Tech Solidarity NL — Amsterdam meetup #5

A small group gathered at for our fifth meetup. The aim of this gathering was to transition from the open-ended meeting format we have been using thus far into more goal directed sessions. To this end some of us had analysed the previous meeting minutes and formulated the things we felt were at the top of the list to start working on. The agenda was as follows:

  1. Introduction
  2. Analysis
  3. Plan
  4. Next actions
  5. Close-out
1. Introductions

This time we had people from design agencies, the open government data field, and digital activism. After a brief round of introductions we got started.

2. Analysis

We start out with a presentation of a clustering of all the ideas from previous meeting minutes. Ideas fall under one of six categories:

  • organisation; ideas to make Tech Solidarity NL work better as an organisation
  • TSNL as a service; takes Tech Solidarity NL as a whole as a service for doing good
  • public communication; ideas focused on informing the public about the issues we care about
  • storytelling; mobilising tech workers to support our cause
  • tools and guidelines; practical support for tech workers to promote an open society
  • education; helping those who educate tech workers to include the things we care about

After this overview we open it up to feedback from attendees.

Many of the ideas clustered under the above categories come across as rather inwards focused. We should ask ourself what we have to offer to others.

‘Professionals’ are often mentioned as audience. ‘Tech worker’ too. So are we aiming to be a group by a particular group of people for a group of similar people? In other words: by tech workers, for tech workers?

What if we aim to offer things to other groups, such as politicians? For example, Digital Defenders supports journalists with grants and tools and other things.

Hard technology only goes so far, you also need soft technology (methods for change-making) to really create impact. For example, open data has been applied to allow citizens to inspect the government budget for their neighbourhood and determine wether they agree with its priorities.

Another question is what kind of organisation we need to be. And to also question wether we need to adopt a formal organisation structure at all. For example, the Cooperative University of Amsersfoort is not an actual university but applied the scientific method to social issues. For example ’ such as climate change. ‘Meet je stad!’ is a citizen science project for which sensor kits were developed that enable ordinary people to contribute heat measurements.

If we develop more specific goals like this we will enable people to join more easily. Once again, it’s not just about technology but also using ‘network thinking’ to get people involved and to enable them to stay involved.

Maybe to achieve our aims we need to go out into the field. Then we will see what we need to do to get to where we want to be. Seeking out a direct confrontation with every day reality will provide us with valuable insights into where we are right now and what we need to do to get to where we want to be.

Another example mentioned is True Price, a social enterprise that helps organisations quantity their impact on society.

3. Plan

Following this first section of the analysis of what we’ve discussed over the course of the previous four meetups, we share a plan of action for the immediate future. This plan is broken down into three parts:

  1. Higher turnout – For future meetups, offer a more formalised program and publicise it more widely. These meetups should be welcoming to all those who are interested. The current style of monthly meetups can continue as meetings for the inner circle who want to organise and plan our ongoing efforts. The ‘new meetups’ will be for outreach and education. More ideas on what the program of these meetups can consist of below, under point three.
  2. Better comms – Set up an actual maling list system for announcements. Replace our Signal group with a better chat system (probably self-hosted Mattermost). Improved comms should enable us to engage more people.
  3. “Volunteer assistance to organisations serving the vulnerable” – This is from the front-page of the .org website and it is a thing that we feel strongly about as an idea that has persisted throughout all meetups. There is some momentum behind it already with some of us taking the initiative to build a list of organisations in the Netherlands who are fighting income and wealth inequality. This could act as a double-edged sword. We could invite people from these organisations to speak at our meetups, and we could use then connect them to people from our group.

We get some feedback on this from a community building perspective. Ton Zijlstra has a good model which outlines a number of ‘levers’ we can use to influence the growth of a community. These are:

  • Rhythm *
  • Spaces (physical, digital) *
  • Value (personal, social) *
  • Inside / outside perspective
  • Safety / challenge
  • Levels of engagement (path inside, path outside)
  • Evolution

The ones marked with a * are the first to get right. The rest can come after. The importance of the levers and their required settings will change as the group evolves. We should strive to create feedback loops, continuously ask people how we are doing.

With regards to the three elements in the plan of action, attendees find them recognisable. As we make choices about comms infrastructure we should keep asking ourselves if the tools are a good match for our audience.

On the subject of the chat system we now employ, it’s clear it does not support cases where people can contribute new ideas and small groups can form around them and branch off to do their thing. This is a shame because this is how new initiatives can emerge. At the moment it’s hard to see who is involved. This doesn’t help on this point either.

Someone asks, do we want to do something for vulnerable groups directly or do we want to radicalise tech workers? The question is left unanswered but it is something to keep in mind.

A quality of a well-functioning community is how welcoming are we for people who are outsiders or newcomers and who aren’t super technical per se.

We talk a little bit about the distinction between offering toolkits and developing tools. We feel the former is more interesting to pursue than the latter. There are so many tools out there already, it is more a matter of helping those in need adopt them. An example would be Bits of Freedom’s ‘Internet­vrijheid Toolbox’. How would something like this look like for organisations serving the marginalised in the Netherlands?

When talking about tools it’s not just about hard technology but soft (social) technology as well. Ton Zijlstra has a great model for this as well which he calls the agency map. It is described at the bottom of this blog post, the rest of the series is worth a read as well. In short, the model suggests mapping out the persons who are in need of increased agency, the technologies required, the methods required, and finally the desired outcomes or impacts.

Such a model could serve us well once we start working with organisations. It helps us look past only the hard technology and also think about methods that are suitable to our aims.

4. Next actions

We start brainstorming next actions and ideas for subjects and people to invite to future meetups.

On a community organising level, things that might be interesting to talk about are bread funds, distributed energy cooperatives, and local food networks such as Rechtstreex.

Another subject people care about is public ignorance of the workings of social media and related privacy concerns. The power differential between companies like Facebook and the public. The way such platforms shape our perception of reality. We could invite people who are building alternatives to such services. We could also consider activist groups such as Bits of Freedom or the Pirates.

A subject that keeps popping up is the rise of the populist right. The analysis we’ve done at previous meetups is that these ultimately are a product of the political and economic system we are part of. So we can work to raise awareness of injustices, but we could also work to address the material conditions that produce and sustain these intolerances.

We talk about the concept of resilience and the different viewpoints we have on this idea. Is it about individual leverage, or organising collectively in solidarity with each other? Ultimately individuals are rather powerless in the face of these issues. But collectively, as tech workers, we have some power to wield. Particularly those who are employed by significant economic actors.

As it stands, the left in technology is fractured and marginalised. The tech scene has become increasingly inhospitable to leftist ideas. Cyberculture has been taken over and coopted by the right. It is time to formulate a leftist answer to it. An alternative conceptualisation of technology’s role in society, beyond individual liberty.

Relatedly, we talk about the phenomenon of tech workers fitting the stereotype of the ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ who are not connected to their local communities. This is a more pronounced issue in the US. But in the Netherlands it manifests itself as well.

A case raised by one attendee is of moving cities and seeking to get rooted in the new place. How does one go about it, in particular if you’re workplace is not embedded in it? The best way seems to be to participate in local communities.

More ideas for people to invite and topics to discuss:

Rutger Bregman to talk about universal basic income, or his colleague Jesse Frederik about the debt industry.

Ethics by design. Lots of organisations need to figure out ethical design of technology but lack the expertise. Existing organisations in our field such as privacy advocacy groups do not offer such services. This could be a thing we could offer.

More people doing interesting work in the area of technology and activism:

5. Close-out

Our next meetup is August 7. We might do a pilot with a speaker. Everyone leaves with renewed hope for the future.