Tech Solidarity NL meetup #8

We convene at Eend in Utrecht. (Thanks again for the last-minute hospitality!) After an informal discussion about how to operationalise ethics in design — with mention of value sensitive design — we get down to business and build an agenda.

  1. Share resources related to alternative political-economic systems
  2. Share more resources
  3. Review feedback on ‘what’s my class’ idea
  4. Close-out
1. Alternative political-economic systems

The starting point for tonight’s discussion is Christian Felber’s recent presentation on ‘The Common Good Economy’ at Pakhuis de Zwijger.

It is a rather coherent and complete story and Felber is clearly a gifted rhetorician although he might appeal to liberal folks of some education and turn off others. What distinguishes Felber is that he goes beyond diagnosing the problem and attempts to operationalise some of the ideas around how to mitigate capitalism’s excesses. It appears to be quite mature and multifaceted. Ideologically it is moderately to the left of center. It’s certainly progressive but risks becoming technocratic because it emphasises metrics and measurement. Its premise is that new metrics will lead to a new regime. And it suggests most people agree on what the common good actually is. But it is a great example of an attempt to formulate an alternative for our current political and economic system.

We continue our conversation around the theme of envisioning alternative political-economic systems.

A similar story is offered by Kate Raworth in her book ‘Doughnut Economics’. As with Felber, she offers a new model to replace the existing one. Her greatest innovation is the she links social justice with climate justice. Where Felber emphasises measurement she suggests change happens through public education and storytelling. And as such she mainly concerns herself with offering compelling pictures — quite literally, in the case of her doughnut diagram. This somewhat breathless interview and book review by Ewald Engelen in De Groene is a good introduction to her ideas (in Dutch).

Continuing on with the theme of change through measurement, versus change through storytelling, we look at two columns by Daniel Mugge in Follow the Money.

The first deals with the continuing dominance of GDP as the prime measurement of our nation’s wealth. Mugge argues the issue is not with GDP itself, but with our growth-based economic system. If we want to change this we need to address the system itself. This perspective can be seen as a critique of projects such as Felber’s.

The second column builds on the first, and goes into how contemporary politics hides behind numbers. This creates a situation in which things are only considered valuable if they can be measured somehow. Any choice that is made on something other than the basis of numbers somehow isn’t valid. People can be rightly frustrated by this mode of politics, because it creates a sense that there are no more choices to be made, the numbers will tell us what to do. This is something to be mindful of when doing things like Felber’s common good balance sheet.

2. More resources

We share and talk about quite a few additional resources related to social justice and technology. Below is an incomplete list.

  • ‘Waarom de grootste uitkeringstrekkers aan de top zitten (en leven op kosten van de leraar, verpleger en vuilnisman)’. This argues we accept inequality because the efforts of the upper class are overvalued. We are reminded of this excellent phrase in ‘The ABCs of Socialism’: “The rich didn’t earn their wealth, they’re just holding on to it for us.”
  • ‘World's eight richest people have same wealth as poorest 50%’. Here, the World Economic Forum (WEF) argues that “rising inequality and social polarisation posed two of the biggest risks to the global economy in 2017 and could result in the rolling back of globalisation.”
  • ‘Rising inequality threatens world economy, says WEF’. A risk report is discussed, where WEF argues that “technological change is shifting the distribution of income from labour to capital: according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, up to 80% of the decline in labour’s share of national income between 1980 and 2007 was the result of the impact of technology.” A related book is ‘The Second Machine Age’. This is grist for our mill.
  • ‘The Binge Breaker’. Tristan Harris and Joe Edelman are working on a kind of hippocratic oath for software designers. They also think that change in surveillance capitalism may only really come once tech workers collective organise and start refusing to work on harmful products.
  • ‘Een zorgzame samenleving binnen ons bereik’. An adaptation from Naomi Klein’s latest book, which talks about how Trump is a symptom of a system predicated on a number of false narratives. She argues it is necessary to replace those narratives with new ones.
  • ‘If Unilever Can’t Make Feel-Good Capitalism Work, Who Can?’. It’s interesting to see even Unilever is struggling with the constraints of the economic operating system on which they are required to run.
  • LabGov is a "LABoratory for the GOVernance of the City as a Commons" is an interesting if somewhat curious example of a place where people from different backgrounds come together to invent new social structures. Similar initiatives are afoot in the Netherlands.
  • The not-uncontroversial Jeremy Rifkin argues that technology is driving down the cost of products to near zero and that this will ultimately lead to the demise of capitalism and the emergence of something he calls collaborative commons.

Having worked through a bunch of these we spend a bit of time idly wondering if there would be interest in a monthly newsletter which shares some highlights from our continued research and readings into these subjects.

We also talk for a bit about how at some point it might be worthwhile to sort and synthesise these individual references into some kind of map. (As an example, see this Ribbonfarm map and accompanying presentation.)

3. Feedback on ‘what’s my class’ idea

We briefly look at some of the feedback we received on the idea explored in the previous meetup, which can be boiled down to a website which would help people understand their economic class.

Some of the criticism was that we were playing with making people even more disgruntled than they already are, and that this might be an ineffective or even dangerous tactic to employ.

Obviously, our aim is not to make people even more dissatisfied per se. What we are trying to do is build more support for policies that focus on the redistribution of wealth. This does involve politicising the issue though. We don’t really see a way around it.

Another point of criticism was that a website might not be the best way of reaching lower income folks. This remains to be seen because we are also targeting middle class people. And it should not be underestimated who is on the internet nowadays.

A final question that remains is: if we manage to convince people of the injustice of the current situation, what is the action we should then ask of them? We have no answer to this currently.

4. Close-out

As we close out we do a quick round and ask people what they are concerned about in their own professional and private lives at the moment.

Some things mentioned include the fact that in the Netherlands, government IT projects frequently fail. With the latest horrendous example being the debacle surrounding a new website for ‘pgb’ers’.

We also talk about YouTube et al.’s failure to take responsibility for the garbage they are pushing, which appears to be actively harming democracy.

We debate what the best starting point for changing any of this is. Do we shoot for systemic change, or do we force government and companies to change using measures that are already in place?

Finally, we muse about the hard time folks are having to get people concerned about privacy, with the Sleepwet Referendum as the latest example. This appears to be a PR problem, mainly. The issue of privacy is not politicised because it does not appear to affect the material lives of people.

And with that, we wrap up the evening and head into the night, reinvigorated by new things learned and the good company of likeminded people.