Monday, December 21, 2020

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Who is deciding?

Alt Headline: Thoughts on Non-public digital infrastructure for civil society. (I've been hosting this conversation on Reclaiming Digital Infrastructure for the Public Interest - the following post explores an example of what happens when we don't do so)


I've been thinking for awhile about how nonprofits and giving are becoming "locked in" on commercial platforms. A lot of giving happens on software from Facebook or GoFundMe, nonprofits use a variety of corporate systems for managing their donations, and people use Venmo/Paypal etc. to move money between people and events. Each of those companies "owns" their aggregate data. For decades the sector has relied on analysis of of tax forms, survey data, and foundation reporting to see big trends in giving - these trends and data are useful to practitioners in the sector, researchers, and policy makers.

But these users don't have access to data from the companies. There are some efforts underway to change this - hats off to GivingTuesday's data commons and the work of the Fundraising Effectiveness Project (donor software working group). But, for the most part, we've privatized the data sources for tracking trends in the sector. 

So, nothing new there (though I think this needs to change, which would probably require regulatory action). But a couple of headlines today made me think there's something else going on also. 

Here are the headlines:

From NPQ:

It’s Almost November…Has Your Tax Exemption Been Revoked?

Got a Nonprofit Status Revocation Notice? Don’t Panic—The IRS Erred

From NBC News:

Tech platforms continue to let U.S.-based hate groups use them to make payments

Here's what I asked myself as was reading through those stories - "Wait a second, are we also privatizing the process of sanctioning certain kinds of organizations?" Registering nonprofit organizations and requiring certain reporting is one of the key ways that governments set the bounds of civil society. It is a mechanism tied to certain incentives (tax privileges), enables oversight, opens/closes funding opportunities, and can be used to tighten boundaries on civil society. Its one of the many manifestations of civil society as an artifact of government action. The headlines above made me realize that commercial platforms play an interesting set of roles in that function. 
The NBC News headline isn't the only sign of this phenomenon. Back in 2017, Cloudflare (a web hosting group) "deplatformed" the Daily Stormer, a Nazi website. Prior to that, in a different incident, Amazon, Paypal and Visa cut off payment services to Wikileaks. It's important to recognize both the infrastructural function that these companies are playing (web hosting, payment services) and the effects that their governance decisions have on the sector writ large. 


Friday, October 09, 2020

Digital Civil Society and Democracy: How we got here and where we need to go

I am delighted to be speaking in a master class for Columbia University's Nonprofit Management Masters Program. Join us on October 15 for this event:


Master Class | Digital Civil Society and Democracy: How We Got Here and Where We Need to Go

The Nonprofit Management Program at Columbia University School of Professional Studies is pleased to present the next Master Class in our Program's thought leadership and professional development series: "Digital Civil Society and Democracy: How We Got Here and Where We Need to Go" with featured guest Dr. Lucy Bernholz, a renowned expert, researcher, author, and lecturer on digital society and the nonprofit sector.

Over the last 20 years – and ever more so in the last seven months – people, nonprofits, and foundations have become dependent on commercially made and government-monitored digital systems for basic operations, communications, fundraising, program delivery, advocacy, organizing, and reporting. In so doing, we have enclosed civil society within the bounds of the marketplace and public sector, obliterating any meaningful sense of an independent sector. Digital threats to democracy run much deeper than digitally influenced elections and include the demise of independent civil society. Bernholz will describe how we got here and what we need to do to reclaim civil society and democracy.


You can sign up directly here

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Foundations and nonprofits need democracy. "Democracy" doesn't need them

 Here's the 5th article in the series I've written for the Chronicle of Philanthropy:

"What Now: The Philanthropic Future our Democracy Needs"

Foundations and nonprofits exist within a set of norms and laws unique to democracy. If democracy falls, if a vengeful, authoritarian government grows, those norms and rules will be under ever more threat. We see this around the world. We can see it coming in the US in laws and actions against protest and assembly, in the gutting of oversight bodies like the FEC and the IRS, and in the words and actions of the current administration.

Any nonprofit or foundation that looks at the upcoming election and doesn't see the current administration's very public attacks on journalism and protest as clear warning shots against civil society - against the nonprofit and philanthropic sector as the U.S. has known it - is blinding itself to the threats. 

