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An Ecosystem of Organizing in Design & Tech: Reflections & Resources

Contribution to the CSCW 2020 Workshop: Collective Organizing and Social Responsibility

Published onOct 15, 2020
An Ecosystem of Organizing in Design & Tech: Reflections & Resources
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An Ecosystem of Organizing in Design & Tech: Reflections & Resources

By Colombene Gorton

Freelance Designer Los Angeles, CA

colombene@pm.me


In order to move the tech industry to a more ethical, equitable place, organizing is essential. I’ve previously written [1] about how it is foundational over popular industry-cited approaches such as certification, ethics statements or just saying “no”. But even if organizing is a logical path to ethics, how might we organize effectively?

Organizing gets the goods because of lever- age [2], and it takes sustained effort to achieve that. It also necessitates common goals, alignment and strategic unifying qualities among participants. Without this, organizing efforts can dissipate and organizers can burn out. Due to the existence of many goals and situational factors, it may be helpful to consider organizing in the context of an ecosystem. This can encompass organization building, coalition building and movement building. And those efforts can be supported with capacity building, infrastructure and outreach.

Though an ecosystem may sound vast, this framing holds more potential to be inclusive, organic, bottom-up and with a lower barrier to entry. Organizing that originates with established institutions or tries to encompass too much can end up monolithic, confining, elite or competitive - duplicating dominant patterns that produce the conditions many are organizing against.

Organizing Challenges

Depending on a person’s class and experience, grassroots organizing can be difficult and unfamiliar. Many in design and technology who might benefit from organizing do not have a firm or common understanding of what it refers to in the context of a workplace and why you’d want to do it. Awareness is always a core challenge in organizing, but among many professional and managerial class workers in design, technology and marketing, it involves a profound paradigm shift

And of those who come to understand organizing, many reject it. Though we see organizing tech workers (over)represented in media - often in reports by newly organized journalists —there is still plenty of evidence of how regressive tech workers can be [3]. Many have strong beliefs in individualism, meritocratic supremacy, techno-solutionism and are still heavily in- vested in and may stand to benefit more from current dynamics.

If an organizer does find others interested in collectivism or building alternatives, there’s the question of how to go about this work. There is not a lot of support or knowledge around organizing and every situation is different. And with the risks involved, people are justifiably reluctant to “fail fast”.

Organizing requires strategy and leadership skills separate from a design practitioners core competency. It involves cultivating a culture that is dramatically different and often unfamiliar to those in the tech community. It involves the personal risk of going up against powerful interests instead of trying to ingratiate yourself to them. In general, it can involve deep learn- ing and unlearning in a process largely invisible and unsupported in traditional culture.

Areas of Organizing

Despite challenges, an ecosystem exists and is rapidly growing and coalescing. Organizing goes on within existing institutions —at companies, schools, industry associations; among consumers and stakeholders; and in government and policy. There is also organizing work on alternatives —open source projects, co-operatives, and crowd-funded or slow growth financing. This work can be supported by consciousness raising groups, capacity building consultants, research, reporting, networking and storytelling. Below are some groups and individuals involved in that activity:

Organizing Resistance in Traditional Institutions

  • Tech Workers Coalition

  • Code CWA

  • Electronic Frontier Foundation

  • No Tech for ICE, Mijente (status unknown) adjacent or broader organizing

  • Game Workers Unite (GWU)

  • Architecture Lobby

  • Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)

  • Labor Notes

Towards New Practices & Organizations

  • Aspiration Tech

  • Allied Media

  • Platform Co-op Consortium

  • Enspiral

  • Tech Worker Coop Network (regrouping)

Research, Education & Critique

  • Data & Society

  • Books such as Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism, Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity... and many more well-known in academia.

Consciousness, Culture, & Community

  • Works from Cory Doctorow, Octavia Butler, adrienne maree brown, Boots Riley

  • How to Work Festival (Germany)

  • Plan C (UK), Consciousness Raising Groups

  • Pervasive Labour Union zine

  • Tiny Tech Zines

  • Free Radicals collective

  • W.O.R.K Solidarity Club meetup & project group

Conclusion

Organizing is about building power by connect- ing people. It is important to find and learn from work already happening, and to try to support and connect to this work rather than re-invent or compete with it. That said, there is always need for new people, ideas, and entities that emerge with the spirit of solidarity. We need strategies for working within traditional institutions as well as the research and development for new institutions built for better outcomes from the ground up. Together, these efforts can form an ecosystem that bends to- wards mutual support as we work together for positive change.

References

  1. UX Ethics. Yeah, Yeah — so how do we get there? Medium.com essay Oct. 4, 2019

  2. Emma Kinema, Game Workers Unite at XOXO Fest, 2019

  3. LinkedIn Staffers Go All-Lives-Matter During ‘Dumpster Fire’ Meeting on Racism The Daily Beast, Jun. 5, 2020

  4. Parents Got More Time Off. Then the Backlash Started. New York Times, Sep. 5, 2020

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