Tech Solidarity NL — Amsterdam meetup #6

A small group convenes at to focus on the theme of economic inequality.

  1. Introduction to the issue of income and wealth inequality in the Netherlands and abroad
  2. Search and build a list of organisations who are working for economic justice in the Netherlands and abroad
  3. Brainstorm practical experiments addressing this issue
1. Introduction to the issue

We start by watching a video: ‘Inequality: Why are the rich getting richer?’ by Positive Money.

If we want to deal with the big social, economic and environmental challenges that we’re facing today, we should start by fixing money. Positive Money is a well known group working on changing how money works abroad. In the Netherlands a comparable group is Ons Geld. A related group is Ons Systeem.

We watch another video. ‘Naomi Klein: How to Resist Trump’s Shock Doctrine’ by The Intercept. Klein also has a new book out, ‘NoIsNotEnough’ which looks related to our concerns.

The intervention proposed by Positive Money and Ons Geld is to move money creation away from banks and into the public sphere.

Naomi Klein’s analysis is that inequality is propagated by right-wing politicans under the cover of what she calls ‘the shock doctrine’. She says we can resist, but to say “no” is not enough. We need to offer a credible alternative.

2. Organisations

We survey organisations that do something related to economic inequality in the Netherlands and abroad.

BankTrack – “The mission of BankTrack is to promote fundamental changes in the operations of banks so that, while conducting their business in a fully transparent and accountable manner, they contribute to the ecological wellbeing of the planet and to offering a decent life free of poverty for all people.”

Full Reserve – “Stichting Full Reserve zet zich door middel van campagnes en onderzoek in voor een stabiele financiële sector waarin mensen zelf weer kunnen bepalen of ze risico nemen.”

An interesting aspect of Full Reserve is that by doing something practical, they get pushback (in this case, they aren’t given a banking licence). This un turn exposes aspects of the current system that may remain less visible otherwise.

STRO – “Social TRade Organisation (STRO) is één van de weinige organisaties ter wereld die alternatieven voor het geldsysteem ontwikkelt. Dit doen we omdat we zien dat het huidige geldsysteem armoede en milieuproblemen veroorzaakt.”

Ex’tax foundation – “High taxes on labour encourage businesses to minimize their number of employees. Resources, however, remain untaxed; they are used unrestrained. This system causes unemployment, overconsumption and pollution. Ex’tax is the proposal to bring tax on natural resource use up and tax on labour down. This creates incentives to save natural resources. It also makes services more affordable and boosts manpower, craftsmanship and creativity. Ex’tax enables an inclusive, circular economy.”

New Economics Foundation – “UK’s leading think tank promoting social, economic and environmental justice. Our aim is to transform the economy so that it works for people and the planet.”

De Grote Transitie – “Bestaanszekerheid en genoeg banen door werk te verdelen. 100% duurzame energie. Schone productieprocessen die slim en zuinig omgaan met schaarse grondstoffen. Een lokale democratie waarbij mensen weer centraal staan. We hebben alles in huis om dit te verwezenlijken: de juiste kennis en technologieën, het geld, de instrumenten en de organisatiekracht. Wat houdt ons dan nog tegen? Dat zijn vooral bestaande belangen en machten die krampachtig vasthouden aan hun positie en aan een economie gefixeerd op groei. Met zo min mogelijk regels en zoveel mogelijk winst door een zo laag mogelijke kostprijs. Sociale en ecologische kosten worden op de gemeenschap afgewenteld waardoor hele samenlevingen ontwricht raken en we een onleefbare wereld achterlaten.”

Positief Links – “Positief Links wil progressieve mensen en ideeën op nieuwe manieren mobiliseren. In tijden van polarisatie en groeiende intolerantie, willen we een tegenwicht bieden voor rechtse schijnoplossingen.”

Many of these initiatives contain an aspect of system criticism. This is different from initiatives that try to offer alternatives for the current system without trying to change it. The risk of such initiatives is that they alleviate some of the extreme outcomes of the system without radically opposing it.