Foundations and nonprofits need democracy in order for them to exist (at least as we've known them in the U.S). Protecting the rule of law and the right of existence of a nonprofit/foundation sector should be top of mind for these organizations. The legal and normative space for them will cease to exist if the current administration is given the opportunity to do so. 

Think I'm raising false flags?  Ask yourself this: Would Attorney General Barr and the Trump administration find a way to get rid of the ACLU if given the chance?



Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Toxic Tax Policies

 Toxic tax policies - part three of the five part series

Also read this

I've written a five-part series for the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Parts 1 -3 are posted as of today and can be found here:

Part One: Confronting Uncomfortable Truths

Part Two: Current Economic Crisis

Part Three: Dismantle toxic tax policies

Four and Five are coming in next few weeks. On October 1 there will be a video call you can join to discuss the ideas discussed. Information on that is available from the Chronicle.

You should also read, watch, and follow

This series draws from (and, I hope, builds on) the work of many activists, writers, filmmakers, and scholars. Many sources are hyperlinked in the series. Because there are no footnotes, I’ve created this list to help you find some of the people whose work goes before me.  Check my Twitter feed to see who I follow. I use the like button as a bookmark for people/things to learn about (though not always – no guarantees). 



Civic Hall’s First Post newsletter

Crystal Hayling, On the Precipice. Get In and Stay In. @CHayling

The Equitable Evaluation Framework from the Equitable Evaluation Initiative, @jdeancoffey and her work at Musings and Machinations.

HistPhil Blog, @HistPhil

Vu Le, NonprofitAF  @nonprofitaf

Public Books’ Newsletter @PublicBooks

Ethan Zuckerman, The Case For Digital Public Infrastructure, @ethanz


Movies/videos/podcasts, etc.

African American Policy Forum, Under the Blacklight series

Crip Camp, movie and resources. @CripCamp 

Intersectionality Matters with Kimberlé Crenshaw (podcast, includes video interviews from AAPF Under the Blacklight Series) @sandylocks

Hear to Slay, Roxanne Gay and Tressie McMillan Cottom, podcast, @rgay and @tressiemcphd

Philanthropy and Social Movements Podcast, class taught by Megan Ming Francis

Through The Night Film, by Loira Limbal, @DJLaylo


Recent Scholarship

Ruha Benjamin, Race after Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code, @ruha9

Andre Brock, Jr: Distributed Blackness: African American Cybercultures, @DocDre

Sasha Constanza-Chock, Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need @schock

Nick Estes, Our History is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance, @nickwestes 

Lina Khan, Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox, (not new, but critical), @linamkhan

Tressie McMillan Cottom,  LowerEd: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy (not new, but critical), @tressiemcphd

Alondra Nelson, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination, (not new, but critical), @alondra

Victor Ray, “Why So Many Organizations Stay White,” Harvard Business Review (Paywall temporarily removed), @victorerikray

Dorothy Roberts, Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics and Big Business Re-Create Race in the Twenty-first Century (2012, not new, but critical) @DorothyERoberts

Caroline Shenaz Hossein, Mutual aid and physical distancing are not new for Black and racialized minorities in the Americas, @carolinehossein

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership, @KeeangaYamahtta

Edgar Villenuava, Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance, @VillanuevaEdgar


Bibliographies and syllabi

Digital Civil Society Lab, Bibliography

HistPhil’s Bibliography,

Critical Race and Digital Studies Syllabus,

Philanthropy and Social Movements Syllabus (Megan Ming Francis)@meganfrancis

Thursday, September 03, 2020

Resetting philanthropy

Part two of my 5 part series in the Chronicle of Philanthropy is out - find it here

Part one ran last week - it's here


Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Uncomfortable truths

Everyone wants to know what lies ahead. My advice?  Get comfortable in the uncomfortable spaces, revisit assumptions, imagine better possibilities.

I've got a 5 part series in the Chronicle of Philanthropy - running over next several weeks with two opportunities to join me and others in conversation. First in series is here:

Hope you'll join us. It's our future. 


Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Integrated advocacy to save democracy

Nothing like sending everyone home to work to get some attention to digital dependencies.

