Technology as a Means to Equality

Originally posted on Geeks Without Bounds

I had the honor recently of speaking at the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF / Doctors Without Borders) Canada Annual General Assembly (AGA). While an international organization, each location has a very large group of people who work on decision and policy for their specific group for the year – usually in the AGA. These are three days of talks, debates, and dinners. The international group defines a focus for the discussions, but it’s up to each pod how they act around that focus. This year, it was how MSF is using (or not) technology. While most of the talks were internal, the bit of time I was there the topics ranged from telemedicine to social media in conflict zones. They asked I come speak about technology and disaster/humanitarian response.

The gist of the talk I gave (15-minute video follows) is that technology is a means to more equality in the world – a way to be inclusive. That there are many people in the world who want to use their technical skills to help groups like MSF out, but we absolutely need them at things like hackathons. That there are many people with voices and connections to the globe now, and that groups like MSF have a responsibility to listen to them directly. And that technology, when done in codesign, will be aligned with what their needs are, and is an ongoing relationship, not a one-off delivery.

Again, most all of the discussion happened behind closed doors, but I recorded my laptop and voice while I did my own presentation.

It seemed to go pretty well. We’re keeping the conversation going, and I’m excited for more points of connection. You can follow the prezi at your own pace here, and see the full #vizthink for the panel here.

Some other highlights:
The other exceptional panelists and myself advocated for F/OSS, especially in light of security, for inclusion. MSF is rightfully anxious about infiltration, ways to be transparent, and usability. Ivan and I re-emphasized open source communities, that people are committed to examining (and re-examining) code for backdoors and optimizations. That open source has been around for decades, that most technology is built upon it, and that it’s a way of performing mutual aid between countries and cultures.

Someone asked in Q+A about using things like Facebook and Twitter in the field, if use could cause problems. Problems of location or images suddenly not being as private as you thought, and kidnappings and killings resulting. Or, what if things just get hacked by governments or by insurgents? My response was that MSF, with all their weight and influence in the world, has a duty to insist upon things like Coercion-Resistant design. Insist that these companies treat their customer bases humanely.

The Architects of Houses

My most recent hex tattoo says “throw away the scabbard”. The full meaning is that when the time comes to fight, you draw your sword and throw the scabbard away. Because you either face a foe you are unlikely to beat, or that you will not be forgiven, or that there is no going back. It’s also a quote attributed to Stonewall Jackson. Who was a right git. But the quote is thus both a reminder that I get to make a choice, once, to draw my sword; as well as that those I rally against have conviction to rival my own (as well as some things to say that I do believe in).

It’s a manifestation and reminder of the ongoing battle within myself between the desire to fix what we’ve got, and the desire to build something alternative and independent while tearing down the current structures. I mean this for education, for economies, for law, and for societies. It’s a constant balance, and one I’m lucky to be surrounded by individuals and groups in both extremes as well as others also balancing. What I hope for are more people I can share nuanced views with – there are a few, but it’s been an alienating experience to examine possibility between these two worlds. I hope this post can help open up that conversation. And I truly feel that, with enough understanding and allies, it will be possible to both do damage control with the current system by creating where we want to be – either with existing or with new.

Here’s the main strain between the two sides for me :

The master’s tools will never dismantle
the master’s house. – Audre Lorde

At the same time, those who are harmed most in
tumultuous times are those already most at risk.

Scaling is hard, and we have a responsibility to the people who already exist on the planet in whatever actions we take to make a better world. Is the suffering caused by the current set-up greater or lesser than the process of shifting to a less damaging system?

One of the reasons I sit in this balance is because of my work with Geeks Without Bounds on humanitarian and disaster response work. I see how amazing groups of people can be if you just get out of their way. Social media in response is not about a curated format for intake for FEMA or OEM or even Red Cross. It’s about a group of people (in this case, in an affected area) that already know how to talk to each other, and who know what they need, finding a new audience of people who want to help them. It’s about mutual aid. But FEMA and OEM and Red Cross have a place in this system, as experts and as providers of specific and prolific resources. And that sort of interaction needs people like me, at least right now, who can talk to both sides about how to get what they need and how to avoid being trampled on.

