Fighting for a fairer society
Civil society is all of us. When we act not for profit nor because the law requires us to, but out of love or anger or creativity, or principle, we are civil society.
I’ve been working with Doteveryone since late 2015, but toward the end of last year I took up a full time role alongside the organisation finding its new CEO, its new MD, and a new sense of purpose. This might seem like a different focus for me — “She cares about technology,” I can hear people saying, “but not that much!” — but I hope that by explaining more about what we’re doing, I’ll also be able to explain why I joined.
At Doteveryone, we’re fighting for a fairer internet. But we’re doing it because we care about a fairer society.
Society is all about people and communities: the values they hold, the ways they organise themselves and their resources, the way they get things done. These issues are vital to our way of life — and we’re worried that the significance and pace of change in the internet age is making critical aspects of our society vulnerable.
People have rights: to justice, to health, to liberty, to not be discriminated against, to a private life, to a family. We’re concerned that these rights can’t be delivered to everyone by consumer technology, by a technocratic government, or by capitalist corporations alone. We’re also worried that current apparent trends may damage these rights, by damaging the structures and processes of society. And rights in a digital society can’t be individualised in the same way — data is often about more than the individual — and there is far too much pressure on us to adapt as individuals rather than as communities.
Today I’m proud to announce a new strand of work at Doteveryone we’re calling “Digital Society”.
So today, I’m proud to announce a new strand of work at Doteveryone we’re calling “Digital Society”. I’ll be leading this area of work for the organisation, focusing on the building blocks of an equitable, fair society that are being affected by the internet. Practically speaking, these will be in areas like law and justice, care, news and information, democracy, and public institutions. (Note: although we believe health and education are incredibly relevant to this conversation, we also recognise that many other organisations are already leading work on those topics.)
Making this work a priority will mean Doteveryone can engage with some wider themes of activity that we know are going on outside of the technology sector. We’re looking forward to working with networks of people and projects that are building alternative models of the future, including but also going beyond government services or digital public services.
What we’ve done so far
Technology is not an answer in and of itself; it’s only one of many ways to frame the challenges and opportunities we have as a society. Via our past work in end-of-life care and with libraries, we’ve tried to explore how public institutions are responding to a changing digital society, and the ethics of how they are being neglected, diminished or dismantled. We’ve attempted to use both good design and digital systems to consider better solutions to these issues.
Through that work, we attempted to show how technology has a role to play in not only helping strengthen social links, communities and their activity, but also in supporting the renewal and transition of institutions too. That belief will be a fundamental part of our Digital Society work moving forward.
From this work we were also reminded of the importance of how technology (and the practices that surround it) can distort things that really matter, like care, and so wanted to make sure our programmes represented that need for balance. We couldn’t do a responsible technology programme or a digital understanding programme without a programme of work that is prioritising “society”.
As important as they are, conversations about responsible technology can also feel disconnected from the prevalent and urgent issues that people in the social sector are focussed on. However, both are seeking to benefit similar groups of people: the social sector is trying to create better outcomes, while developers of responsible tech are attempting to avoid the bad outcomes that come from unethical or poorly designed and implemented systems.
So what will we be doing? In the next month, I’m going to be more like an investigative journalist, going out and trying to find some of the stories of where people (and the institutions that society needs) are facing greater unfairness and inequality because of technology. I also want to explore pockets of activity from people and organisations who are asking important questions and designing for a different future, such as people who want to find ways for co-operative platforms to become a viable and mainstream alternative for business.
Informed by that initial research, the Digital Society team will begin conducting experiments, creating pilot projects that show what good looks like, and nurturing alternative networks so that new ideas and different value propositions can emerge and get the credibility that they deserve. Some of this will require looking into the future or thinking more systemically about second order consequences. We want to point to where some of the changes might come.
I’m personally excited to be doing this work because people’s lives don’t only exist in services — they are much more than recipients of support or participants in simplified user journeys. In an increasingly data-driven world, however alluring data is, even at best and when accurate and high quality, it only ever catches an echo of reality.
It also gives me an opportunity to make use of my “network expertise”, as Martha calls it (we’ve all gone a bit geeky for Anne-Marie Slaughter’s The Chessboard and the Web). Power is something we create by working together to address problems, and it takes work to get people (and organisations) to work together.
Through our Digital Society work, we want to be able to highlight the complexity of the issues that sit at the intersection of technologies, people and society — how we live, care, consume, love, learn, work, and die. If you have questions, or if you’d like to be part of what comes next, please send me an email.