Pleased to share this video interview with Independent Sector on the range of digital policies that matter to #nonprofits, #foundations, #political and #civic engagement. Take a look:

Here's the full report on Integrated Advocacy.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Mini observations on digital civil society as we're living it right now

I'm finding it difficult to focus and track time. From what I gather, so are many others. These are (simultaneously) problems of the fortunate, signs of grief, life-altering though not threatening, and opportunities.

These days I'm not just writing and teaching about digital civil society, I'm watching as people all around me come to realize they're living it everyday. Some things I'm seeing -

Video conferencing is rapidly morphing into distributed broadcasting - I've attended hosted interviews with authors, a discussion on public policy among African American scholars, a comedy show, and a city council meeting - all essentially broadcast on video conferencing software. Some were free, some were paid. All were more interactive (thanks to hosts, moderators, and chat functions) than simply watching television. Some of them used several screens (the broadcast, the chat function, social media) incredibly well - incorporating audience questions, weaving social media comments into the chat and responses from the panelists back out into social media spaces. Some foundations are getting into the act. I'm sure nonprofits are doing the same.

Teaching via video conferencing allows me to connect across classes, schools, and disciplines. I've taught two classes simultaneously via one video call. I'm sitting in on seminars at universities in other countries. Doing this is one thing; doing it well is another.

Video conference virtual backgrounds are the new protest "banner." See this from Stanford faculty senate meeting (Purple backgrounds were demands to pay contract workers)
My email inbox and snail mail inbox look like December - fundraising appeals are flooding in - some from nonprofit organizations and as many from bookstores, restaurants, cafes, and other local businesses (the ones that were supposed to get the Congressional money - which seems to be going mostly...elsewhere). Donation requests from commercial companies - please take note of this.

There is no bottom to how data-sucking companies will use this pandemic for their own ends - Palantir has been awarded federal contact tracing contracts, Facebook is making "grants" that claim all the "grantees" data, and "contact tracing" apps are a scourge of this scourge.

Meaningful community organizing is really hard under shelter-in-place conditions. Governments are using the pandemic as an excuse to ban gatherings. How we come together for political and civic action during and after this is of critical importance - and being invented in real time now. It's not just about protest and organizing - it's all of civic and political gathering. Micah Sifry is thinking about this; we're working on it the DCSL; join us.

There's hope in human networks of care. 

Thursday, April 02, 2020

Your landlord is listening

By now you've probably seen at least some of the news about Zoom, the video conferencing program that has quickly become a verb, is full of security and privacy risks. It is sharing/leaking data to other companies (Facebook), being investigated by Congress and Attorneys General, not really end-to-end encrypted, and so on. It's also become a home for "networked harassment," as Joan Donovan puts it - zoombombing by racists, sexists, and other creeps (insert stronger word here).

You, who may have spent the last 21 days living on Zoom - for work, play, family, and exercise - may feel like putting your head down in resignation at this news. (Go ahead, I'll wait).

But we can also use this to really understand what it means to be digitally dependent. You've heard me refer to our digital technologies - the software, hardware, and telecomm choices we make - as our new landlords. We "rent" space from them and they set the rules. We "rent" space from them for our emails, our text messages, our video calls, our cloud storage, our shared documents, all of it. And, let's be really clear, unlike our landlords in physical space, the space we rent from our digital landlords is all open-floor plan and the landlord sits in on every meeting, taking notes that he keeps for himself (and uses for his own purposes).

With that image in your mind, your best bet for protecting the information you care about from your digital landlords is to assume they are listening, taking notes, and profiting from those notes. In the real world, if you could see your landlord sitting there at every meeting and on every call, you'd adjust your conversations accordingly. In the short term - the same is true with your digital landlords.  

In the bigger picture, you can follow, support, and get involved with your civil society peers who monitor the digital landlords and keep the pressure on them and regulators to change the way these tools work. That's digital civil society in action. 

For more on zoom see this from Joan Donovan, these from doc searls, and there's been good media coverage from Vice, the Verge, The Intercept.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Digital civil society's dependencies come into stark view

I've been arguing for several years now that civil society is dependent on digital systems, which are not neutral, designed with civil society in mind, or inately democratizing. Our dependence on digitized data, commercial software and hardware, and global communications networks lays bare the fallacy that nonprofits/foundations, donations of money, community organizations, political activism, informal associational life, mutual aid networks, kinship care - any of the activities that take place in civil society - are independent from market or government forces. Not only are they not independent, they're entirely dependent.