That bridging requires a lot of talking and trust building. Neither of these sides is especially fond of the other – the formal out of confusion and fear, and the informal from righteous indignation and historical awareness (caveat caveat caveat on both parts – most individuals I’ve met do not fit these descriptions, but as collectively held viewpoints, it holds depressingly true). On rare occasion, such as in response, both sides end up being both hard-pressed but hopeful, forgetting to be wary.

Running with these rare moments has changed things. But it requires being open to possibility, trusting in good will, and standing strong with your source and vision. It requires seeing what people want to offer, and what is non-negotiable. And it does require the understanding that at any point, this balance might change. While I might trust some of the people within it, I do not trust The System, while it sure can be useful.

So when a chance to possibly tweak a part of our executive branch came up recently, but in a way that is daunting and consuming, it caused a lot of internal angst. Here’s a 5-minute explanation, to be watched before the rest of the post is read:

Yes, their goal is that of recruitment. But this is where shared vision can come into play – the world where any of the folk I love and trust would be willing to recruit to this group is also a world in which external oversight is fully supported and embraced. Hopefully, it’s a world in which such a group wouldn’t even be needed. And I’m willing to work towards that world with many people. Our inputs and outputs may be different, but it all starts to look the same the further towards our core it goes.

But! Even if the gents we are entertaining the thought of talking to might have the best of intentions at heart, and a vested interested in making it work out well for all parties involved, it might not be safe to do so. Even if they work to protect a spark of understanding and collaboration, to fan it towards making their organization one worth working for, anyone else from within that organization might ensure information from interaction snaps into the proscribed uses – that of targeting and undermining dissidents. The whole path and system of interaction is not safe, the architecture is lacking for intentional systems shift. Which means the tiny, squishy people not protected by that system will be severely damaged, and in a way that continues allowing the current track of harm. No martyrdom here will work.

That is why so many things have been allowed to get so messed up. There’s no self-referential nor -checking mechanism for our systems. There’s no pause [wait, are we sure this is where we want to be?] function. And that is simply ridiculous. Ridiculous because it is simple, and it makes everything better and easier, regardless of where you’re wanting to go.

So what’s to be done? I can do small things, and so can you. Make sure the organizations you associate with, the social interactions you are a part of, and even your self have self-checking mechanisms. Meditate. Do not-project-focused gatherings where folk say, without fear of firing or abandonment, how they think things are going overall. Where you don’t have direct influence to make such things happen, find allies and work towards it together. And if you have the chance to talk to someone from the Other Side, be sure they can actually follow through on what they’re going for. Help them understand why it’s vital, and help get there, if you can.

So much love to all the folk who listened to me parse through this incessantly for the better part of a few weeks. Their hearts and minds are folded into this world view, and I could not be the person I am without them. You know who you are.

Postgeographic Sexuality and Hacker Pants

So I gave a talk at Arse Elektronika and here’s the prezi. I’m pretty damn proud of it.

Video streaming by Ustream
Thinking about the explicit nature of geek relationships (lulz) makes me think about the perception of geeks being socially inept. I don’t think it’s the case. People who tend to be geeks are incredibly cognizant of their interactions with people, pieces, and ideas. It’s that breaking systems means caring less for all the sections of those systems, and seeing the value in social niceties goes away with contempt for anti-intellectual culture.

Basically what I’m getting at is that I’m interested in geek sex. And not just in having it, but studying it! We had a fantastic conversation later in the day of Arse about Citizen Science for Sex Studies. I’m seriously considering doing a full-blown (again, lulz) sociological study on Hacker Pants. I’d want to know about disclosure, dark humor, consent, defining queer, gender roles, etc. What would you want to know about?