Digital activism

Internet, platforms and digital technologies offer new ways of spreading the message and organising action for different cause-driven movements and citizen activism. This digital activism is not limited to using platforms to support existing forms of activism, but also takes advantage of the new opportunities platforms give for distributing value and providing access for information.

Why is this important?

The clear benefit of platforms for activism is new tools for communicating, deliberating, organising and connecting. Platforms such as Enspiral support a collaborative culture, constructive deliberation and collective decision making. They pool together resources such as money, time and skills to promote a jointly agreed upon set of projects. There are also platforms aimed at explaining obscure policies or laws or doing the increasingly important fact-checking.

In addition to tools, there is a quieter form of digital activism, one aimed at changing societal structures of access of information and distribution of value. Projects building ad hoc digital networks or internet access points aim to circumvent restrictions on the access to information. Platform cooperatives aim to reshape the way value is distributed within the system. In general, the aim is to improve the possibilities of those that are respressed or silenced via digital cencorship, or left out in the winner-takes-all forms of digital economy.

Things to keep an eye on

Digital activism suffers from so called “clicktivism”, where people are eager to support a cause if it just means clicking a button. Then when nothing changes, people lose their faith also in other forms of activism. Therefore digital activism needs also “off-line” activism. At best, digital activism can support other forms of activism, at worst it can undermine them.

There are also interesting examples of what can emerge out of the interface between the physical and digital in the age of smart phones and ubiquitous connectivity. One such example is the “I’m being arrested” app, which is a panic button for demonstrators to let a preselected group of people know that they are in trouble. Using location aware and camera equipped smartphones provides new tools for ensuring transparency and fair treatment.

On the flipside, digital activism raises also questions about ethics and responsibilities. Whistleblowing and the leaking of classified information may be a necessary alarm call in some cases, and in others it may just do more harm through unintended side effects. It is worth noting where the activism rises and what are its underlying intentions. There is also the question of drawing a line between civil disobedience, mischief “for the lolz” and outright criminal activity.

A potential transformation may happen  through the adoption of the tools for collective decision making and deliberation, as they find their way increasingly to more conventional arenas of decision making. It is interesting to see if they change the forms of governance.

Selected articles and websites

How a new wave of digital activists is changing society
Digital and Online Activism
Flex your political activist muscles with these resources
Mobile Justice (Team Human podcast with Jason van Anden)
Enspiral – more people working on stuff that matters
Loomio – making decisions together

See also our signal on persuasive computing

Mikko Dufva

Research Scientist VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd
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Persuasive computing

In the aftermath of the US election, the power of social media filter bubbles and echo chambers has again evoked discussion and concern. How much can algorithms influence our behaviour?

Why is this important?

Data is a key part of the functioning of any platform, and analysis and filtering of data streams allows, for example, tailoring of the platform’s offering based on user data. This is evident in content platforms such as Facebook or Youtube, which learn from your behaviour and customise the user view and suggested contents accordingly. This filtering for personalised experience is valuable and helps the user navigate in their areas of interests, but there are also various drawbacks.  Filtering and especially its invisibility can cause ‘filter bubbles’, where the user experience is threatened to limit to information that reinforces existing beliefs. This leads to polarization. What is even more troubling is that the algorithms can be tweaked to manipulate the feelings of users, according to a 2014 study done by Facebook without the users knowing.

Things to keep an eye on

The debate is now on-going as to how much algorithms can affect our actions. Some claim that the analysis and manipulation of social media feeds was instrumental in the US elections, while some say that the claims are overrated and the hype mostly benefits the analytics companies. In any case, the filtering of data is not inconsequential and there are increasing calls for more transparency to the filtering algorithms as well as for the ownership of the behavioural data collected through platforms. In part this issue becomes more and more topical with the advances in artificial intelligence, which makes data analysis more sophisticated and accessible. There are also interesting experiments – often with artistic goals – in confusing the algorithms in order to make the data they collect unusable by the platform owner.