Those dependencies change the nature and boundaries of civil society, require us to revisit old assumptions (such as the idea that the sector is independent from markets or governments), and we need to build new technology, organizational practices, and attend to a different set of policy domains in this dependent stage.

This is the entire premise of the Digital Civil Society Lab.

This has become painfully clear to millions of people in the last weeks as they've tried to work remotely.  The first step to doing so - after caring for family and finding a place and time to sit down - is to figure out how to get the tech to work. Whether it's using conference calling software safely, figuring out where the "mute" button is, accessing the office server, using work email on your own phone, getting hot spots and functioning laptops to your staff - chances are you've been dealing with "work tech" lately in ways that make it painfully clear: your work depends on digital systems.

As the authors here put it,
"The pandemic also lays bare the many vulnerabilities created by society’s dependence on the internet. These include the dangerous consequences of censorship, the constantly morphing spread of disinformation, supply chain vulnerabilities and the risks of weak cybersecurity." 
 Laura DeNardis, one of the authors of that article, has a book called The Internet In Everything.

That's another way of saying civil society is digital civil society.

We've written about the new kinds of policy advocacy that digital civil society demands.

We're working with partners across California to help with nonprofit's organizational capacity needs that start from these digital dependencies.

We're amplifying and hope to partner with others doing similar work.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Covid buzzwords

Flatten the curve

Shelter in place

Mutual aid




Physical distancing, social solidarity



The list just goes on and on. On the one hand, these terms don't seem to have anything to do with philanthropy or digital civil society, the topics of this blog. On the other hand, they have everything to do with those topics.

Wishing you health, care, and connection. 

Friday, March 20, 2020

Many things old are new again

A rebirth of mutual aid. Phone trees. Grocery pick-ups for your neighbors. Pooled funds for loans to cover unexpected expenses. Sharing physical goods within communities.

Many things that defined philanthropy before it became a formalized, industry unto itself (early 1900s in the U.S.A.) are coming back into fashion.

This list from Allied Media Projects has some Michigan-based examples of mutual aid.

Here's a list of collective care opportunities.

On March 1 I delivered a manuscript to my publisher called How We Give Now. In it, I noted the signs of this kind of rebirth - so it's amazing to see this happen at such scale in a short few weeks. But all the signs were there - connectivity, familiarity with direct giving (due to crowdfunding), cultural traditions of mutual aid that never went away, they only stopped being seen by the formal "counters" of philanthropy.

The manuscript also notes how exclusionary (discriminatory? racist?) our current built system of tax policies for nonprofits and philanthropy is - the legal and tax incentives that define the "nonprofit sector" in the U.S. have always privileged wealthy, white, Judeo-Christian norms and practices - and we've counted those behaviors as if they were the whole of giving. They never have been and they're not now. It's good to see long-called for changes like a universal charitable tax deduction finally getting attention, although no one wants a crisis to be the reason.

This policy change would be more inclusive than what we have, but it is still lacking in both imagination and consideration of how we give. It still assumes that "philanthropy" is about giving money to a privileged type of organization and that our giving is shaped by tax incentives (after Trump's 2017 tax giveaway the percentage of people who itemize their tax returns - and thus benefit from tax deductions - dropped from about 25% to less than 10% of tax filers. In other words, current tax deduction policy does not matter to more than 90% of Americans)

Mutual aid and direct giving are two very visible signs that the assumptions driving public policy change are not based in an understanding of how we give now. Consider policy ideas to boost giving that started from where a lot of it happens - online - and build from there. Privacy laws and protection from fraud. Broadband access. Encryption. Consumer data protection. Control over who sees what we're doing and with whom. These are the kinds of policy domains that matter to how people give using payment apps, donate now buttons, online platforms. 

In the summer and fall of 2019, as I was writing the 2020 Blueprint, I made two predictions. One was that the year would bring a global recession. The second was that said recession would reveal the fragility of our built institutions, including nonprofits and foundations. That fragility has been hidden by a multi-year story that conflates a booming stock market and gross corporate profits with the lived economy of people.  New institutions will emerge, but the transition will be bumpy. I'm sad how right I was on the first; we'll see if I am correct on the second.

