"If we do not understand how complex technologies function, how systems of technologies interconnect, and how systems of systems interact, then we are powerless within them, and their potential is more easily captured by selfish elites and inhuman corporations… this understanding cannot be limited to the practicalities of how things work: it must be extended to how things came to be, and how they continue to function in the world in ways that are often invisible and interwoven. What is required is not understanding, but literacy.”[^1]
One of the defining questions of our time will be how we adapt to technology that is rapidly outpacing us. Automation, data ownership, and climate change are straining modern society. We are likely beyond the tipping point. Automation is set to centralize power amongst a handful of billionaires. The Internet is a tool of state and corporate surveillance. Global energy expenditure is unsustainable and unrelenting. Silicon Valley – the nucleus of knowledge, power, and ownership of the Internet – has captured the imagination of North America’s technologists. And it’s highly motivated to maintain the status quo.
Computer science education lacks the social and historical context needed to produce critical technologists. Our Internet is built by the same “apolitical” programmers who write software for predictive policing and Predator drones. Technologists will not save us from our technology.
Instead, an outside resistance is mounting towards outgrowths of hyper-capitalist tech culture. Users feel unsettled by Facebook’s data tracking, or by Uber’s predatory business practices. Activists, journalists, and academics have begun calling for reform. But there is a fundamental literacy gap preventing the socially engaged from reaching their maximum impact. This literacy gap exists elsewhere, too; perhaps most obviously in Congress. As technological development becomes more sophisticated, specialized, and opaque, this gap will only grow. Meanwhile, policy changes are occurring. Closing the literacy gap is urgent.
"You have not sufficiently understood power relationships in the control society unless you have understood how it works and who it works for.”[^2]
Those who are building our technological dystopia are not those who will suffer most under it. For example: labour displacement due to automation has found overwhelming news coverage. Faced with reports that self-driving cars will supplant millions of truck and cab drivers, politicians stress the need for schools to rush into STEM fields. Yet the underlying issues of power and hierarchy are ignored. "Who benefits from automation, and who loses, is ultimately a consequence not of the robots themselves, but of who owns them.”[^3] Digging deeper, the “learn to code” rhetoric revolves around job creation. More myopic technicians are needed to extend the machinery of yesterday. Silicon Valley has gladly embraced this narrative. Code.org, a “a nonprofit dedicated to expanding access to computer science in schools”[^4], receives funding from Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, Google, Linkedin, and BlackRock.
But optimistically, "The future is one where technology is reclaimed by everyone”.[^5] So how do we get there?
We propose an open-source curriculum and series of workshops to empower artists and activists. Participants will learn skills such as computer networking, AI, and data analytics while simultaneously discussing the history, limitations, and potential misuse of these technologies. The course aims to be accessible to a broad range of applicants of different backgrounds and ability.
No programming experience is required; to build a new way forward, we must extend technical literacy beyond the Bay Area. Although the primary focus will always be on empowering critical citizens, we imagine reciprocity between the technically trained and the technically critical. The curriculum should act as a bridge in either direction.
There does not, to our knowledge, exist a curriculum today that teaches both the technical knowledge and the societal context required to grasp the networked computational regime we inhabit today. There exist thousands of online schools and code bootcamps that claim to teach code in a radically different way, but after years working in the field we've yet to see anything "radical". In fact, most of these programs are career training for exit into one of the big five tech companies. Another tributary into the flooded banks of late capitalism.
"A simply functional understanding of systems is insufficient; one needs to be able to think about histories and consequences too. Where did these systems come from, who designed them and what for, and which of these intentions still lurk within them today?”[^6]
The project truly begins after the workshop is finished. It is a movement to reclaim our tools and our data, to enact change in policy, behaviour, and expectations. Modern technical education must be two-pronged. We intend to create an open curriculum for a new type of student: one who can both critique the system, and build a better one.
[^1]: James Bridle, "New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future".
[^2]: Alexander Galloway, "Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization".
[^3]: Peter Frase, "Four Futures: Life After Capitalism".
[^4]: About Code.org.
[^5]: Zach Mandeville, "The Future Will be Technical".
[^6]: James Bridle, "New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future".