in Civic Tech, Libraries, Richmond

Talk: Using light from the dumpster fire to illuminate a more just digital world

This February I gave a lightning talk for the Richmond Design Group. My question: what if we use the light from the dumpster fire of 2020 to see an equitable, just digital world? How can we change our thinking to build the future web we need?

Hi everybody, I’m Erin. Before I get started I want to say thank you to the RVA Design Group organizers. This is hard work and some folks have been doing it for YEARS. Thank you to the organizers of this group for doing this work and for inviting me to speak.

This talk isn’t about 2020. This talk is about the future. But to understand the future, we gotta look back.

The web in 1996

Travel with me to 1996. Twenty-five years ago!

I want to transport us back to the mindset of the early web. The fundamental idea of hyperlinks, which we now take for granted, really twisted everyone’s noodles. So much of the promise of the early web was that with broad access to publish in hypertext, the opportunities were limitless. Technologists saw the web as an equalizing space where systems of oppression that exist in the real world wouldn’t matter, and that we’d all be equal and free from prejudice. Nice idea, right?

You don’t need to’ve been around since 1996 to know that’s just not the way things have gone down.

Pictured before you are some of the early web pioneers. Notice a pattern here?

These early visions of the web, including Barlow’s declaration of independence of cyberspace, while inspiring and exciting, were crafted by the same types of folks who wrote the actual declaration of independence: the landed gentry, white men with privilege. Their vision for the web echoed the declaration of independence’s authors’ attempts to describe the world they envisioned. And what followed was the inevitable conflict with reality.

We all now hold these truths to be self-evident:

  • The systems humans build reflect humans’ biases and prejudices.
  • We continue to struggle to diversify the technology industry.
  • Knowledge is interest-driven.
  • Inequality exists, online and off.
  • Celebrating, rather than diminishing, folks’ intersecting identities is vital to human flourishing.

The web we have known

Profit first: monetization, ads, the funnel, dark patterns
Can we?: Innovation for innovation’s sake
Solutionism: code will save us
Visual design: aesthetics over usability
Lone genius: “hard” skills and rock star coders
Short term thinking: move fast, break stuff
Shipping: new features, forsaking infrastructure

Let’s move forward quickly through the past 25 years or so of the web, of digital design.

All of the web we know today has been shaped in some way by intersecting matrices of domination: colonialism, capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy. (Thank you, bell hooks.)

The digital worlds where we spend our time – and that we build!! – exist in this way.

This is not an indictment of anyone’s individual work, so please don’t take it personally. What I’m talking about here is the digital milieu where we live our lives.

The funnel drives everything. Folks who work in nonprofits and public entities often tie ourselves in knots to retrofit our use cases in order to use common web tools (google analytics, anyone?)

In chasing innovation™ we often overlook important infrastructure work, and devalue work — like web accessibility, truly user-centered design, care work, documentation, customer support and even care for ourselves and our teams — that doesn’t drive the bottom line. We frequently write checks for our future selves to cash, knowing damn well that we’ll keep burying ourselves in technical debt. That’s some tough stuff for us to carry with us every day.

The “move fast” mentality has resulted in explosive growth, but at what cost? And in creating urgency where it doesn’t need to exist, focusing on new things rather than repair, the end result is that we’re building a house of cards. And we’re exhausted.

To zoom way out, this is another manifestation of late capitalism. Emphasis on LATE. Because…2020 happened.

What 2020 taught us

Hard times amplify existing inequalities
Cutting corners mortgages our future
Infrastructure is essential
“Colorblind”/color-evasive policy doesn’t cut it
Inclusive design is vital
We have a duty to each other
Technology is only one piece
Together, we rise

The past year has been awful for pretty much everybody.

But what the light from this dumpster fire has illuminated is that things have actually been awful for a lot of people, for a long time. This year has shown us how perilous it is to avoid important infrastructure work and to pursue innovation over access. It’s also shown us that what is sometimes referred to as colorblindness — I use the term color-evasiveness because it is not ableist and it is more accurate — a color-evasive approach that assumes everyone’s needs are the same in fact leaves people out, especially folks who need the most support.

We’ve learned that technology is a crucial tool and that it’s just one thing that keeps us connected to each other as humans.

