Aral Balkan

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Small Technology

A tiny plant sprouting from within the crack in a pavement with a person’s sneaker towering above it.

The antidote to Big Tech is Small Tech.

Big Tech, with its billion-dollar unicorns, has robbed us of the potential of the Internet. Fueled by the extreme shortsightedness and greed of venture capital and startups, the utopic vision of a decentralised and democratic commons has morphed into the dystopic autocracy of Silicon Valley panopticons that we call surveillance capitalism. This status quo threatens not just our democracies but the very integrity of our personhood in the digital and networked age1.

While ethical design unambiguously describes the criteria and characteristics of ethical alternatives to surveillance capitalism, “ethics” itself is being co-opted by Big Tech in public relations initiatives that misdirect from the core systemic issues2 to highlight superficial symptoms3.

We need an antidote to surveillance capitalism that is so anathema to the interests of Big Tech that it cannot possibly be co-opted by them. It must have clear and simple characteristics and goals that are impossible to misinterpret. And it must provide a viable, practical alternative to Silicon Valley’s strangehold on mainstream technology and society.

That antidote is Small Tech.

Small Tech

These criteria mean that Small Tech:

  1. Background reading: The nature of the self in the digitial age, Encouraging individual sovereignty and a healthy commons, and We didn’t lose control, it was stolen. ↩︎

  2. We have a system in which 99.99999% of investment goes into funding surveillance-based businesses tasked with growing exponentially by violating the privacy of the general population. ↩︎

  3. “Attention” and “addiction”. While it is true that surveillance capitalists crave to capture our attention and addict us to their products, they do this not as an end in and of itself but because the more we use their products, the more they can farm us for our data. Companies like Google and Facebook are factory farms for human beings. Their products are the farming machinery. They must provide a shiny façade to keep our attention and addict us so that we – the livestock – will willingly allow ourselves to be farmed. These institutions cannot be reformed. Big Tech can only be regulated in the same way we regulate Big Tobacco to reduce its harms on society. And we can – and should – invest in the ethical alternative: Small Tech. ↩︎

  4. Small Technology is human-to-human (H2H) in nature. Specifically, it is not built by for-profit corporations to exploit individuals – what we call business-to-consumer (B2C) technology. It is also not technology built by corporations for other corporations – what we call “enterprise” or “business-to-business” (B2B) technology. ↩︎

  5. We build Small Tech primarily for the common good, not to make a profit. This does not mean we disregard the economic system we find ourselves mired in currently or the fact that the alternatives we build must be sustainable. While we hope that one day Small Tech will be funded from the commons, for the common good, we cannot wait for our politicians and policymakers to wake up and implement such social change. While we find ourselves having to survive within capitalism, we can sell and make a profit from Small Tech. But that is not our primary purpose. Our organisations are primarily concerned with sustainable methods for creating tools that empower people without exploiting them, not with making a profit. Small Tech is not charity but it is not-for-profit. ↩︎

  6. Organisations with equity capital are owned and thus can be sold. Contrast this to organisations without equity capital (for example, companies limited by guarantee in Ireland and the United Kingdom) that cannot be sold. Furthermore, if an organisation has venture capital, we can consider that it has already been sold at investment-time as, if it doesn’t fail, it must exit (be bought by a larger corporation or by the public in general in an IPO). The exit is what venture capitalists invest their clients’ money in. The exit is how those investors make their return on investment. We avoid this toxic poison pill in Small Tech by creating organisations without equity capital that cannot be sold. Silicon Valley has disposible businesses they call Startups. We have sustainable organisations working for the common good that we call Stayups. ↩︎

  7. The revolution will not be sponsored by those we are revolting against. Small Tech rejects sponsorship by surveillance capitalists. We will not allow our efforts to be used as public relations to legitimise and whitewash the toxic business model of Big Tech and help them stave off effective regulations to curb their abuses and give the ethical alternatives a chance to flourish. ↩︎

  8. Privacy is having the right to decide what you keep to yourself and what you share with others. Therefore, private-by-default is the only definition of privacy that matters. What this means is that we design Small Tech so that people’s data stays on their devices. If there is a legitimate reason why this is not possible (for example, we need an always-on node in a peer-to-peer system to guarantee findability and availability), we ensure that data is end-to-end encrypted and the individual who owns the tool has sole possession of the keys to their private information and sole control over who the “ends” are (to avoid the spectre of Ghosting). ↩︎

  9. The core topology of our technology is peer to peer – a system without centres in which every node is equal. Nodes that individuals do not have direct control over (e.g., the always-on node in the peer-to-peer system mentioned in the previous footnote) are untrusted and unprivileged dumb relay nodes that never have the keys to people’s private information. ↩︎

  10. In order to ensure a healthy commons, we must protect the commons from exploitation and enclosure. Small Tech uses copyleft licenses to ensure that if you benefit from the commons, you must give back to the commons. This also stops Big Tech from embracing and extending our work only to eventually lock us out of it using their vast concentration of wealth and power. ↩︎

  11. Small Tech is influenced in no small part by the wealth of existing work by those inspirational designers and developers in the JavaScript community that birthed the DAT and Scuttlebutt communities. Their philosophy of creating pragmatic, modular, minimalist, human-scale components results in technology that is accessible to, maintable by, and at the benefit of individuals. Their approach, and ours, in turn, is based on the UNIX philosophy. ↩︎

  12. Small Tech adheres to The Ethical Design Manifesto. ↩︎

  13. Small Tech is built by humans, for humans; it is staunchly non-colonial in approach. It is not built by smarter humans for dumber humans (e.g., by “developers” for “users” – we do not use the othering term “user” in Small Tech. We call people, people.) We build our tools as simply as possible so that they can be understood and maintained and improved upon by the greatest number of people. We do not arrogantly expect people to put in undue effort to learn our tools. We invest undue effort ourselves in making them intuitive and easy to use. We implement beautiful defaults and layer the seams. Remember: complexity happens, simplicity you have to strive for. In Small Tech, “too smart” is a euphemism for dumb. In the words of Brian Kernighan: “Debugging is twice as hard as writing the code in the first place. Therefore, if you write the code as cleverly as possible, you are, by definition, not smart enough to debug it.” We take the spirit of Brian’s quote and apply it across the board – from funding, to organisational structure, to the design of the product, to its development, deployment, and beyond.

    Photo credit: Small Things, Big Things by Sherman Geronimo-Tan. Released under Creative Commons Attribution. ↩︎