Backbone 409

User control: Crypto for the masses?!

Keywords: empowerment, specialisation, service provision, DIY, relationship with users

Summary: At this roundtable we will discuss the role of the techno-activist within social movements. If the technology that we work on is not widely adopted, how does it help the movement? How can we balance the need for strong cryptographic tools with the goal of widespread adoption and usability? On the other hand, how do we balance the need for ready-and-easy-to-use solutions with the will to share our skills and make our users more autonomous? Do we want to be only service providers?

A long standing discussion from the time of Indymedia is whether media activists and techno-activists provide a service to the movement or they are part of the movement. Theoretically, we don't think of ourselves differently than other activists who work on environmental issues, feminism, anti-fascism, or housing. In practice, however, there is increasingly a divide between the life of techno-activists and other people in the movement. Ideally, techno-activists are integrated into the movement and take part in demonstrations, actions and assemblies. Nonetheless, technical skills and interests — or the lack of it — divide users from political minded hackers.

Last year Dymaxion from the Briar Project told hackers at Noisysquare 1 that the most we can do to really intervene in contemporary techno-politics is to build software people actually use. Her declaration that user adoption matters more than the correctness of the crypto ("we fix them later") received wide applause. The critique was directed against a movement of self-absorbed engineers. She pointed out that it is harder to make a widely used software than a well implemented one. Yet, all that conventional companies do to achieve mass adoption is practically missing from most free software projects: user experience design, marketing, business models, etc. But is this the kind of professionalism we really need?

In a somewhat similar vein, darkveggy asked activist administrators the question in 2006 2: "what was the last time they logged in to the webmail interface they provide for users?" Indeed, now many local techno-activists use default settings on their machines just so they can more effectively discover interface problems, support users, etc. Such tactics emphasise a different approach from the business-minded solutions to the problem which were mentioned above. Instead of researching our users and marketing for them, we live, breath and struggle with our users. While this is a politically appealing idea, the question is if it can scale?

Spideralex from Calafou recently offered the vision of technological sovereignty 3 which can be applied to the idea of a wider network of solidarity between communities of various specialisations. The concept is derived from food sovereignty: the power of communities to choose a biologically and culturally appropriate source of nourishment for themselves, including having a say in how and where it is manufactured. The thrust of such demands is to empower communities to drive "development" — indeed, maybe something to consider for software and services too.

  1. See the transcript of the talk. ↩

  2. At the Peoples' Global Action (PGA), European gathering, 2006 Dijon. PGA was a major alterglobalisation solidarity and coordination network. The gathering in question included a Digital Struggles track. ↩

  3. Dossier on Technological Sovereignty, Introduction. Haché, Alexandra, ed. 2014. Technological Sovereignty. Paris: Association Ritimo. Available in French and Spanish. ↩