Towards A Slow Tech Movement: Building for Tech Justice

Something that has guided our thinking since the very inception of CoLET is the idea that just as the last 10 years or so have brought people greater awareness about the provenance of their food, we believe this is the moment to move people towards a greater understanding of their technology.

The past decade or two has been marked by a rise in farmer's markets, organic offerings in the supermarket, and CSAs (community supported agriculture schemes that find farmers bringing down large shares of fruits, vegetables, and meat for members of the CSA to divvy up). In addition, CSA and cooperative farmers welcome members up for visits; while WWOOFs have long enabled people to do longer stints working on farms, getting their hands dirty and learning how to cultivate produce. While there is undoubtedly lots more to be done, people are more aware than they have been in over a half-century about what they consume and have been more demanding of the market as a result.

A CSA haul
A typical summer CSA haul

Here in CoLET, we've been thinking about what would be the tech equivalent of going to an organic farm or picking up one's CSA share? A tour of a server farm or an internship at Google? Likely not. That'd be more the equivalent of touring a slaughterhouse or some sort of Big Ag facility.

In some ways, the distance and mystique surrounding the provenance of our hardware and software applications is part of the service.  We don't want to know how the sausage is made, but we do so love that sausage. More please. Perhaps studying something like the rise of McDonald's or the TV dinner might be instructive in helping us understand how we got to now. Both proprietary tech and fast food play on the same themes of speed and convenience. In an interview on The Splendid Table, Michael Pollan shared the following:

We were at this very interesting post-Betty Friedan moment where there was a very uncomfortable conversation unfolding: Women were going back to work; women’s liberation was very much in the air and there was tension over who would do the housework. It had to be renegotiated.

Before that conversation could be completely played out and resolved, the food industry very self-consciously stepped in and said, “We’ll take care of it; we’ve got you covered.” They came forward with fast food and processed food, and it was a very deliberate effort on their part to hitch their agenda to that of feminism.

There’s a wonderful billboard that I can remember from the '70s. Kentucky Fried Chicken had this billboard all over the country -- a giant bucket of fried chicken with just two words above it: “Women’s Liberation.”

KFC Wife Savers ad from 1968

As Anand Giridharadas so eloquently describes in his new book Winners Take All, capitalism keeps offering us "solutions" to the problems that it caused in the first place. However, just as the #MeToo has helped to surface the unfinished business of the women's liberation movement, a day of reckoning is coming around the myriad ways that social media  -- intoxicating convenience capitalism that took hold during an "uncomfortable conversation" moment in neoliberalism -- exploits people and their data for ever greater profit. We'd like to believe that when the moment of crisis comes, a movement agitating for tech justice by way of open source, decentralization, inclusive communities of producers, and expanded access to tools will be at the ready.

Unfortunately, hope alone cannot build such a movement. So what can we tangibly do now to help people adopt practices and build greater intimacy with technology that, in some ways, is closer to them than even the food they put in their mouths? Our phones are often the first things we pick up in the morning and the last things we put down at night. We can't just scare people into what we paternally deem "healthier" practices. There has to be a sea-change from both the production and distribution side. Alternatives need to be available and they need to be good.

With CoLET and our burgeoning Merkalie project, we are experimenting with solidarity economy principles by nudging folks in our community to host their sites with us rather than one of the big, faceless corporations. But at the same time, we want them to know that when they host with us, things will work differently -- sometimes good and fast, but sometimes buggy and slow.

On a recent episode of Recode, Nicole Wang (formerly of Twitter, Google, and the office of the CTO of the USA) suggests that it may be time for a "slow food movement for the internet".

“When I first started at Google, the pillars of design were: we want comprehensiveness, relevance,  and speed? Those were the three pillars of search. When social came into play, there was a change in the principles and we weren't focused on search anymore, and the dynamics were around personalization, engagement, and speed. What if we say, 'That’s not the internet we want to live with?' What if the pillars were accuracy, authenticity and context? Maybe that slows it down, but maybe that is the different world we ought to be trying to build.

Something else we recently saw that also clicked for us and actually happens to be at the intersection of slow food and slow tech is this article from Low Tech magazine on the beauty of fermented food.

Unlike many high-tech proposals like ‘smart’ food recycling apps, highly efficient logistics systems, and food packaging innovations, fermentation is both low-tech and democratic—anyone can do it. What’s more, it has low energy inputs, brings people together, is hygienic and healthy, and can reduce food waste.

Low Tech magazine itself runs on a solar powered server located in Barcelona  that can (and does!) go off-line during longer periods of cloudy weather. Low Tech and its sister publication NoTech question whether every problem has a tech solution, and Low Tech intentionally publishes no more than 12 articles a year. While this may be on the extreme end, it is a worthwhile provocation. Even Amazon servers aren't up all day every day; despite all best efforts, outages happen. How can we begin to cultivate patience with digital technology and how do we deliver a payoff for that patience? Do we even need to?

Beautiful women harvesting at Soul Fire Farm in Hudson Valley, NY
Beautiful women harvesting at Soul Fire Farm in Hudson Valley, NY

Understanding the deleterious effects of big tech, we need to cultivate new ways of producing and consuming technology that are better for our society and our planet. Where are the projects that are already doing (or attempting to do) this and how can we promote them? Most importantly, how do we do this in a way that -- unlike much of the "foodie movement" -- is about a radical restructuring of relations between producer and consumer? Because in the end, we don't just want capitalism that is "bursting with flavor"; we want fresh, juicy, and local.......liberation.