Tech Solidarity NL — Amsterdam meetup #3

A small group convened at Q42 in Amsterdam on May 2, 2017 to continue the conversation. This meetup was less structured than the previous two. There was no formal agenda. But the conversation roughly covered the following topics:

  1. Attendees’ personal motivations
  2. Diversity and inclusivity
  3. Professional ethics
  4. Shared purpose
  5. Improving our organisation
1. Attendees’ personal motivations

Some us want to do things as a tech worker that have societal value, that are impactful and that do this in a structural way, not an incidental way. Others want to make a difference without having to go into politics. Still others have crossed over from industry into education to make a difference through the people we teach.

2. Diversity and inclusivity

At Q42 they want to improve the diversity and inclusivity of the tech scene. One thing that they started to do this is Girl Code, a meetup for women in tech. They also initiated CodeUur, programming classes for primary education. (CodeUur has since joined forces with Dreamery Foundation and FutureNL.) The basic idea is to prepare young people for the digital world and to make sure people from a wide range of backgrounds are included.

3. Professional ethics

Someone mentions seeing Peter R. de Vries talk about allowing the justice department to access medical records of hospitals. They would like to see programmers refusing to work on stuff like that.

One way to promote professional ethics is to make it part of education programs.

But professional ethics also need to be put into practice. We talk about how in a way it might be a privilege to be able to turn down jobs or gigs that do not align with our values. One perspective is that not everyone has the luxury to exclusively work on things that we would deem ethical. Another perspective is that this certainly could be the case for a given definition of ethics.

At some companies employees are free to refuse to work for particular clients because of personal ethics. Such companies have a culture where these things can be discussed and sufficient resources to deal with such matters flexibly.

It is suggested that awareness of ethics, and a literacy about it are lacking. We talk about how it seems very few higher education explicitly train designers and programmers to think and talk about ethics as it relates to their practice.

If we really want to change this we would need to attack it through the national frameworks that prescribe the things that need to be included in programs.

Interestingly, the legal side of things does get attention in education. Things like security, intellectual property, liability.

It also seems that at least to some extent companies are getting wise to the need to deal with privacy concerns in a structural way. But there are plenty of examples where privacy is dealt with in a problematic way. Someone asks the question, how do you deal with this as an individual worker, when you discover your employer is making bad decisions.

Also, when someone has bought into the need to do things the right way, how do they then actually go about it? Practical guidelines for ethical tech are not easily available. Working ethically takes more time than just doing whatever. Some things are simply hard or impossible to do with today’s technologies. Someone mentioned having databases encrypted at rest is a good idea but it is hard to work with.

We explore the parallel of web accessibility for a while. One person feels huge strides have been made among other things because there are copious guidelines and the tech has improved. Someone else disagrees and claims accessibility is still done poorly more often than not.

On the topic of accessibility the project is mentioned. A website with stories from disabled people about their experience using technology. It helps designers and programmers understand the need for doing the right thing more acutely. is a good example of how we also need to appeal to people’s emotions when it comes to these things. If we want people to care about tech solidarity they need to have a sense of how it makes difference in people’s lives.

Telling stories about how tech can help or hinder solidarity might not be a bad place to start.

Also, as with ethical tech, sometimes accessibility is at odds with aesthetics and takes longer to get right. So to make it happen you need to make the business case for it.

4. Shared purpose

We review the golden circle model and try to map what we discussed so far to it.

The ‘why’ is still promoting an open society.

The ‘how’ is promoting professional ethics among tech workers.

The ‘what’ is storytelling, education, and tools and guidelines.

We might find allies in the InfoSec community. They are good with tech but a bit hard to get into. They do lack design resources so we might be of help there.

In general if we have desired behaviours we should work to make those easier for tech workers. As the old saying goes: organise, educate, agitate. The educate aspect is actually very useful. But before we get to it we can get much better at the organise aspect.

A final though offered by someone is to come up with manifesto. Examples include the IoT Manifesto and the never again pledge.

5. Improving our organisation

Finally, we discuss how to make it easier for people to be involved with our little nascent movement. One obvious thing to do is to have a regular schedule for the meetups. We’ll settle on a monthly meetup on the same day of the month. Let’s say the first Monday of every month.

In this stage we don’t necessarily need massive turnout because smallish groups are better at having deeper conversations. However at some point we want to scale up a bit so we can have more impact.

We should make it easier to collect and share the resources we find useful in our individual practices. For this, we need better tooling than the current static website and GitHub pull requests.

An example includes the Resistance Manual, which has a ton of resources. But it lacks context. Someone suggests any resource linked to needs a sentence or two providing a summary of some sort. A TLDR so that people can decide wether they need to look into it further. This also applies to links shared in the Signal group.

Speaking of the Signal group, we feel it does not work well to foster a sense of community because it lacks presence, identity and such things. It woud be nice to have a more sophisticated alternative without having to buy into a death star platform. Maybe have another look at Mattermost?

Closing thoughts

Some final things shared before we wrapped up. Attendees agreed it’s nice to see ideas related to what to do firm up. At the same time it is appreciated we are taking the tame to create common ground. We agree we are all inspired to continue this thing.

We have the sense that for some people, now that we are in the post-election lull and waiting for a new government to be formed, a sense of urgency is lacking. This will surely change once the formation period is behind us. But we can also work ourselves to maybe foster a sense of urgency. At some point we need a purpose, a why, for people to rally around.

Some more examples of tech for good initiatives are mentioned: Zeekat, Hack the Planet, Greenpeace using UAVs to capture footage of Indonesia forest fires.

As mentioned before, there are a lot of initiatives related to our cause. Shouldn’t we collect and disseminate them? Couldn’t we be a clearing house for alternatives?

We end the meetup with renewed resolve to continue the work.