'Radical forking' of tech, and radical tech-practice

Cade Diehm of SimplySecure/New Design Congress and I had a chat, and would like to propose a (short?) series of ‘commons.hour’ specials, with a broadly historical context but specifically focused on what kinds of practice count as ‘radical’ in the design and deployment of digital infrastructures and relationships with digital infrastructures, at this point in history - and in the local history of meet.coop, as an organisation with some kind of design base and ethos.

This is against a background of ‘radical’ tech movements going back 50 years, and even further to the 1940s’ and to the emergence of design itself, as a distinct kind of professional practice at the turn of the C20. Already in the 70s is was plain how well some of the earlier ‘radical’ and ‘Left’ waves had been absorbed into the mainstream of capitalist development. At the same time it can be seen now how some ciritical insights in the punched-card era of the 70s - which still have relevance today - were sidestepped or lost in the vision of alternative movements at the time and were not cultivated (perhaps bcos they were too tech, perhaps bcos they were too rad).

Individuals in design professions and occupations (which broadly includes tech fields like sysadmin and network architecture too) may often wish to make radical contributions, and to critique mainstream current practice. But simply to do ‘good works’ makes little impact on institutions and the basic architecture of technology infrastructures. To evolve ethical frames, or ‘design methods’ is popular, but again may make little impact on the overall force of design, or the role of designers as detail-workers, tweaking interfaces, configuring tools for small populations, or uncritically making things thoughtlessly simple for users who are seen as (and encouraged to be) naive consumer-users. A current test case may be ‘design justice’ in the field of digital infrastructure and in UX design.

Since the 90s a systematic practice of ‘infrastructuring’ has seemed possible in digital tech, and ‘participatory’ and ‘human centred’ design strategies have existed - many of which may be little known to present generation of designers and UX practitioners, who re-invent the wheel on an individual or ad-hoc or sectoral basis. It seems helpful to consider how this history bears on the possibility of design justice in the development of the meet.coop infrastructure of network and tools, and other infrastructures of digital tools (radical platforms, radical network architectures) being developed and advocated at the present time.

Current locations for this kind of thinking might lie for example in the relationship between provision for laptop/desktops on one hand and smartphones on the other, or between audio and video as channels for meetings; etc.

There’s an initial set of thoughts here https://share.mayfirst.org/s/N5EXrqCGoy3sDBb. In this thread we invite comments on the broad issue, and thoughts about what kind of framing could be good for a series of ‘specials’ which feed back into meet.coop strategy.


A number of meet.coop member organisations might have an interest here. Thinking for example of SimplySecure/commUNITY @georgiamoon @trinh , MayFirst/Agaric @freescholar @jamie , Remix @fredsultan , collective.tools @petter, Autonomic @3wc, social.coop @bhaugen @mnoyes - and the Tech Circle including Hypha @Yurko @benhylau . Etc.

Do please pitch in. It will be good if we can pull quite a tight focus on this, or it might just ‘splurge’. For example, is there a current platform-focus in meet.coop - eg global North-South, laptop/smartpohne - where lots of this ;design justice’ stuff comes into the frame and could serve as a paradigm in discussions. MayFirst, Autonomic, where are you at with these questions?


I think that sitting down and testing your software with the people you want to use it is an important element of design justice that has little to do with radical tech and is only tangentially related to justice.

I say this because most corporations have at least started to identify (or have fully embraced) people of color, women, poor folks or others typically excluded from the class of engineers who design the tools as valuable markets. So they are spending a lot of time doing this kind of testing and are way ahead of us less resourced radical tech projects.

I think the justice element comes in when we identify people who we want to use our software that are not considered a valuable market by the corporate world and are therefore excluded. But even this approach is just short term - since capitalism seems to be ever searching for new markets.

So where does that leave us? I think the most exciting justice angle comes with changing the class of engineers who are working on the software, inviting users to have a more participatory and democratic role in designing the software than just being tested on, and changing the relationship between users and software developers in general.

Of course, I’m not really sure how to do those things :slight_smile: .


