#PDF16: The Tech We Need

Workshop on "build with, not for" civic tech at Personal Democracy Forum 2015

Workshop on “Build With, Not For” civic tech at Personal Democracy Forum 2015

The theme of Personal Democracy Forum 2016, our thirteenth annual gathering, is The Tech We Need.

From our neighborhoods and our cities, to our governments, our society and our environment—all of them need our help. But technology, as the historian Melvin Kranzberg memorably put it, is neither good nor bad in how it affects our world. Nor is it neutral. So we are going to come at this question of The Tech We Need from several inter-related angles, including looking at what we don’t need, and whether what we need is something beyond what we ordinarily think of as “tech.”

Here’s a taste of what to expect from this year’s plenary program, with some examples drawn from our exciting array of main hall keynoters.

All human activity starts with intention and capacity. What do we decide to pay attention to and why? How much capacity do we have for action? What enables us? What constrains us? Today’s connection technologies are radically changing how we personally and collectively attend to what matters, but they do so in the context of older structures, some good and some bad. For Sherry Turkle, an esteemed keynote speaker who is making her first appearance at PDF, the issue is how today’s communications tools are not just altering what we pay attention to, but also the danger that they are undermining our capacity for empathy. She’ll offer a clear warning about the risks of believing that we can code our machines to solve for feelings. For danah boyd, a keynoter we’re excited to be welcoming back to the PDF stage, the issue is understanding the hidden trade-offs at work as we race ahead to adopt new technologies without unpacking their environmental, societal and political consequences. For Alicia Garza, one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter, who we are thrilled to be welcoming to PDF, the larger issue to focus on is what it means to be a full participant in democracy, and whether we agree about what we mean by democracy.

Creative human activity also requires freedom, the freedom to express ourselves and the freedom to connect in common purpose. Today’s connection technologies are radically amplifying the power of small and large groups alike, sometimes with liberating effects, but also with new, unintended and undesirable consequences. Is our ability to speak and to organize changed when we lack privacy? In an age of ubiquitous social media, is it better to be so visible? What about the ways that today’s technologies are reinforcing domination? Anil Dash of ThinkUp and Yvette Alberdingk Thijm of Witness both have long experience with the paradoxical power of online amplification. Their talks will explore the often-ignored human side of using the internet to challenge injustice. Privacy researcher Kate Crawford of Microsoft will cover how tech designers are just beginning to bake security into their tools, while technologist and documentary-maker Josh Klein will report on the chilling ways that China’s government is using social media to foster social control. Esra’a Al-Shafei of Majal.org will share her organization’s hard-won experience of building locally-resonant tech for human rights work in the Middle East, rather than relying on imported solutions. Hossein Derakshan, who helped kickstart the rise of blogging in Iran, was in prison as social networking overtook the open web. Now free again, he’s asking hard questions about whether we’ve lost the web we need. Safira Noble, a rising scholar at UCLA, will challenge our reliance on algorithms that organize our information but also subtly reinforce old patterns of oppression.

Thanks to today’s technologies, it has obviously become much easier to participate in the public conversation. But more and more, we seem to be overloaded by inputs and whipsawed by spectacles. What tools and practices can make us better at large-scale community coordination? Can we design tech that spurs more empathy and less polarization? Can our organizations learn to make use of tech in ways that are more inclusive and productive? Thankfully, we are starting to see a bumper crop of promising new tools and platforms emerging that are answering these questions in innovative ways. We’ll hear from Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian democracy activist who started Parlio, a platform for civil discussion online; Perry Rosenstein of Hustle, the text-based mobilization tool that is quietly powering all of the presidential campaigns; Amanda Rose, the founder of Twestival who has now built Timecounts to help volunteers self-organize more easily; Andrew Konya, the founder of Remesh, a mass conversation tool; and neuroscientist Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, who will share insights from brain science into how we better channel our attention productively. Turning to the challenge of how techies actually work themselves, digital strategist Alia McKee will explore what we have to do to be self-sustaining, and for everyone who is struggling to figure out how to better integrate tech inside their organizations, Sam Dorman, an advisor to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Alliance and Greenpeace, will share some powerful insights on how digital teams can work best.

The tech we need is also about the tech that helps us become a collective “we” more effectively. At one level this is tech that makes our government work better, since government is the central vehicle that enables “we the people” to achieve common goods. Here, speakers like Robin Carnahan of 18F, Ron Bouganim of the Govtech Fund, and Kristin Soltis Anderson of Echelon Insights, will offer talks focused on why the basic process of modernizing government services for the digital age is such a critical issue, from wherever you sit on the political spectrum. Stacy Donohue of the Omidyar Network will share fresh findings on the state of civic tech, while tech critic Kentaro Toyama will offer some sobering warnings about why the best laid plans of tech-powered reformers often go awry.

Of course, we come together in more ways than just as clients of government. We are also active participants in discussing and changing the priorities of public action. That’s where the role of tech in campaigns and movements—a longstanding theme of PDF—will be engaged by talks from the likes of Zack Exley, a national organizing advisor to the Bernie Sanders campaign; Mariana Ruiz Firmat and Jackie Mahendra of the Kairos Project, which is training a new generation of campaigners of color; Erin Vilardi of VoteRunLead, which is using digital platforms to galvanize a wave of new women candidates for office; and Jason Mogus, a longtime digital strategist focused on networked advocacy.

Finally, as the future comes barreling forward toward us, we’ll look at how work and the economy being changed by tech and perhaps can be changed by us. Nick Grossman of Union Square Ventures will share his vision of self-regulating businesses, while Natalie Foster of the Institute for the Future will explore the prospects for a universal basic income. And media theorist Douglas Rushkoff will ask whether we can program a different economic system with tech that serves all of us rather than just a few.

While we have a packed and provocative series of talks planned for the main hall, many of the richest interactions at Personal Democracy Forum happen in and around the breakout sessions. If you’d like to propose a session, here’s how. Panel submissions are open until the end of April, with responses on a rolling basis.

Tickets for #PDF16 are still available at our early-bird rates.