The liminal space where two or more culturescollide is often painfully obvious to those who are not part of the mainstream group and an invisible, unfelt line for those on the side with power. The edges where the two meet, or the quickness with which the dominant group’s demands, norms and laws slice into others is painfully familiar to those on the sharp side of the razor. Some of those holding the safety edge knowingly wield it for harm, some of them actively seek to dull its sharp edge or hand it over altogether, and some fool themselves into thinking that, because it’s not pointing at them it is no longer sharp.
In other words, those who experience hate, marginalization, and discrimination on a daily basis know it when they see it. It’s not surprising that groups like this are well aware of new forms of old exclusions, know how to look beyond a shiny wrapper to see what’s really in the box, and are well attuned to – and have adapted to – the pervasive ways that digital tools replicate the same power dynamics of the analog world.
Mainstream nonprofits struggling to understand how and why they must investigate the technology on which they depend for its “values fit” would do well to turn to such groups for guidance. Aboriginal archivists who’ve built customized, affordable, controllable digital systems that align with their communities “access controls” and information management systems know how to align software, hardware, and purpose. Political activists who live on the knife’s edge between mass organizing, community cohesion, and digital surveillance know how to pick, choose, use, and abandon off the shelf software to maximize their impact and mitigate the risks. Journalists trying to hold both governments and corporations accountable, even as their own livelihoods are being undermined by their digital policies and practices, find ways to network expertise, protect sources, share insights, and get their work paid for (sort of). We heard from several of these groups at Digital Impact: Brisbane, and learned that (some) are finding (some) ways to pay for it, mixing volunteer time, donated space and software and community donations. But none of those are structural or sustainable.
All of us who use off-the-shelf digital tools operating in these liminal space where our values and cultures intersect with and are persistently shaped by the value choices embedded in our software and hardware. Think of it this way - nothing that comes out of a tech company hasn't been designed within an inch of its life. Usually to persuade you to do something. Your software is shaping you.
This is as true for organizations as it is for us as people. Our nonprofits, foundations and associations extend from the board room to the software licenses we run on. Aligning the organizational mission with its tech stack and alleviating these internal values conflicts is in our own best interest.