My latest Locus column, “Techno-optimism,” looks at how technology has shaped global struggles for self-determination, democratic government and justice, and asks whether, on balance, technology will make the world freer and better or more repressive and worse:
The convenience of privacy-unfriendly social-network technologies from Friendster to Facebook has made them tempting platforms for use in organizing activist causes. Those of us who care about the underlying tools used in causes have railed against their use for the whole time, with moderate success. But our Bug #1 is still open – activists, even technologically savvy ones who should know better – still reach for proprietary, unencrypted, non-private technology, citing the difficulty of using the alternatives.
They’ve got a point: right now, it’s harder to organize a cause without using surveillance-friendly technology than it is to create another Facebook group. It falls to techno-optimists to do two things: first, improve the alternatives and; second, to better articulate the risks of using unsuitable tools in hostile environments. There are high-risk contexts – repressive, bloodthirsty regimes – in which it is literally better to do nothing than to put activists at risk by using tools that make it easy for the secret police to do their awful work.
Herein lies the difference between a ‘‘technology activist’’ and ‘‘an activist who uses technology’’ – the former prioritizes tools that are safe for their users; the latter prioritizes tools that accomplish some activist goal. The trick for technology activists is to help activists who use technology to appreciate the hidden risks and help them find or make better tools. That is, to be pessimists and optimists: without expert collaboration, activists might put themselves at risk with poor technology choices; with collaboration, activists can use technology to outmaneuver autocrats, totalitarians, and thugs.