For the May edition of Open Future Sessions, we invited Julia Kloiber, co-founder and Managing Director of Superrr Lab. Julia has both years of experience in advising governments and corporations on digital strategies, and a strong commitment to building a new, radically different and more just internet. The Superrr Lab recently published Feminist Tech Principles and we were curious to see how a feminist perspective can enrich thinking about openness.
Superrr Lab works on “developing actionable feminist and more equitable futures,” looking at both the use and development of technology. The Lab pays attention to working in partnerships, arguing that different perspectives and backgrounds can be included – a necessity for developing alternative futures.
Julia and her organization also aim to push the time frame of the public debate on technology further into the future. “We’re very much stuck in the here and now,” argued Julia, mentioning current hot topics like a billionaire’s takeover of Twitter. And because of these short time frames, civil society often works in a reactive paradigm and focuses on harm prevention. Julia firmly believes that this is not enough, that civil society needs to be the source of “bold visions, and new approaches that help to inspire people, to rally them behind these visions, and to open up new ways forward.”
It is a compelling vision that is close to the visions and ideas of many open organizations and activists. Who, unlike digital rights activists who adopt a watchdog stance, are usually interested in solving social problems by proposing and building new solutions. Yet the latest project of the Superrr Lab, argues that old ways of doing things in the open are not enough – therefore, a new set of Feminist Tech Principles has been co-designed by Superrr Lab, with partners.
The starting point for these principles is an observation that digital policymaking is often solely focused on fostering innovation. And underlying narratives speak about growth and wealth creation. An alternative approach starts with the belief that digital transformation, the use of emerging technologies, is foremost a social issue.
But Julia also pointed to a limitation of positive attempts to regulate technology. These often frame the harms in individual terms and focus on defending individual rights. And from this perspective, it is much harder to address both the negative and positive impacts of technology on society at large. In other terms, it is a perspective that often neglects to properly address power structures in the society.
And this is the reason that a feminist perspective was adopted – because it is perfect for scrutinizing and dismantling power structures. Julia states that from a feminist perspective, equal access to power is as important as providing equal access to knowledge – which has been one of the key goals of traditionally understood open activism. This shift of perspectives is a powerful contribution that a feminist perspective offers.
A feminist perspective on technology is based on an intersectional approach that understands power, and inequality, as emerging at the intersection of different kinds and systems of inequality. It also introduces other core values to technological development and transformation, such as equity, care or maintenance.
Julia highlighted two principles that, in particular, can shift our understanding of openness. The first of them is accessibility, also understood as equitable participation and representation. Too often, accessibility is reduced to a list of checkboxes to be marked when designing web pages. In reality, being accessible requires a greater and more complex effort that ensures that all relevant groups, and especially those that are marginalized, are active stakeholders – either in the design of technology, or the design of policies.
The second principle is that of informed consent. Again, the basic principle is familiar, due to the importance of consent for GDPR and other types of privacy regulation. But the Principles introduce a broader view, which draws on consent as a more fundamental principle that applies also to the sovereignty of our bodies or to our sexual life. A more complex understanding of meaningful context makes sure that it is voluntary, based on sufficient information to decide, and can be reversed. Consent, framed this way, is not just about protecting rights – it is about having real agency. A category that is rarely deployed in conversations that satisfy themselves with the reduction of harm or safeguarding of users.
The power of the Feminist Tech Principles is that they can be deployed in several different contexts. It can be used to challenge the power structures established by Big Tech and the design of commercial services. It can serve as guidelines for policymakers who aim not just to curb Big Tech, but support the development of alternatives.
And, maybe most importantly, they can serve as a shared framework for all of those who want to build alternatives. Julia talked about the experience of technologists like Timnit Gebru, who tried to change corporations from the inside but ultimately started creating their own organizations, structures and companies – which have the capacity to build alternatives. “Maybe we just need to start from scratch and to develop new structures, not only civil society organizations, but new tech companies that work in a different way,” said Julia at the end. And that way would be focused on the benefits that it can bring to society, and on different value sets than the ones we see right now. The Feminist Tech Principles, with an associated set of varied tools that help to bring it into practice in different fields, are a tool that helps us reach this goal.