Selected articles and websites

Will Democracy Survive Big Data and Artificial Intelligence?
The Rise of the Weaponized AI Propaganda Machine
The Truth About The Trump Data Team That People Are Freaking Out About
Robert Mercer: the big data billionaire waging war on mainstream media
How to hide your true feelings from Facebook
Persuading Algorithms with an AI Nudge

Mikko Dufva

Research Scientist VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd
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Distributed autonomous organization

A distributed (or decentralised) autonomous organisation (DAO) is a new form of organising business transactions, one in which all agreements and transactions are done through code and saved in a shared ledger. It is enabled by blockchain and smart contracts. In a DAO there is no management, but instead complete transparency (as all the transactions are shared) and total shareholder control (as anyone that takes part in a DAO can decide what to do with the funds invested). More broadly, a DAO is an experiment of organising business transactions, where trust is outsourced to code and blockchain. The prominent example of a DAO is aptly named “The DAO”, which is an investment fund without management.

Why is this important?

DAO is a structure built upon a blockchain platform such as Ethereum. It is itself also a type of platform in that through it many types of transactions can be done. DAO is an example of how platforms do not just transfer old ways of organising to digital, networked world, but instead enable new forms of organising and governance. DAO is a structure on which to build different types of activities from investment funds to shared data repositories. It can be used to organise an autonomous ridesharing ecosystem, where there are competing applications for matching, payment, user interface etc, all working seamlessly together. It enables new governance models, such as “futarchy”, which uses a prediction market to choose between policies.

DAO can also be seen as a response to the transformation in work, much like platform cooperativism. As work becomes more like a risky investment than a steady source of income, organisational structures can help cope with the new reality. Whereas platform cooperatives solve the problem by using digital platform to enable fair distribution of value and power, DAOs try to achieve the same through smart contracts, code and blockchain – in other words without humans who could risk the fairness of the system.

Things to keep an eye on

DAOs are based on the idea that all rules can be embedded in the code and system. Smart contracts are described as plain English, but what matters really is the code that defines what the contracts do. Code is susceptible to human error, which means that those agreeing on the conditions of the contract must be able to decipher the code or trust that someone has checked it. An interesting example of what this can lead to happened last spring in The DAO.

In June 2016 a hacker managed to use a vulnerability in a smart contract and transfer a large amount of funds to another contract within the DAO. This led to an ideological discussion about what to do: should this transaction be cancelled and the immutability of the blockchain thus questioned, or should those who lost their money just accept what happened. Because there is no one officially in control, the developers of the Ethereum platform, on which The DAO operates, recommended as their preferred solution “hard fork”, i.e. to cancel the transaction and gave the decision to participants of The DAO. A majority voted in favour of the hard fork, but the original version of the blockchain containing the disputed transaction still exists as “Ethereum Classic”.

The example above indicates how the practices around DAOs are developing. Blockchain technology is still in its infancy and lots of failures and experimentation on the applications are to be expected. There is now clearly a need for built-in governance systems for dispute settlement. One example of this is Microsoft’s project Bletchley, which aims to develop a distributed ledger marketplace and “cryptlets” that would work in the interface between humans and the blockchain implementations. Cryplets would basically mix more traditional methods to ensure trust with blockchain.

On a broader level there is the question of whether or not a DAO is an organisation and what is its legal status or the role of the tokens that represent funds or other assets. There is also the question of whether there is really a need for such an organisation, which eliminates middlemen completely, as middlemen can be useful and provide services other than just matching demand and supply. On a technological and more long-term note, as the blockchain is based on encryption, it is vulnerable to quantum computers, which could break the encryption by calculating private keys from public keys in minutes.

Selected articles and websites

Post-blockchain smart contracts creating a new firm
TED Talk: How the blockchain will radically transform the economy | Bettina Warburg
The humans who dream of companies that won’t need them
The Tao of “The DAO” or: How the autonomous corporation is already here
The DAO: a radical experiment that could be the future of decentralised governance
Why Ethereum’s Hard Fork Will Cause Problems in the Coming Year
The gateway to a new business order: Why crowdfunding is just the start of the next era of organisations

Mikko Dufva

Research Scientist VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd
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