Finally, we’ve learned that if we work together we can actually make shit happen, despite a world that tells us individual action is meaningless. Like biscuits in a pan, when we connect, we rise together.

Marginalized folks have been saying this shit for years.
More of us than ever see these things now.
And now we can’t, and shouldn’t, unsee it.

The web we can build together

Current state:
– Profit first
– Can we?
– Solutionism
– Aesthetics
– “Hard” skills
– Rockstar coders
– Short term thinking
– Shipping

Future state:
– People first: security, privacy, inclusion
– Should we?
– Holistic design
– Accessibility
– Soft skills
– Teams
– Long term thinking
– Sustaining

So let’s talk about the future. I told you this would be a talk about the future.

Like many of y’all I have had a very hard time this year thinking about the future at all. It’s hard to make plans. It’s hard to know what the next few weeks, months, years will look like. And who will be there to see it with us.

But sometimes, when I can think clearly about something besides just making it through every day, I wonder.

What does a people-first digital world look like? Who’s been missing this whole time?

Just because we can do something, does it mean we should?

Will technology actually solve this problem? Are we even defining the problem correctly?

What does it mean to design knowing that even “able-bodied” folks are only temporarily so? And that our products need to be used, by humans, in various contexts and emotional states?

(There are also false binaries here: aesthetics vs. accessibility; abled and disabled; binaries are dangerous!)

How can we nourish our collaborations with each other, with our teams, with our users? And focus on the wisdom of the folks in the room rather than assigning individuals as heroes?

How can we build for maintenance and repair? How do we stop writing checks our future selves to cash – with interest?

Some of this here, I am speaking of as a web user and a web creator. I’ve only ever worked in the public sector. When I talk with folks working in the private sector I always do some amount of translating. At the end of the day, we’re solving many of the same problems.

But what can private-sector workers learn from folks who come from a public-sector organization?

And, as we think about what we build online, how can we also apply that thinking to our real-life communities? What is our role in shaping the public conversation around the use of technologies? I offer a few ideas here, but don’t want them to limit your thinking.

Consider the public sector

I don’t have a ton of time left today. I wanted to talk about public service like the very excellent Dana Chisnell here.

Like I said, I’ve worked in the public sector, in higher ed, for a long time. It’s my bread and butter. It’s weird, it’s hard, it’s great.

There’s a lot of work to be done, and it ain’t happening at civic hackathons or from external contractors. The call needs to come from inside the house.

Working in the public sector

I want you to consider for a minute how many folks are working in the public sector right now, and how technical expertise — especially in-house expertise — is something that is desperately needed.

Pictured here are the old website and new website for the city of Richmond. I have a whole ‘nother talk about that new Richmond website. I FOIA’d the contracts for this website. There are 112 accessibility errors on the homepage alone. It’s been in development for 3 years and still isn’t in full production.

Bottom line, good government work matters, and it’s hard to find. Important work is put out for the lowest bidder and often external agencies don’t get it right. What would it look like to have that expertise in-house?

Influencing technology policy

We also desperately need lawmakers and citizens who understand technology and ask important questions about ethics and human impact of systems decisions.

Pictured here are some headlines as well as a contract from the City of Richmond. Y’all know we spent $1.5 million on a predictive policing system that will disproportionately harm citizens of color? And that earlier this month, City Council voted to allow Richmond and VCU PD’s to start sharing their data in that system?

The surveillance state abides. Technology facilitates.

I dare say these technologies are designed to bank on the fact that lawmakers don’t know what they’re looking at.

My theory is, in addition to holding deep prejudices, lawmakers are also deeply baffled by technology. The hard questions aren’t being asked, or they’re coming too late, and they’re coming from citizens who have to put themselves in harm’s way to do so.

Technophobia is another harmful element that’s emerged in the past decades. What would a world look like where technology is not a thing to shrug off as un-understandable, but is instead deftly co-designed to meet our needs, rather than licensed to our city for 1.5 million dollars? What if everyone knew that technology is not neutral?


This is some of the future I can see. I hope that it’s sparked new thoughts for you.

Let’s envision a future together. What has the light illuminated for you?

Thank you!