A reformation of digital and democracy literacy led by civil society

Once upon a time, the codes that guided society were the province of a few. The word of God was read and interpreted by priests and men of the church who told the people what the book said, what the codes for a good life were. And the people did as they were told.

Then more people learned to read, printing technology changed, and still more people learned to read. Violations of power from those who had controlled the code were exposed, and religious reformation was called for. New technologies and more public interrogation of the "code" began and many took over what had the been the tightly-held purview of a few.
(The above is a deliberately oversimplified analysis of 15-18th century western European historical canon, minus all the power struggles, racism, sexism, extra-Christian turmoil, and colonialism. I'm trying to make a point.)

Once upon a time, software code drove devices used mostly by those who could read and write software code. Then these devices and the networks they powered were opened to most (not quite all). And all became dependent on software powered gadgetry and digital networks. But the code remained the province of a few, even as some led movements for opens source, open data, open algorithms, open governance. But, still the many had no understanding of the nature of the code, its limitations or bounds.

As this code and its disciples brought their tools, which were designed around the efficiency of market forces, into other realms of life, such as the household, political systems, and civil society there was tension. The value of efficiency, coded into the software, didn't always fit smoothly with the values of the household (privacy) or that of the governing systems (participation and representation) or civil society (justice, equity, beauty).

And so there was a clash of values, a clash of codes. And the priests of software code and the priests of governance found themselves at odds. And the people - to whom open data was given - were not equipped to use it.

And some of the nonprofits and foundations and associations that constitute civil society interrogated some of the software code. Over and over again they pointed out ways in which the code was misaligned with the task to which it was being applied. Examples of racial discrimination. Of algorithmic bias. Of new divides and new versions of exclusionary practice. Civil society served one of its most important functions - checking and re-checking the power of governments and markets (and their digital tools).

Some of the answer lay in applying existing democratic process technologies - such as due process - to applications of algorithmic decision making. And this was good.

Still, a more fundamental structural divide remained. Call it a linguistic divide. Between those  "fluent" in digital and those "fluent" in democracy and civil society. A reformation in access and capacity and understanding was needed.

And this is where we are today. 

Codes - software and legal - are sets of values. Written and enforced. When using digital technologies within democratic systems or for democratic purposes the values embodied in the codes need to align. They need to be able to interrogate each other and for the people to understand what is meant, what is captured in the code, what is being promoted or enforced by the collective set of rules and tools.

The common term for helping individuals, non techies, understand digital data and systems, codes and algorithms, is data literacy. This is not my favorite term, but let's use it for now, recognizing that it its not a one way street. People need to better understand how digital systems and codes work and software coders need to the priorities and principles of of democratic practice - both "literacies" are needed.

All involved, not just the priests with the books (not just the software coders) but the people, our agents, our elected officials, our judges) need to be able to understand the code.

Algorithmic accountability, open data, machine learning must be designed by and with those who understand the principles of democratic governance. It is the job of those who understand these systems to teach those who understand algorithms and vice versa

In other words, digital technologists and tacticians must teach and learn from democratic theorists and tacticians.  All who are citizens, all in civil society, all in public agencies - these are the democracy tacticians I'm talking about.

We need both codes - the codes of democracy and software code - to be written, used, held accountable, and procedurally applied and interrogated together.

One does not have the solutions for the other, they must build solutions together. If for no other reason than we (in democratic societies at least) are all dependent on both democracy and software. There is no "they," we are we. 

Thoughts on democracy from the U.S. capital

I've been thinking...

Suing news outlets with whom you don't agree is not philanthropy. Wealthy individuals litigating an agenda by themselves (and secretly) is different from "impact litigation" led by public interest groups, (even when financed by a few individuals). (see below * on associational power)

The arc of platform consolidation built on the back of personal data that has contributed to the collapse of independent journalism is a story line we may see repeated in the nonprofit sector writ large.

Community-governed, small, independent associations - which de Tocqueville noted as core to American democracy - are threatened by homogenizing pushes for scale, efficiency, short-term metrics, and earned revenue.