The global health crisis we're now in is going to peel away many such vanities. Buried in this crisis is the opportunity to re-examine what we need from civil society and philanthropy and how we get it. What do we need in order to be able to voluntarily connect and use our private resources (digital and analog) for public benefit? How will we control our associational choices in an age of platform dominance (which already has done so much damage to our control of expressive and private spaces?) It's time for first principles; time to ask ourselves about the basics of civil society, aid, altruism, philanthropy, democracy; back to our assumptions about participation and membership and equity and justice.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

We all live in digital civil society

Italians singing from their balconies.

Spaniards doing calisthenics, led by one trainer on rooftop.

Peruvians thanking doctors - and me watching it in California.

Penguins walking down stairs in an empty (of humans) aquarium

Virtual museum tours

People sending cash directly to strangers in need, via their phones.

Governments expanding their surveillance capabilities under the guise of public health, but neatly omitting any plans to "turn it off" when situations change.

Online class recommendations about racist robots, shared from one faculty to another. 

Global, distributed professionals who work for every kind of firm from commercial to nonprofit, universities to tech firms, independent contractors and professional service providers suddenly all dependent on one single digital platform (zoom) all day, every day, effectively bringing much of the data on their phones and laptops onto one company's servers (and no, you didn't read the privacy policies). Yep, you're working in zoom's world now; your data is theirs, your chat and conversations and data - theirs.

A social media connected world without human content moderation.

Gaslighting everyday, from every direction, ignoring the digital video and audio archive and preparing to call it all "deep fakes."

Deep fakes.

Friends telling stories over video chat to their neighbors' children to give the parents a wee break.

Churches using sms to deliver sermons; while volunteers stand in the street to feed the hungry.

We all live in digital civil society now. We have been for years, but it's taken many people a long time to catch on. In January, the Digital Civil Society Lab released a report about how this is true, why it matters and what to do about it. why public policy on the digital environment - from rights to automated decision making, AI to biometrics, broadband access to zero rating - were the policy domains that matter to civil society now. Those rules shape, bound, govern, and disenfranchise us as people when we try to come together to do things for the public good. Those rules shape how philanthropy works, where nonprofit data lives, who can protest and who cannot. There is no civil society without digital rights.

Digital policy and practice shapes civic space.

Get involved. Your relationships, your neighbors, your community, and, yes, your democracy (if you have one) depend on it.

Time warp plus whiplash = timelash?

I'll get back to writing...soon.

On March 1, 2020,  I  delivered a manuscript to a publisher for a book called How We Give Now. It is scheduled to be on bookshelves in Fall 2021. So, I've been in a time warp for some time. Ask yourself this question - how will we be giving a year from now? and then try to write a book about it now. It's a whiplash in time. Amazingly enough, chapter 10 of the eleven chapters is a thought experiment on giving in disasters - guiding people through the plusses and minuses of all the ways we give our time, money, and data. (I'll no doubt be updating that chapter when the manuscript comes back from peer review).

These moments, with rapidly changing information and intensity of emotions, spark familiar feelings, fears and anxieties for many of us, and are brand new for some. Some people are functioning well now, others aren't; and we are likely to change places on that spectrum many times in coming days and weeks.

So, here are a few wonderful crowdsourced resources for nonprofits, virtual work, and tech that I have found and wanted to share.

Hats off to those who are curating these, thank you. Feel free to suggest others.

Many things nonprofit-related:

From Beth Kanter, Janet Fouts, Linda Baker, Sarah Goddard, Susan Tenby, Wendy Harman, Meico Marquette Whitlock, Barbara O’Reilly, Jessie Mooberry, Farra Trompeter

Virtual meeting facilitation from Beth Kanter

Digital tools for churches:

Coronavirus tech handbook: 

Nonprofit finance book (NFF)

Fundraiser Sarah's tips

Ontario Nonprofit Network

 Please, take care of yourselves, your loved ones and your communities. If you can help someone today, do it. Stay physically distant but socially connected.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

A letter that made me feel better....

Professors Rob Reich, Mehran Sahami, Jeremy Weinstein, along with Hilary Cohen and Mohit Mookim, sent the following letter to students last week. Posted by permission.
The crisis that is unfolding around the world with the coronavirus pandemic is frightening. And it appears likely that things will become worse before they get better.

