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We Need a New CPSR Now

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

Published onMay 13, 2020
We Need a New CPSR Now
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We Need a New CPSR Now

By Douglas Schuler

Public Sphere Project

Contact: douglas@publicsphereproject.org


Looking back it is hard to believe that I was active with CPSR for nearly 30 years. That work was absolutely integral to my life. It gave me knowledge and insights and access to incredible people. The main thing I gained however was the personal responsibility of working towards social good.

It has been over 30 years since I attended the first Participatory Design Conference (PDC) that CPSR/Seattle helped organize. Our chapter in 1987 organized the Directions and Implications of Advanced Computing (DIAC) Symposium that I continued to help organize for over 25 years. I have written books and articles and met people all over based on the focus I gained with CPSR.

So now I am pleased that the idea of launching a new version of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility is on the table. I am hoping that the time is right for the idea to grow and flourish with the help of the people in this workshop and beyond.

Computing systems are much more central to our lives and their effects are much more ominous now than when CPSR was founded. Surveillance was somewhat limited and is now a staggering ubiquitous force. Other issues include tinkering with elections and democracy in general, autonomous and potentially autonomous weapons, "automating inequality," "digital repression," and the implications of incursions into bodies and brains, as well as AI. And the spread of computing has spawned a powerful new class of digerati and the economic gap between rich and poor is at historic levels. The list is so long that it is hard to know when or how to stop adding to it.

The speed and reach of computerization and its command of resources coupled with inadequate oversight and urgent unattended needs highlights the criticality of more oversight. It is nearly impossible to overestimate how important it is at this time in history to re-establish the focus on social responsibility in relation to computing systems.

Because computing is at the core of the largest challenges and opportunities facing us today the responsibilities are awesome. Social responsibility including responsibility to the earth and the natural world can serve as an important common focus. What uses of computing are oppressive or are putting us in danger? And which uses could be empowering for communities that are marginalized or help make democracy more relevant and engaging? How could computing be used to help people with disabilities, to help repair the environment or to meet our responsibilities in relation to climate change?

The new CPSR must be able to raise issues and criticize both governmental and business interests since they are the most likely perpetrators. But in addition to being critical it should be aspirational and practical too. No approach should be off the table. If we wanted to develop software we could.

A new CPSR would need to borrow many of the ideas from the previous CPSR. Its "big tent" orientation was central. As the main organizer for CPSR's DIAC Symposia I can attest to the value of the big tent. We discussed community networks, AI and war, automation and poverty, virtual reality, surveillance, policy, art, community projects, the digital divide and myriad other topics, which on some level were all related. And the focus on activism and the social good was a strong common bond.

Envisioning a new CPSR in this light suggests many things, conferences, workshops, publishing, etc. And it has implications for how we organize. For example the new CPSR should allow interest areas or working groups (topical or geographical) that were more or less autonomous to form thus allowing it to change with the times. Those groups could encourage critiques — but also actions including building alternative systems and visions of the future.

Arguing for a new CPSR does not imply that the work is not being done by others. Complementing this work and helping to integrate and leverage it would be a primary role.

The result as I envision it would be to help supply a unifying theme and help strengthen the various efforts working in this field, help bring critique forward to the public and decision-makers, and provide impetus and structure (maybe even resources) to people who want to work in this area.

In 2019 I attended a meeting at ACM headquarters where we discussed the need to highlight social responsibility as part of ACM's mission. To prepare for that meeting I contacted 30 or so researchers and activists, many who have thinking about the role of computing in society for decades. The thoughtful feedback I collected, including unanimous support for an ACM focus on social responsibility, contains provocations that would keep the new CPSR busy for years and years. And ACM's decision not to establish this focus helps motivate ours.

Clearly, the new CPSR would not be identical to the old CPSR. Nor would it need to use the same name. But, I would argue, why not use the same name? Physicians for Social Responsibility, from which we borrowed our name, had become moribund but was reborn a few years with an incredibly successful program.

It may take some time for the organization to get up to speed but I would not want to wait for a large bank account or grant to get started. Some structure and leadership will be necessary at all phases and we should plan for evolution. Things do not always "emerge" in a timely way.

The obstacles that the new CPSR would face are obviously huge. And although I still remember the disagreements and other shortcomings of the old CPSR as well as the arguments against starting this effort I think the failure to develop a new, more agile, and, perhaps even more idealistic and ambitious CPSR would be a catastrophe. We are living in a particular historic moment. We should rise to the occasion.

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