These associations are key to what scholars call social capital, political wonks call civic engagement, and neighbors recognize as community. We overlook these roles of nonprofits and associations at our peril.

They are bulwarks against both economic and political monoculturalism. Otherwise known as inequality and tyranny.

Associations fill this role in at least two ways. First, they provide support for a diversity of views.
* Second, their governance structure is intended to involve multiple people as a form of public accountability and mechanism by which power can be scrutinized. Toward this end, transparency and public reporting requirements for associations (and sits in tension with anonymity). We're fooling ourselves if we think concentrated wealth or power is any less threatening in a nonprofit or philanthropic guise.

Pluralism requires a diversity of options, in associational life and digital space, with distributed governance.

There is no independent sector in digital space.

Creative Commons, Wikipedia, Mozilla, Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Internet Archive are our first models of civil society organizations purpose built for the digital age. We all manage digital resources now. We need new institutional forms.

We need local, community-led associations - distributed, fragmented, pluralistic, and contentious - equipped to help us dedicate our private resources - time, money, and data - to public benefit.

Redesigning civil society organizations

Digital data are everywhere. They are replicable, generative, storable, scalable, nonrival and nonexcludable. Digital data are different enough from time and money - the two resources around which most of our existing institutions are designed - that it's time to redesign those institutions.

It's time for institutional innovation. 

Nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations are familiar corporate forms that manage private monies (and time) for public benefit. Their corporate structure, reporting, and governance requirements direct resources to the public mission and provide bulwarks against misuse of financial resources. There is nothing in their corporate code or governance structure that equips them to do the same with digital data.

We need a new type of organization to manage and protect digital data for public benefit, especially digital data that is voluntarily contributed by individuals or other organizations. 

There are a lot of building blocks for something like this. We know a lot about governance, digital data, and organizations. We have lots of models from participatory development to community based data collection to trust forms. We have ethical scaffolding in biomedical research and digital data collection that we can draw from. There are legal experts, design thinkers, experienced digital data users, digital rights activists, research reports and people from vulnerable communities who can inform the design of new structures.

There are many driving forces and vested interests. A map like this one - for this issue - would be helpful.

It's time that we:
  1. Assume digital resources are here to stay
  2. Get past pilot projects and stop acting like using digital data is a one-off action
  3. Develop systems and standards for using digital resources well and safely
  4. Use what we know from adjacent sectors, and
  5. Reinvent organizational governance - possibly reinvent organizations - to manage digital data for mission.
The Digital Civil Society Lab at Stanford is hosting a workshop on the role of Community Focused Ethical Review Processes as one step. We'll look at how a variety of nonprofits and corporations are developing new mechanisms to inform how they collect and use digital data from their communities. We'll report out on it and use what we learn to inform an ongoing effort to imagine - and reinvent - the institutional forms we need.

Resources - Tech for Social Good

I just finished teaching a continuing studies class at Stanford on Tech for Social Good. My colleague and co-teacher, Rob Reich and I assembled this list of free online sites to follow/ newsletters to read for the class. I thought I'd share it here as well. Enjoy! (and let me know what I'm missing)

Civic Hall and Personal Democracy Forum (and First Post newsletter)

Data & Society Institute

Equal Future – Social Justice and Technology

Knight Foundation Tech for Civic Engagement

NYU Gov Lab  - Friday newsletter

Social Good

Stanford Cyber Initiative Blog ( great weekly newsletter)

Stanford PACS

Stanford PACS Digital Civil Society Lab

Stanford Social Innovation Review – Technology


UW Tech Policy Lab

Newsletters I read/Medium sites I follow(ish)

Jack Smith - Circuit Breaker

Deb Chacra’s MetaFoundry

Melody Kramer’s Mel’s Sandbox

David Pell’s NextDraft

Brian Walsh All Things Impact

Greenpeace's MobLab Dispatch

Cathy O’Neil Mathbabe