We can only compare the mood of anxiety and uncertainty to what we experienced on 9/11 and during the financial meltdown of 2008. It is the sort of event that has enormous consequences for politics and economics, some that we can see plainly and others that we cannot yet anticipate. It is also the sort of event that etches itself into individual and collective memory. These coming months will be a defining feature of your life’s story and of our societies. In the future we will talk about the Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020.

None of us has any expertise to offer on the science of coronavirus or appropriate public health measures. We will not pretend to offer anything useful beyond reinforcing the importance of social distancing and handwashing.

But we need not have any expertise in those domains to offer other kinds of advice. The kind of advice drawn from having lived through other defining events like 9/11 or 2008, and possibly – though only possibly – having a bit of wisdom as a result.

First, the urgent measures necessary to mitigate the effects of coronavirus, and thereby to save lives, will likely generate much turmoil, confusion, and anxiety in the coming weeks. Perhaps months. Planning for the short term future suddenly is very difficult. Will classes resume in person at all? Will commencement happen? If I leave campus, when will I see my friends again? Will I even be permitted to travel?

The answers are unknown. A great many things are beyond our control. We like to remind ourselves that, if this is our first time feeling this sense of loss of agency in our lives, we must consider ourselves lucky — multitudes of people around the globe have to deal with an inability to plan for the future frequently throughout their lives.

Still, it’s important to remember what is in our control. Yes, that means strict personal hygiene, handwashing, and social distancing. But just as important is ordinary kindness for each other and for strangers. Simple gestures of kindness and friendship are always important, and they are even more so during crises.

It is a wicked irony that you can best serve the wider community, and practice empathy for vulnerable people, by reducing your contact with the wider community. The most pro-social thing to do right now is to practice social distancing.

And yet you can make an effort to reach out to people around you and check in to see how they’re doing, how their friends and family are doing, and whether they need any help. If they need help, try to organize help for them.

Second, in that spirit, we recognize that the current situation imposes many hardships on students, especially on those with family members directly affected by coronavirus, those who face financial difficulties as a result of the crisis, and those who have no safe place to go other than perhaps their campus housing. This is a time of heightened stress, and people respond to stress in many different ways – from diving into work to decision paralysis – all of which are normal. And when stress is combined with feelings of isolation and actual social distance and self-isolation, everything is worse.

We strongly encourage you to reach out, virtually, to your closest friends and loved ones. Invest in the communities to which you belong—bring whatever energy you can to them and let them, in turn, be a source of inspiration to you.

We are currently working on several approaches to engaging the Stanford community to assist. One resource that the Stanford community has already developed is this “Community Offerings” spreadsheet (link removed for blog post). In the meantime, share with relevant university leaders any urgent issues concerning the university’s crisis response.

Third, and finally, we have a practical suggestion for you. This is a nearly unprecedented crisis at Stanford and across the country and the entire world. It will be studied in the future by historians, scientists, economists, public policy makers, and more. And as we said at the start, it will be a defining experience of your life.

In that spirit, assuming that you and your loved ones are personally safe and healthy, we encourage you to document your own experience of these days in writing. We are inspired by this tweet from a Yale colleague, Nicholas Christakis:

“If I were a college president & was closing school for a once-in-a-century reason, in order to help build campus community & curate a historical archive, I would set up a system so students could record their experiences, as a kind of individual and collective diary. #PlagueYears”

Start writing today. And if you’re a builder and would like to volunteer to help make a system to facilitate this shared documentation and reflection on a wider scale, contact us.

We close with a reflection on crisis, by Harvard classics and philosophy professor Danielle Allen, who delivered her words as a speech at the University of Chicago on September 12, 2001.

Take care of yourselves and of each other.
I am glad I know the authors of this letter and grateful they agreed to let me post it. I hope it helps you, also. Please take care of yourselves, your loved ones and your community. If you can do something to help someone, please do. 

Thursday, March 05, 2020

Why “Blank for Good" is Bad (UPDATED)

IMPORTANT UPDATE: Please read this response and thread and my apologies for first using logo without permission. I very much appreciate having this broader perspective brought forth from @CassieRobinson, Stefaan Verhulst and others.

Original post
Since we started the Digital Civil Society Lab I’ve been invited to countless conferences, workshops, and philanthropic or corporate launches of “some kind of tech” for “some kind of good.”

