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Learning from CPSR: Democracy as a Value and “Principles for the Internet Era”

Contribution to the PDC 2020 Interactive Workshop "Computing Professionals for Social Responsibility: The Past, Present and Future Values of Participatory Design".

Published onMay 25, 2020
Learning from CPSR: Democracy as a Value and “Principles for the Internet Era”
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Learning from CPSR: Democracy as a Value and “Principles for the Internet Era”

By Leah A. Lievrouw

Department of Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles

Contact: llievrou@ucla.edu



This retrospective look at CPSR will focus on democracy as the core value most central to its mission throughout its 40-year history, a value it shared from the outset with the tradition of participatory design (PD) (and which, incidentally, was the subject of a plenary talk given by the author at CPSR’s annual meeting in Seattle, WA in 1993). The implications of this value commitment for CPSR’s own activist efforts globally, as well as PD practice locally/organizationally, are explored, drawing on one of CPSR’s key activist projects from 1998, the One Planet, One Net initiative.

CPSR was organized in the early 1980s and officially disestablished in 2013, but its ethical influence was considerable and is still evident today in computing/informatics practice and pedagogy (see Becker et al., 2019). Originated by researchers and designers at Stanford University and nearby Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) who opposed the dominance of military funding in academic and private-sector computing research and design – and specifically, then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, popularly tagged “Star Wars”), these professionals and growing ranks of their colleagues and co-workers established chapters across the U.S. and internationally, wherever there was a “critical mass” of computing and software professionals. They sought to set and actively promote a new, values-driven agenda for ethical computing and informatics practice and education. As seen in the back issues of the CPSR Newsletter (http://cpsr.org/prevsite/publications/newsletters/old/index.html), this agenda soon expanded beyond Reagan-era defense and weapons projects, to include any context where informatics and computing were critical: education, employment and the workplace, political action, national development, public records and information access, encryption and wiretapping, poverty and social justice, the environment, and more. Several of these areas spun off new constituencies and organizations of their own from CPSR (including, for example, the Electronic Privacy Information Center [EPIC], https://www.epic.org, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, https://www.eff.org).

The argument here is that democracy, especially democratic participation (whether in politics, institutions, governance, or the workplace) was the pivotal value that animated CPSR’s original efforts and still informs the ethical activism and practice of PD; it is richly illustrated by the One Planet, One Net project (http://cpsr.org/prevsite/onenet/index.html). The purpose of One Planet, One Net was to help build and reinforce democratic values as the foundation of Internet governance, at the moment when the Internet itself was undergoing massive global growth and unprecedented challenges from corporate/capitalist privatization, on one hand, and autocratic, repressive government regimes, on the other. Project leaders Nathanael Borenstein, Harry Hochheiser, and Andy Oram drafted a set of seven “Principles for the Internet Era” with deeply democratic and emancipatory aims:

1. There is only one Net.

2. The Net must be open and available to all.

3. People have the right to communicate.

4. People have the right to privacy.

5. People are the Net’s stewards, not its owners.

6. No individuals, organizations, or governments should dominate the Net.

7. The Net should reflect human diversity, not homogenize it.

This presentation will review the One Planet, One Net project, particularly how its “principles,” which were intended to guide policy activism at the macro level of the Internet, have parallels in the “workplace democracy” and “imagined futures” of PD (Gregory, 2003) – and how similar principles may help today’s computer professionals reimagine new, engaged and ethically-driven informatics practices and pedagogies for the 21st century.

References

Becker, C., Engels, G., Feenberg, A., Ferrario, M.A., and Fitzpatrick , G. (Eds.) (2019). Values in Computing (Dagstuhl Seminar 19291). Schloss Dagstuhl-Leibniz-Zentrum für Informatik, Dagstuhl Publishing, Germany. Available: https://drops.dagstuhl.de/opus/volltexte/2019/11635 .

Gregory, J. (2003). Scandinavian approaches to participatory design. International Journal of Engineering Education, 19(1), 62-74.

Lievrouw, L.A. (1993). Computers and Democracy: What’s the Connection? Plenary presentation, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, Seattle, WA.

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