Digital Democracy: getting started

It’s all too easy for anything ‘digital’ to turn into tech training – the how, not the why – so people can ‘participate’ in an increasingly digital society, but notions of democracy require more.

We need to be able to make informed choices, and to be able to engage with the increasingly rapid influx of seemingly incomprehensible technologies that all too often reduce us to data for others to use.

How do we break through the tech barriers and begin to demand human scale answers about what technological ‘progress’ means for us and the societies we live in?

The questions are the same as they always were – questions about power and control, about who benefits and who loses – but how do we begin to take control from the few, who are rapidly reshaping every aspect of our landscape, and find our own ways take direct action on the things that matter to us?

The Digital Democracy Strand of the Hatpins to Hashtags project will include experiments with a variety of online software in closed and supportive environments, to make it easy to get things wrong – to learn, fail, delete and repeat – but the focus will be on mapping the territory, to make it more possible to make informed choices and take direct action.

The decisions behind software configuration need to become more visible, more open for debate and challenge, and this blog is the beginning of my commitment to sharing the thinking behind the decisions I have already made and will continue to make, so all project participants can share in the ongoing decision-making process for the Digital Democracy Strand if they so chose.

The slides below are from the first Hatpins to Hashtags volunteers meeting in Bristol on 5th June 2018.

From Hatpins to Hashtags: Digital Democracy

Tech is political at so many levels and the software we use determines what is possible. Every piece of software reflects a series of choices, from initial specifications to the code used and the following quotes from 'The Computer Boys Take Over' give an indication of the scale of the issues that need to be understood outside the software industry.

Slide: Tech is political

Software for public use is typically sold on the basis it’s easy to use, but the easier it is the greater the number of decisions that have already been made. The more invisible the build process, the less we understand what other choices could have been made.

Slide: Beyond theory and the lure of easy access

Sadly, it is really hard to resist the lure of ‘easy’ software, because there is so much knowledge that is invisible and inaccessible. Unless you’re a tech insider, this makes it almost impossible to find out what you don’t know you don’t know. So maybe we need to start by mapping what we don’t know.

Slide: Mapping what we need to know

So, what to do about it? If we go back to the quotes from ‘Computer Boys Take Over’ there is a lot of ground to cover. To make it possible to make informed choices, we need to develop conceptual frameworks that connect the dots across the barriers between idea, language technology and practice’.

Slide: Connecting theory and practice

It isn’t about becoming an expert, and there’s no right approach. The territory is too vast, and changes are happening far too rapidly. I don’t have a background in tech, and for me the journey started with projects I wanted to make happen. It was about starting somewhere then seeing how far I could get, and there were two concepts I came across on route that made a lot of sense to me. The first was rhizomatic learning.

Slide: Starting somewhere - rhizomatic learning

The second was wild experiments. Together they changed my sense of what I was trying to do from inadequate to legitimate, and together they form the conceptual framework for much of the Digital Democracy Strand.

Slide:  Experimenting widely and wildly

There are many ways to get involved. As an archive, it seems only right we should build collections and so we’ll start to collect information on some of the areas that are invisible to us. In practice this means all volunteers will be able to join the Hatpins to Hashtags online community, help to decide what we should collect and help to research and publish the findings on the project website. We’ll also look how decisions about content and community membership should be made, and how the online community should be managed.

Slide: Opportunities to get involved

With participatory, collaborative software, we’ll form groups and agree times to experiment remotely, together – and these are just a few of the platforms we might experiment with.

Slide: Examples of participatory and collaborative software

To read about the approach to establishing the initial Hatpins to Hashtags community, see Setting up collaborative online communications.