world already deploying new applications of digital surveillance mechanisms, and in some cases using COVID-19 as an excuse to do so. When it comes to privacy and our digital freedoms, many of these new-old surveillance measures will likely stay with us, disproportionately affecting groups and individuals who are seeking to confront power. If we want to avoid a complete dystopia, quick fixes (like switching to encrypted platforms) and long-term proactive investments in our data and security practices will both be essential. It’s also imperative that those who will lead the fight back to protecting our rights invest in their underlying technical infrastructure. 

Solidarity. This global health crisis will have differing impacts on our lives, but we’ve learned first-hand that our digital reality only exacerbates existing injustices. Those in need of extra help in times of crisis (for instance, the elderly or the disabled) all too often have limited access to essential information and digital services. Others living on the margins of society–prisoners, refugees, and others lacking adequate housing or living conditions–will be more affected by and less protected from the coronavirus, but their stories might not be heard. In a data-saturated age, our attention tends to focus on those whose pain is most visible. Taking solidarity seriously in the digital era means we have to choose carefully what data to collect, what assumptions we make about the information we prioritise, and whose stories we tell in the coming months–especially when human lives and livelihoods are at stake. 

Accountability. Now is not the time for secretive government decisions, even if our political elites suggest that inquisitive scrutiny from civil society stymies state action. The lack of visibility about the spread of the coronavirus has already hindered a coordinated global response, and moving forward, many governments will use this crisis as an opportunity to silence those who demand clear explanations on response strategies. Some agencies may even limit access to information available online. But it’s crucial for us to have a clear understanding of the decisions our governing elites are making at this time, because those decisions will determine what our lives will look like in years to come. What algorithms are being used to determine who gets tested (and who doesn’t)? What new surveillance measures are being introduced and how will they cease to be used? How are governments redistributing financial resources to protect all their citizens, and how much of that information will be available to the quarantined masses? This crisis may easily become a stress test for the transparency movement–an opportunity to shy away from abstract and technocratic commitments and to refocus on how governments are saving lives. 

In the weeks and months that come, we’ll be exploring the ways we can support individuals and organisations to adapt to new (remote) realities, reaffirm the rights of the most vulnerable and reimagine what comes next. If you need help deciding what tools to choose while also feeling overwhelmed, please reach out to us for pro bono support. If you have ideas for collaboration, or want to share your vision of what comes next for civil society, you can reach Julia at julia@theengineroom.org.

Photo credit: Clint Adair on Unsplash


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