Warming Up for the Civic Hall Forums’ State of the Internet 2019

This post is a primer for  the first Forum @ Civic Hall, offering some materials to prepare and get  to know the speakers.

“Technology is cool, but you’ve got to use it as opposed to letting it use you.” – Prince, allegedly

Not long ago in the public eye, “the Internet” was a shining virtual city on an invisible digital hill, a hope for humanity to connect and express themselves freely. This boundless network felt like a place for our species to share space in peace, be who we wanted to be, “find the others,” and share without limit. The techno-utopian Kool-aid was strong but all things considered, the Internet was and still is a civilization defining innovation.

Like other history-changing inventions such as the steam engine or the radio, the Internet is a vehicle for human visions of progress. But also like any technology, once institutionalized and embedded in culture, the Internet inscribes not only our best values, but also our most insidious. Unlimited speech has been weaponized by bad actors to destabilize the public sphere. Once the turf of ragtag gangs, the unregulated digital Wild West has become dominated by 21st century monopolists. Elections, governments and stocks can be toppled with information warfare conducted by guerrilla freedom fighters or authoritarians. Online marketplaces have disrupted Main Street’s viability. Surveillance has been monetized. It is hard for people to not know that you are not a dog online now. Blogging is on life support. Far from reducing racial, cultural, or religious prejudices, man-made algorithms have reproduced them — sometimes threatening the lives of the most vulnerable.

The Internet can be better if we work together to make it so. Humans are stepping forth to acknowledge the reality of where the Internet is and where we want it to go…before the machines get ahead of us. To this end, we invite you to join us for the first Forum @ Civic Hall, State of the Internet 2019 on Thursday, February 28th. The event starts at 5:30 until 8:30PM, in partnership with Facebook and Glitch. There will be food and drinks. Follow this link  for tickets.

The first Forum @ Civic Hall takes the opportunity to invite two leading thinkers and makers in the space of  technology to take stock of this moment. Each giving “State of the Internet” addresses, we will have veteran blogger, CEO, and mango adorer Anil Dash of Glitch, a community of app designers, and renowned hacker, security specialist, and cryptography trainer to vulnerable communities, Matt Mitchell of CryptoHarlem / Tactical Tech. Both will address some of the challenges facing the health of the Internet,  and also offer some creative frameworks on how companies, tech workers, users, and governments can each uniquely contribute to making the Internet a more just and better place, not just top-down, but from the bottom up. After giving their talks, Maurice Cherry, host of Revision Path, will discuss these ideas, taping the conversation for his podcast. Revision Path features the stories of Black tech workers, designers, and developers, and is celebrating its 6th anniversary on the night of the event.   Katie Harbath of Facebook’s Government and Elections team will also join in the conversation with Matt, Maurice, and Anil before the group goes to Q&A.

To prepare for the Forum, each of the speakers have shared a few pieces of previous work in order to give the audience a deeper sense of their sentiments on what really is the “State of the Internet.” Anil Dash is one of the Internet’s OG bloggers and still keeps his blog going today.  A recent piece he wrote on “12 Things Everyone Should Understand About Technology” dispels some of the assumptions about technology. For instance, tech is not neutral, tech training does not include ethical training, and there is not a single institution that can be a panacea to rein in big tech. Anil discusses this  piece deeper in a great podcast with Ezra Klein. To change the culture and structure of the  Internet we have today, many approaches must be taken to impact Big Tech, ranging from changes in regulation, political economy, user behavior, venture capital structure, governance, and media pressure. Anil has pointed out how, as a result of the dominance of a few firms, certain features of the collectively-built web are not in good shape. In a piece, “The Missing Building Blocks of the Web,” Anil outlines how some main features of the original Internet are suffering, like the “view source” function– which allowed users to see the HTML code making up a page, empowering the user to see how something is made and potentially how they could make it. Many browsers and mobile browsers  don’t include this feature and anyway, most code is written by machiens now. The effect of losing “view source” is losing the sentiment of the Internet being something we make. As a result,  we assume we must leave making the Internet up to machines and the big tech platforms that we dump our data into.  

Matt Mitchell gave a talk at Google on the technological “Golden Hour,” a medical term for the hour after one is critically injured, where the type of treatment a person receives impacts their chances at life or death,  as well as the quality of life moving forward. Right now, we are in the Internet’s Golden Hour. What we do now impacts the quality of the Internet we have moving forward. Will it be safe and secure for the most vulnerable, let alone the average user? Will its primary functions be dominated by a few firms or will it still remain open to the individual user? Right now, our technological tools and systems can do scary things that can actively harm the lives of unwitting subjects — some of these examples are outlined in Matt’s 2018 Personal Democracy Forum Talk “The Smart City vs. The Menacing City: A Wakanda Deferred.” Matt shares stories  about surveillance of communities of color in New York, how camera technologies don’t recognize various eye shapes or skin colors, or how companies profit off of vulnerable users’ data. If we fix the code and systems now, there is hope for a more robust  and safe Internet in the future.

Maurice Cherry amplifies voices of Black designers, coders, product managers, and  makers in Revision Path. In one podcast, he interviews Harlo Holmes, a digital security trainer at Freedom of the Press Foundation (and friend of Civic Hall’s). Harlo discusses her career, the Internet of Things, and data security in the episode. Her reflection on how code movements and art movements are connected for social issues is fascinating. Revision Path is a inspiring way to learn about how Black tech rockstars found their way into the field and their reflections on critical issues in the  industry. Maurice’s Black Panther Roundtable is also a must listen for Wakanda fans. His most recent podcast that came out this weekend features Capital One’s Alana Washington. 

All in all, these pieces can be read and listened to before the Civic Hall State of the Internet 2019 Forum, preparing you for a deeper and richer listening experience with just a little background on the positions, examples, and ideas from these leaders in the field.

Reserve your tickets here! Civic Hall members have a complimentary ticket code in the weekly membership email!