What’s the Catch?

Chaos Communications Camp is something that happens once every four years, and it is My Favorite. It’s a few thousand hackers etc camping together in Germany. There’s brightly colored hair everywhere, and a slowly improving gender ratio, and stickers on laptops, and a gigabit to the tent. There are disco balls in trees, and competing soundscapes of German techno and old rock and roll or hiphop, and a giant sparkley rocket ship called Fairy Dust. I’m camping with Norton’s Obscure Phoggy Embassy (the manifestation of a few Bay Area hackerspaces), which is successfully trolling much of the rest of Camp through their assumption we’re being colonial (because Emperors), as well as having an inflated shark Rubin‘s been shouting at people to jump over. Also, NOPE attire are booty shorts.

I was invited to sit on a panel called “What’s the Catch?” put together by nat from Open Technology Institute. Josh (also from OTI), Kate (from tor), and myself were the three panelists. We each attempted to speak for about five minutes, and then we focused on questions from the audience. Our topic was an ongoing debate in infosec (and other) circles : is it possible to take money from governments and corporations while maintaining a project’s integrity? I vote yes, if you work really hard at it. The talk will eventually be up on the CCC wiki (and I’ll likely post it here once it’s up) but for now, this is the rant I put together when I was considering how to concisely state why I think this is the case.

In relation to this, and the other existential questions which I continually struggle with, I refer often to a quote from the Zapatistas, one of the few groups to maintain a governance structure after their revolution: “Caminando preguntamos,” which roughly translates to “we walk while asking questions.” To me, it means that we should move, but let’s analyze as we do. Let’s be in both critique and solidarity with each other.

I’m going to attempt to touch on three points, alliterated for your memory: perfection, pluralism, paternalism.

The last time I spoke at Camp, in 2011, it was about hacker and maker spaces. I’ve since moved from focusing on hacker and maker spaces into disaster and humanitarian response. From 2010 to the end of 2014, that was by being a cofounder for a group called Geeks Without Bounds, which still exists and is lovely. I cofounded GWOB because I wanted to see how the values and tools we build can be applied in a wider circumstance than our glorious (nearly) 5k person bubble (that is so tiny). And I carried with me then, as I do now, a belief that being radical shouldn’t just be about critiquing mainstream culture, it should also be about eventually becoming mainstream. Otherwise, why are we doing this? Then, to me, projects fall into two main categories — either a finite effort with a set end and explicit goal which can be achieved (gay marriage!), or something that becomes the equivalent of a municipality, which we believe everyone should have access to on an ongoing basis (the internet!). Both forms are necessary and influence each other, but are very differently shaped.

I moved on from GWOB at the end of last year, because I believe that an organization should be more than the individuals which make it up. I now work with Aspiration, which some of you know, and it’s glorious. We believe that technology should always be in service to nonprofits (and by proxy, their end users). To me, nonprofits are organizations which help us transition away from the political and economic models which we must nonconsensually deal with on a regular basis currently.

With Aspiration, I still work on disaster and humanitarian response, from the attitude of the frontline community as the first responder, an active participant in any given situation. The frontline community are the people we should listen to, design for, and be held accountable to. It is a trend in “official” response to see the frontline community as passive, rather than as active participants in their own lives or rescue. And in response, there are also people who have been violent in these regions, or are corrupt, or are military, and sometimes all of these are true at the same time. I see this as similar to the environment which we, as hackers, operate in. We have end users we should be serving and empowering, and systems with History which we need to account for, as opposed to pretending it doesn’t matter.

I really like a framework for considering all this, called Do No Harm, which is about taking the Hippocratic oath from medicine and bringing it into resource deployment and project design when you have to worry about the social ramifications. As you know, and as peace builders know, you can’t just ignore an adversary. But in peace building, we know that sometimes we have to talk to, or even work with, people who have been awful in the past, and even are awful now. If we don’t, change doesn’t stick, or we create oscillations in the opposite direction. Peace builders have been working in this space since long before the internet existed, and the documentation is generally far better than ours tends to be. Let’s stand on the shoulders of some giants by learning from them. It will save us time.

One quick example: water point mapping in Tanzania while I was with GWOB with a project called Taarifa, (it’s libre source, please contribute). There are water points all over Tanzania, and the people with resources don’t know where most of them are, nor whether they’re working or not. The Ministry of Water, and the World (Fucking) Bank want the ability to know where their resources should be deployed, because as much as they might suck sometimes, they do in fact want people to have access to clean drinking water. And I want people to have a tool to self-organize and take care of their own shit in a way which holds interceding parties accountable. Other people on the Taarifa team have their own motivations as well. Ends up, if you design a project right, these things can look like the same thing, and is strengthened by the variety of viewpoints. This but one place where diversity is a benefit at this scale. So we took a grant (not a loan) from the World Bank, and Taarifa works with the Ministry of Water, and other parts of the Tanzanian government. We reviewed paperwork and assumptions to be sure no organizational or messaging control was given up. We talked (at length) internally about being sure the parameters of the project and the values we each hold were in alignment. And it’s working. The project is scaling up with other funds, from a different gov source this time. There wasn’t the volunteer technical capacity in-country to work on it, so we took funds to support local folk to maintain and expand their own platform while increasing in-country abilities (or just the visibility of those skills to those with resources to support). It’s not something that the people of TZ could have paid for, and it’s something where we found it unethical to wait for volunteer labor.

