Digital Platforms Are Not Neutral: Actions
At MCN 2020 I had the opportunity to present my thoughts on actions we could take to curb the exploitation of our data privacy and the impact of persuasive technology. I presented my thoughts within a framework I got from the MASS Action Toolkit—Awareness, Acceptance, and Action. I suggested following this framework so that any action we take is grounded in the root issues of the problems we’re addressing, with the hope that our action will be sustained long into the future.
It’s important that we first and foremost understand the history of capitalism. The history of capitalism is the history of racism, classism, sexism, and all forms of systemic oppression because capitalism has always put profits over people. The exploitative patterns we’re seeing in tech are rooted in the foundations of capitalism, and can trace their roots to these same histories. For example, when we talk about surveillance we can look to the panopticon and the increasingly militarized police states many of us find ourselves living in which is can trace its roots to the survilleince of enslaved people. When we consider information being manipulated for the purpose of persuasion we can look back to treaties with Indigenous nations, an exploitative history going back hundreds of years. Captialist exploitation defines the foundations of modern society and the tech world we operate in.
Coming specifically to tech issues, resources for increasing our awareness include:
- Electronic Frontier Foundation – eff.org
- Free Software Foundation – fsf.org
Both orgs have been around for 30 years and have a long history of advocating for safer, more just tech. Sign up to their email lists to stay in touch with their activities. It’s also important that those of us in museum tech stay in tune with the tech world more broadly. One list I’ve found useful is TechMeme, a daily email that summarized headlines and responses regarding privacy and security as well as more popular news like big Apple announcements.
From here it’s important that we accept a basic reality: surveillance allows platforms to sell their ability to convince us. Big tech is quite simply a set of businesses built on their ability to convince us of things—whether it’s things to buy or people to vote for. The harvesting of things like our location data, our communications with each other, the things we like, facial recognition, their partnerships with enforcement agencies, and the eroding of net neutrality all work together to weave a thick fabric meant to maintain an oppressive status quo. As LaTanya Autry said in her session at MCN last week: Normal is broken. Normal is oppressive. Normal hurts.
We must acknowledge that our participation in platforms and technologies—or our non-participation—matters, however minuscule we may feel our impact might have.
I suggest gathering and sharing resources as much as possible. Find two people in your organization who share a similar interest, curiosity or sensibility as you, signup to the newsletters I linked above, and meet every two weeks to talk about what you’re learning. Then as you’re learning, take action together. Set yourself up so you’re not engaging in this work alone.
Coming back to the foundations of capitalism, we must center all our action in the demand to put people over profits. Research the issues and participate in existing campaigns. EFF has an action center where you can see all their existing campaigns. FSF currently had a campaign on surveillance.
Some of the campaigns ask us to contact your representatives. Do it! It’s been shown that the most effective forms of contact are to send handwritten postcards, making calls and making in-person visits (or video-conference during the pandemic). Take the two people you created a crew with and set up an in-person meeting with your reps. Much tech legislation can easily fall off of our reps’ radars as it can be hyper specific to a context they may not be familiar with. We can wear our educational-institution hats and play an important role in helping our reps understand the importance of these policies. If you’re anxious about engaging in this way due to your org being a 501(c)(3), check out this Ignite talk by Claire Blechman to dispel any anxieties you might have.
Define your data collection and retention policies. Many of our teams may have unspoken policies, which are still policies. Take a moment to articulate them in writing. This exercise helps us to be really clear with ourselves on what our policies are, and gives us the opportunity to make sure everyone on our team is on the same page. Once you’ve written them out, review them with your team regularly to ensure you’re on the same page.
Then ask your vendors what their policies are. If their policies are not aligned with yours, ask them to change their policies. If you encounter resistance, talk to other customers and organize to push for change. For smaller vendors this can be effective. For larger platforms, we’ll need to rely on larger campaigns like the ones I outlined above.
Coming to actions that are more individual, the Data Detox Kit has a huge number of suggestions we can take. Look them over and talk to your friends and families about doing these with you. I’ve started sharing one suggestion at a time with my non-tech friends so I can serve as tech support for them if needed. Some of their suggestions include:
- Turn off location services on all your apps
- Delete apps you don’t use every day. You can always reinstall when you need them
- Set duckduckgo as your default search engine on your desktop and mobile devices
- Do all your browsing in private or incognito windows
I’m grateful for the opportunity to present on the panel discussion with some amazingly talented and smart colleagues in the museum tech field including Sarah Wambold, Dana Allen-Greil, Marty Spellerberg, Matt Popke, and MCN Execute Director Eric Longo. And thanks to the work of LaTanya Autry and Mike Murawski for their work on the #MuseumsAreNotNeutral campaign that inspired the name of our talk.
We compiled a list of additional resources as well, if you’re interested in digging in and learning more about these issues.