We convened at the Bits of Freedom office for our fourth meetup. We had a nice mix of repeat attendees and new people, including designers, programmers, consultants and activists. Our agenda was made up of the points below.
First off, we were introduced to the important work Bits of Freedom is doing for the advancement of internet freedom. Everyone is encouraged to donate and support this important organisation.
We then went around the table and got (re)acquainted. Because Kars was writing this in Byword, we also decided to have everyone mention their favourite markdown editor. These included Sublime, iA Writer, OneNote and Vim.
For the benefit of first-time attendees, and to refresh everyone’s memories we went over the minutes for the previous meetups and recapped what was discussed during those. Some additional themes came up, which we went into for a bit.
One point in particular we discussed was the efforts apparently being made in the US to set up a labor union for tech workers. We discussed how it seems meetup attendees so far don’t really identify with the label “tech worker”. We also talked about how tech workers appear to be poorly organised. This is a problem if we want to act as a group on interests we share. (We would revisit this point in the next section.)
To get a better handle on the type of organisation we might want to become, we explored various things we might want to achieve. The thinking being that particular goals will require particular organisational structures.
Once again we discuss the idea of matching up tech workers with NGOs who work to promote an open, egalitarian and just society. Tech workers would volunteer time to assist NGOs with their specific technical expertise.
For example, Bits of Freedom has solid in-house skills which has enabled them to create technical infrastructure that makes collaboration with outside individuals near frictionless. But a lot of NGOs lack skills and expertise to do the same.
Reasons for this can vary. With some organisations, developing technologies might be low priority. Even if we volunteer our time, organisations will still have to free up people on their side to coordinate with us.
One idea might be to help NGOs build tools that will make it easier for them to coordinate with volunteers. Various examples are discussed. Dutch foundations who support refugees are swamped by volunteers and can’t handle any more. Another national organisation is mentioned who is dependent on 150+ volunteers but who lack the infrastructure to coordinate the work. And finally one of us talks about an NGO they helped with developing a system for supporting volunteers so that they could coordinate their own work, with great results.
In short, there is an opportunity here. We would not be the first to attempt such a thing so we would need to zero in more specifically on what it is we want to achieve. For example, 1%club already crowdsources technical skills and knowledge for good causes. (They do a lot more than this, though.)
Another things that has come up a few times in the past is professional ethics. Tech workers should be able to refuse to do work that enables authoritarianism, injustice or discrimination. At our previous meetup we talked at length about how to promote and support such professional ethics.
Another strand is to develop technologies ourselves that would further our causes. For example, if we believe leaking helps to fight injustice, we could build a tool that supports it. Such tools already exist, though. For example Publeaks or SecureDrop.
We discuss how it seems tech workers aren’t very politically engaged. This is disputed by some. Plenty of us are engaged, however we aren’t well organised as a group. The general consensus around the table is that we should focus our efforts not so much on changing the minds of tech workers, but on connecting with fellow tech workers who share our concerns.
Manifestos and pledges can be ways to draw people in. If we are to be a movement we need to develop our message so that people can rally around it and identify with it.
We also need concrete things we want to achieve. Some people enjoy the open-ended conversations we are having so far but others really just want to do something. (Doerism is actually quite prevalent in our circles, but underdeveloped as a politics.)
We can be a meetup for conversations between concerned tech workers. We can be a network that matches tech workers to NGOs. We can even be both, and more. A next step would be to strategise more about this so that we can decide where our efforts should be directed towards.
As we wrap up we go around the table to get everyone’s feedback on what they got out of the meeting.
Some express the desire to do something. We agree after a number of exploratory meetup it feels like we are about ready to dive a little deeper in projects that keep popping up in our conversations. This is something for the next meetup.
Everyone agrees it is very cool to hear about the work Bits of Freedom are doing and how they go about it. (This should be a recurring thing.) Someone suggests we need to operationalise the idea of an open society.
Another person commits themselves to leading an effort to identify NGOs in the Netherlands who fight to reduce income and wealth inequality, others pledge to support them.
And finally, a book tip is shared for those concerned with the asymmetric power wielded by tech giants with the aid of machine learning: Weapons of Math Destruction.
We head into the summer evening with renewed resolve to continue the good fight.