I always say no.  I refer to it as the no "blank for good” rule. The framing is entirely wrong. And it’s not just a little wrong; it’s a lot wrong. Everything about it, from the grammar to the implications for humanity is wrong. And industry’s recent responses – a thousand conferences and initiatives to put ethics into tech – gets the grammar right, but the solution is still wrong.

Here’s a short list of reasons why I ask you to reconsider your tech/data/machine learning/cloud/AI or other technology/computational effort for social good, organized from snarky to serious (and back to snarky):

1)    First of all, enough with the “good” language. If you’re not even willing to do the work of defining what you mean by good, of understanding the specific challenges and strengths of civil society or the public sector or providing a real definition of “good,” then stop right there. There is no universal definition of good. This phrasing is hollow marketing rhetoric for selling a product (perhaps at reduced rates) to civil society or public sector agencies.

2)   Repurposing a technology built for commercial purposes (and that’s what the blanks almost always are) into civil society or public sector work ignores that those other domains have fundamentally different values and purpose – of equal importance to, but different from - commerce. Selling ads and providing justice are two entirely different domains, inside and outside of the algorithm. You can’t simply transfer a tool or way of working designed for commercial purposes to the other systems and not cause harm.

3)   Another level of #2 above: Context matters. In addition to mattering IN AND OF itself, the context of civil society or public service shapes the values, incentives, purposes, motivations, participants, affected populations, and cost-benefit analyses of those sectors. Ignore it, and you get a public sphere full of lies and propaganda, “efficient” decision making systems that amplify racism, procedural approaches that trade fairness for scale, “security” systems that make people less safe, and accelerators for injustice.

4)   Commercial technologies prioritize scale and efficiency. Those values rank below justice, equity, truth, participation, a healthy environment, beauty, deliberation, and MANY other priorities in civil society and the public sector. What commercial applications call externalities, civil society and the public sector exist to address.

5)   The lack of universality in terms of what “good” means applies to ethics, also. There is no universal ethical frame. No “ethics” you can pull down off a shelf and wash over your existing organizational (usually commercial) priorities. A commitment to ethics is a commitment to discuss, debate, decide and enforce a set of values, purpose, conflict, tradeoffs, and loss. A debate about values and implications and choices and bad outcomes and structural recourse for those who are harmed (groups, societies, communities, collectives – not only individuals). Consequences matter – internal and external. If you’re not willing to go there; well then, it’s marketing.

6)   I think the focus on “ethics” in tech has largely become anti-regulatory rhetoric (especially when used within companies). Ethics matter – but they must be specified, debated over, deeply integrated into the people, incentives, and structures of an enterprise, and learned and practiced throughout one’s lifetime. They don’t come on/off like clean room booties. And one officer or office of ethics inside billion-dollar companies? Not enough.

7)     (A return to snark) The framing of “blank for good” is much more honest than its users realize because it doesn’t just imply, it basically declares, that every other use of the “blank” is for, shall we say, not good?

Simply from a grammatical standpoint, it’s a “subject object” problem – but of course, it’s much more than grammar. It’s not that civil society and democratic systems need tech, it’s that tech (and all of the derivate disciplines noted above) needs to be purpose-built for humane values, a commitment to just use, and we need publicly-determined redress and braking systems. There are some things we just should not do.  We need to flip the script; change the subject and object of the phrase. The opportunity cost of not doing so are more hollow promises, more handwaving distractions, and more digital corporate capture and damage to our already deeply broken governing systems and communities.

As public awareness has grown about surveillance, bias, power asymmetries, lack of accountability or due process, and opacity in the digital systems we depend on, we’ve spent the last few years having conversations about ethics in tech. For all the reasons I outline above this is not sufficient. We need to reverse the subject (tech) and the object (good) to be about teaching, designing, building, releasing, and being able to put societal values and just procedures into tech, not putting tech into “good.”

Here are some examples of what we need: Antiracism in AI. Justice in data. Equity in the cloud. Information symmetry in social media/search. Financial resources to support vulnerable people in designing, directing, and governing systems that serve their needs; where communities are  recognized as powerful actors whose needs can stop tech that furthers inequities, is impoverishing to communities and the planet, sacrifices safety, prioritizes individual wealth accumulation over people’s needs, or enables racism, misogyny, hate, and domination.

Please, invite me to the launch of those initiatives, conferences, and philanthropic efforts. I’ll be there;  I have a lot to learn.