Someone brings up the plight of the middle class in the Netherlands as described in the article ‘Schaatsen op dun ijs’ in De Groene. For an increasing number of people it is the case that they work hard but don’t progress. If we want political change we need to mobilise the middle class. We need to offer a better story than right wing parties. We can either argue against capitalism or argue for a more benign form of capitalism (or more radically, simply argue for socialism).

What is the role of technology in all of this? Does automation lead to mass unemployment? Or hyperemployment? In any case it is clear the majority of people do not share in the productivity gains achieved through technology.

How do we build bridges from these big themes to things we can actually do in the here and now? What are practical experiments that offer a real alternative to the current system and by doing so exposes some of its current contradictions?

Someone recommends listening to the interview with Albert Jan Kruiter on De Rudi & Freddie Show (part 1, part 2). One thing Kruiter mentions is that basic income experiments by local governments are being blocked by national government.

3. Experiments

What we don’t want to do: patching experiments of a libertarian bent. We want to put the collective at the heart of the experiment.

We ask: what do we see happening in our own industry that increases inequality?

Transparent tech

Someone suggests that the technology we make is opaque to most people.

Can we connect this to the collective? For example, Waag Society talks about “If you can’t open it you don’t own it”. They connect it to consumer culture. And roughly suggest that if we all buy FairPhones it will all be okay.

We feel that technologists have a responsibility to the public to create transparent technology.

Someone coins the phrase ‘Marxist interaction design’. What would that look like? It would involve increasing democratic control of the design and development of technological products and services that impact public life.

For example, Facebook was introduced into society as a consumer product. But it has huge impact on our daily lives and society. So shouldn’t something like Facebook be nationalised or at least be brought under more democratic control?

Tech worker diversity

Another aspect of inequality in tech is about the workforce. How can we increase tech worker diversity? How accessible is our industry to people from low income background, people of colour, LGBT people, women, and so on?

Taking the example of teachers in the Netherlands. Why are they mostly women? Why are does the job have low perceived status and why do they get paid poorly? How can this be changed? What do the answers to those questions teach us about our own field?

Even if we don’t focus directly on increasing tech worker diversity, any experiment we undertake should at least involve a diverse group of people to reflect this ideal.

Someone introduces Tocqueville’s idea of self-interest properly understood. Diversity isn’t just morally good in itself, but is also in the self-interest of those whom it does not serve directly. The idea is to optimise for the collective interest, and not your own self-interest at the expense of the collective.

Practicing democracy

We’ve forgotten how to do things democratically. In our daily lives we hardly ever have to do things in a democratic way. An experiment should help us practice acting democratically.

Acting democratically points to commons-based organisational forms. An interview with Bas van Bavel at NRC outlines where free markets go wrong and what can be done about it. A recurring theme is the disappearance of organisational forms that sit between companies and governments. Commons-based forms. See also this interview with Tine de Moor. A real-world example would be TwentyOne, which aims to be a cooperative alternative to traditional urban development.

We explore the link between inequality propagated by technology, and the concept of transparent technology. Knowledge asymmetry leads to power asymmetry, which in turn can lead to economic and other inequality.

A common pitfall with emancipatory narratives is that it frames the way forward as becoming just as big an asshole as those currently in power. See for example Lean In.

Next actions

Where to go from here?

We could ask our community for examples of technological products and services that should be more transparent, and that work in the interest of the few at the expense of the many.

An example related to transparent technology: Decode – “Decode provides tools that put individuals in control of whether they keep their personal data private or share it for the public good.”

We could also ask people for ideas and examples related to the things discussed here. We could then collate and organise these resources for everyone’s education.

But this would be the number one thing to ask: do you recognise the picture painted by the Groene piece about the struggling middle class in your own surroundings? Friends, family, coworkers, etc.

To finish up, we watch a venture capitalist argue for raising the minimum wage.