I want to remind you of my main points, before I pass this on to the other fantastic panelists:

  • I’m not perfect. Neither are any of you. That doesn’t mean we’re worth giving up on. I feel the same way about many organizations, locations (including home – we tend to think of disaster and humanitarian issues as ones which happen far away), and even governments. I will tell you stories about putting various official response groups in touch with each other to perform their mandates, because they didn’t know how (or simply weren’t allowed) to connect with each other. But over beer.
  • We need a pluralistic approach. I don’t expect what I do to work for others or visa versa, but I do think it’s possible for us to learn from each other. The challenges we face are massive, and if seeing a long string of response prototypes have shown me anything, it’s that there’s isn’t such a thing as a silver bullet. Many things in combination are what comprise, and shift, systems.
  • We need to trust people to be able to make their own decisions, rather than being paternalistic. The answer to bad speech isn’t no speech, it’s more speech. It’s the same for this. People are not the naive lambs that we sometimes want to think they are, blind to trust in an organization because a logo appears somewhere. We are not their protectors. We are in the same shit as everyone else, doing the best we can. That is still glorious and worthwhile.

I want to challenge you to consider your projects and assumptions, and what it would take to “win.” And how do we transition to that world? We are not Athena out of Zeus’s head, for mythology geeks out there.

I’m so glad we’re having these conversations. We are the ones holding ourselves accountable right now, and we must continue to do so (at the very least – I also think we should be accountable to larger society, but we’re still working the kinks out as we currently can’t trust our governments nor enforcement generally). Please ask the questions which you need to ask — others are asking questions about the domains they care about. I’m too deep in it to always know how to look up.

I’d rather be broken by my friends than by anyone else. By asking questions, we walk. Thank you.

Questions from the audience

There were a few questions I especially want to call out from the audience questions:

  • the age-old BUT THE GOVERNMENT IS EVIL. Which, I think here was phrased as “sure, the open source community is using the government… but (isn’t) the government (/)is using us, too(?)!” here punctuated to make it a question. And it’s true, we are furthering each other’s ends. But I don’t think the government is nefarious on purpose or even well organized enough to know what it’s doing, let alone to act with malicious intent. It’s a long serious of patches, none of which has been particularly systemicly competent. There are individuals and even departments which impinge on human rights, and things are super slow to move. There are also good people doing good things, who are able to entrench awesome stuff, which is then hard to change. Basically, it’s a mess. So… yes? But not with any sort of Plan.
  • “What are funds you’ve turned down?” was an excellent question which got to the idea that the organizations represented on stage decide what needs doing, and only then seeks funding to support it. We don’t alter what we’re up to in order to get funding. We talked about the process of turning down funding by the simple act of not applying to certain organizations. But there are certainly groups I’ve worked with who were uncomfortable taking funds from one org or another, and those wishes were respected. In short, have integrity even when it means you might not eat.
  • “Why are only the US and a couple other governments throwing money at this?” gave me an opportunity to remind folk that The Internet is not The Most Important Thing Ever to most governments or even most people. Much of the time, folk are just trying to get fed and find clean water.
  • “How can we learn from failure?” was a question that emerged during conversation after the panel. It can be difficult to get the essence of lessons while at an on-the-record panel or talk, because of wanting to maintain another party’s dignity or because you’re worried about your job or whatever else. What I’ve seen work well for this are fail sessions which are off the record, in smaller groups, which can then be shared to the larger group. We’ll propose such a session in future. (also, the Engine Room is collecting stories on things like this. If you have such stories, please reach out to them.)

Last night I recovered by floating at Liquidrome with Ben, but the night before was full of dance parties. NOPE’s fog machine had too much fog juice left, and in the act of trying to burn a bunch off, an impromptu dance party started. The fog was so thick inside that even seeing the person next to you was difficult to impossible, and we didn’t have a DJ set up, so Quantum Cypher would quickly swap between devices with queued up songs. From the outside, it looked like a tent full of smoke, with too loud music. But sometimes, a string of people would stumble out, laughing and sweaty from dancing. A few people from outside would see this, and cautiously enter into the tent, fog billowing out the entire time. It was far more fun than anyone expected, and it lasted long into the night.

It is this sort of shared joy which allows us to have these difficult conversations with trust and true examination. Thanks, Camp (thamp).