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You've gotta fight... for your right... to IT

Don't step out of this house if that's the code you're gonna wear

Sysadmin Blog Perhaps the greatest lie ever told is that the many are powerless against the few. This is rarely, if ever, true, yet is something that we are told every day of our lives until we believe it. This is especially the case when it comes to IT.

If the many are powerless against the few, then surely the individual has no chance to effectuate change. What can one person with one voice and limited funds ever truly accomplish? Even the richest and most powerful people in the world are frequently thwarted by other rich and powerful people. The game is rigged from the start so we might as well just not play.

Except...that's not actually true. It's seductive to think so. It's easy to believe. But never in the history of humanity has one individual – let alone a group of them – had the power to change so much, so quickly.

It is technology that gives us the tools to change the world around us. The internet makes worldwide communication and research on any number of topics easy. Social media gives every individual, movement, organisation, charity, government and corporation a platform.

Crowdfunding allows the many to bring their economic might to bear directly, and the Streisand effect means that information, once free, cannot be suppressed. Unfortunately, while technology can uplift the masses, the powers-that-be have a remarkably difficult-to-counter capability of their own: our own impatience.

Failure as a Service

The rise of flashmobs at the turn of the millennium proved that we could get lots of people to show up at a specific place for the flimsiest of reasons. The Chanology protests proved that globally coordinated protests are possible, while both the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring proved that these protests can grow to millions of individuals and even overthrow governments.

Ultimately, however, each of these endeavours failed. Scientology wasn't banished by Chanology, and even awareness faded rapidly with time. The Occupy movement proved that getting people in the streets without any sort of cohesive goal accomplishes nothing. The Arab spring reinforced the well-known axiom that if you don't prepare for what happens after you win the revolution, everything you fought for turns to ashes.

In essence, modern technology has allowed us to run a series of social experiments. One conclusion that can be drawn is a reinforcement of another ages-old axiom: the masses follow the individual, not the cause. A charismatic leader or inspiring bit of propaganda is all it takes and the internet makes disseminating a cult of personality child's play.

In the end, each success for the many has been met with an equally resounding defeat. I argue that it doesn't have to be this way.

Activism as a Service

Individuals are easily discouraged. Masses of them even more so. The internet, accessible to the masses, has not been around particularly long. We've only just begun to figure out what we can do with it, let alone how we can use it to gain some measure of control over our own existences.

If the internet makes hosing down the masses with charisma and propaganda simple, it also democratises access to expertise. Organisations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Openmedia have learned that rallying the masses is easy, but planning for victory is hard.

Of course, it doesn't take a formal organisation to realize this. The EFF, Openmedia and the like are essentially professional activists. They do the research into the causes the masses will support, raise funds, research attainable goals, plan for as many eventualities as possible and then set about gathering the troops.

These modern-day professional activists are experienced, efficient and capable. They have a lot to teach...but they also have a lot to learn.

FUD as a Service

Propaganda and charisma work both ways. Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) is a powerful tool of the oppressors. For all that rallying the troops is easy, dispersing them really isn't that hard.

For those who treat dating like a sport, "negging" is an important concept. This particularly vile practice is where a "seduction artist" purposefully reduces the self esteem of a target so that the negee will be more inclined to "settle" for the negger. It's an old trick, used by governments and employers as much as by con artists and assholes: grind someone's self worth down to a tiny nub and they become suggestible and easy to control.

FUD can come in many forms, but the simplest and most common of these is repeating that those seeking change have no hope of achieving it. Whether the scope of concern is the individual or an entire society, anything permitted by the laws of physics can occur...and we're not entirely sure what the laws of physics actually are.

The IT angle

When it comes to creating change, technologists have a home field advantage we rarely realise. Technology is what is enabling the voice of the masses to be heard, and we know technology.

Technologists understand the power of the scientific method. Instead of trying things randomly or relying on our emotions to guide us, we are capable of constructing hypotheses, designing and then implementing experiments.

Furthermore – and perhaps most critically – we have an entire universe of targets for our experiments. Vendors listen to enterprises almost exclusively; how can we get the needs of the masses met? How do we rally those masses when brand tribalism is often religious in fervour and politics (especially in the open source community) are toxic?

IT even has experiments to be run in how to deal with xenophobia, "not invented here" syndrome, lack of representation of minorities, decades of prejudices and more. Above all, IT is a Petri dish for figuring out how to develop countermeasures to FUD.

We can learn a lot about how to drive social change by figuring out how to make tech vendors listen and heed. We have tools like crowdfunding and social media, access to all of humanity's knowledge and expertise and even the experience of professional activist groups.

We need not be powerless. We simply need longer time horizons and the willingness to be methodical and iterative in our testing. Today we bring the tech vendors to heel. Tomorrow, the world. ®


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