Helpful thinking @jamie thanks. In meet.coop we’re concerned with a platform, rather than code or apps - that is, with stewarding a commons of running code (as distinct from the open-source commons of code). This runs all the way from the git repos that hold BBB code (and the labour that provisions them), thro the meet.coop servers and their operational scripts (load balancing, usage monitoring, maintainance, etc) and the Greenlight front-end (and the labour that provisions them), thro to the specific devices and operating systems that the users are working with, and into their browsers and the functionality of browsers (or custom-tuned web-facing apps). And the labour - of users themselves - that ‘provisions’ them.

It’s the value-in-use of this entire ecology of devices and running code that meet.coop’s users are concerned with? . . and the challenge is to achieve design justice in THAT whole ecology, at all locations. Who does that ecosystem favour and who does that disadvantage or harm, in what ways? Which maybe is the kind of thing we usually call governance, rather than ‘design’? So in a way, that brings us closer to the ordinary-language sense of ‘justice’.

Maybe the participatory and democratic role we need to become good at is the multistakeholder stewarding of the commons of running code, all the way from git repo to smartphone browser or app, and including the comms networks? Which includes stewarding, in some sense, of how users choose to mobilise the infrastructure, as well as what the coop’s operational members provision it with, and the ‘service’ interfaces between user communities and coop operations?

We might call this ‘literacy’? And thence . . the ‘design’ and purposeful ‘production’ of literacy and capability might be where justice sits. In Spanish I think this is formaciòn (English doesn’t have a good word for it, ‘training’ or ‘education’ are nowhere close). Formaciòn is ‘core business’ for MayFirst? Perhaps it needs to be for meet.coop too?

Hey @mikemh I mostly lurk around here as a user so my input here might not be as useful as other key stakeholders in meet.coop but I had a few thoughts. I might be misunderstanding some of what you said so if that is the case, my apologies.

  1. I can’t access the nextcloud file you linked (this is less of a thought and more of an FYI)
  2. I don’t think Human Centered Design (HCD) is that unheard of in design communities. I think the structure and economic relations of most organizations that utilize design is in such a way that employing HCD techniques is feasible.
  3. Governance of our technology organizations cannot exist in a vacuum. We can have a co-operative governance structure for our organizations but that will only stretch as far as our members.
  4. Our organizations have to exist within markets and are therefore pressured by those forces. This will always mean that those with access to more capital will be able to have an unequal relation to those who don’t - even in the context of our organization.
  5. Infrastructure cannot be radical or a part of any sort of revolutionary change without explicitly tying itself to some sort of organization whose mission is to carry out that change. In this sense, I don’t think technology co-operatives are radical or revolutionary.

Great to get an engaged response like this @nolski. Thanks for the heads-up on the broken link to NextCloud. It works now.

I’d like to keep this thread fairly clean, for first responses to the original proposal, which is for a series of discussions around matters of ‘radical design’ and tech-professionals’ practice. You raise some major and real matters that folks like you and I have been engaged with for a long time and, rather than post a big chunk here in this thread, in response, I’ll split out into a side thread . . when I get a bit of headspace - in the next day or two.

I don’t want to try to have the full discussion right here and now, but rather to discover whether there are a number of folks who would like to have that kind of discussion, over a number of events, in BBB. @shibco and I feel inclined to sponsor that. And yes, with discussion here in the forum too. It would be great to see the forum developing in that way, and feeding into some live exchanges.

I’ve opened a new related thread Capital, infrastructure, revolution. Glad to see anyone responding in that thread, to particular things @ nolksi is highlighting. Please respond in this thread here on the practical question: Should we open a series of commons.hour discussions on this? That will help Cade and I decide how to proceed.

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On the contrary Mike - the whole intention of commons.hour as a development programme is to discover how the lives, commitments and perspectives of user-members can practically inform what the ops members spend their time setting up and operating, as a platform-based service. We’re trying to create a commons here, which does real work for the orgs that are in membership. That includes, understanding what those orgs are trying to do, and how the ‘spaces’ that meet.coop provisions can enable that to be done with ease and justice.

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