Civic Agency: a vision & plan

Civic Agency is an initiative aimed at encouraging people, at grassroots level, to engage with the social, cultural and political issues at the heart of our increasingly automated and divisive digital world. Social media and hyper-personalisation of digital experiences are becoming ever more prevalent as the interface between us and society. So, as we come to rely ever more on digital systems and technologies to run everyday life, we are coming to realise that society needs new ways to face the issues that these present; and new strategies for people to successfully navigate the implications.

AI, Machine Learning, Personalisation, Algorithm Bias, Automated Decision Making, Big Data
* * *
Ethics, Regulation, Responsible Innovation, Rights, Information/Media/Digital Literacy

Above are some of the headline issues and below, some of the proposed solutions. However we believe that more needs to be done to engage ordinary people in developing their own critical and civic thinking skills: to identify potential harms and to make better informed choices about what they do online, which services they use and how their data is protected from exploitation.

Our aim is to help people feel that they have agency and are empowered to make good decisions and choices, and for them to feel that their voice is being listened to and heeded in the corridors and places of power where laws, rights and regulations are determined. Practical Ethics at grassroots level, meeting in the middle with top down regulation and codes of practice in industry and public institutions.

Enabling Literacy

Awareness and literacy are crucial for people to be able to navigate our increasingly mediated world – Stéphane Goldstein has recently written an excellent argument for why this matters so much now.

“We cannot act wisely without making sense of the world and making sense of the world is in itself a profoundly practical action that informs how we experience reality, how we act, and the relationships we form. Without questioning our worldview and the narrative that has shaped our culture, are we not likely to repeat the same mistakes over and over again?”
Daniel Christian Wahl, Designing Regenerative Cultures

In the workshops I ran with young people that informed the creation of the UnBias Fairness Toolkit, it was clear that they had only the vaguest understanding of what their rights as children were (and would soon be as adults), and what laws already existed to protect them. The general sense of disempowerment when using online services (like buying clothes, shoes or other products) went as far as statements to the effect that they were powerless and unprotected whenever they interacted with the big internet companies (GAFA) or even small online retailers. Almost as if all digital services were a gift of the companies involved and could not be challenged even if they were doing wrong or questionable things. The young people had almost no conception of the scale in which they are being tracked online, across multiple sites and services, no matter what devices they use. When we created mappings of what they did online and how their personal data was being distributed across a huge range of platforms and services they were shocked and, to some degree, incensed – that they had been duped in some way, to give up their data so freely, every time they go online. 

On the positive side, at least in one school, the young people felt it was their duty to challenge this and to call for a safer internet. I think this was an early indication that this generation are more empowered to speak up and demand to be listened to, as the recent SchoolStrike4Climate/ FridaysForTheFuture protests have demonstrated even more palpably. It is possible that the seeds already exist for a society which expects ‘responsible’, sustainable innovation and development to be the default for designers and developers, no matter whether they work for a public institution, a non profit organisation or a profit-making corporation. We have seen the consequences of unbridled, irresponsible innovation play out and cause tremendous damage to democracy and to the societies we live in.

Now public dialogue and deliberation needs to be stimulated and to bring ordinary people’s concerns and desires to the same level of consideration as the privileged influence of gatekeepers, corporate lobbyists and policy makers. We are all stakeholders in this society, and we must not let lobbyists capture the agenda and subvert democratic principles. Concepts such as duty of care and the precautionary principle – pro-active and a priori approaches – could be baked in to the culture of innovation and development, not tacked on as after-thoughts or funded through marketing and corporate social responsibility budgets. Digital Safety, not digital security – social justice, not breaking things because they get in your way.

A Plan for Grassroots Engagement

Our proposal is simple: using the UnBias Fairness Toolkit as our building block, we propose to stimulate civic agency through:

  • Access : place copies of the toolkit in every school, in public libraries and make them available to any community that wants to get to grips with these issues for themselves.
  • Literacy : create an organic train-the-trainer programme and additional facilitation tools that lay the foundation for a participatory and grassroots-based approach to de-msytifying the issues – making the abstract tangible and actionable.
  • Engagement : train teachers, youth & community workers and public librarians in using the toolkit to engage people in developing their critical and civic thinking skills;
  • Collaboration : establish an organic network of people who can guide others to learn more and devise their own strategies – to have agency.

Expanding the Frame

Alongside this it is important that the toolkit can be adapted for a variety of different contexts and situations, age groups and experiences. For instance to discuss very specific topics such as security; online banking and finance; medical ethics and patient data. And for the training materials to be templates that people can build on themselves, not just rely on us to define and deliver.

We propose to collaborate with other key participants in these spaces to develop additional materials – Expansion sets – that make the toolkit modular and useful to more people (for example, new Example Cards for specific issues; a much expanded set of Glossary Cards etc). We may create additional worksheets and materials for teams to use as practical ‘responsible innovation’ tools. There may also be other tools and toolkits we can introduce and share.

How?

The tricky part is funding something like this – rather amorphous, profoundly unbusinesslike and with a Return On Investment that will definitely not be financial. I’ve been finding fellow travellers and talking with a variety of public and private organisations whose interests align with some of the above. But what this needs is resources to make it a reality. We have the basic toolkit, we just need funds to roll out the rest of the process, bit by bit.

Get in touch if you can help [giles at proboscis dot org dot uk].

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