Discussing values in a year that tests them

Jan 25, 2021

Kelsey Breseman

2020 was a year far apart from ordinary. We saw fear, courage, trust, the practice of daily sacrifice for the benefit of the greater community. We each made small choices with large impacts. We felt the struggle to feel connected in a world requiring greater isolation. As a global community, we felt from varying distances raging wildfires, melting sea ice, critical elections, necessary rebellions, and people in the streets both fighting and making food to share with strangers. Every day’s decisions ask us to draw upon our values, but times of great change make those choices more visible than ever.

Data Together is a space set aside for stepping back: it’s a place to ask ourselves and each other about worlds we dream of creating. We set aside the tasks of work to ask questions about the nature of the Work. Drawing texts from philosophers, economists, radicals and activists, technologists, and caretakers of practices both ancient and novel, we make the time to ask questions:

Can we build technologies that are more just than the societies they emerge from?

How does the constant and individualized curation of content change the lenses through which we perceive the world?

What is the meaning of consent in the context of monopolistic power?

Can we map digital theories of “trust” to real human trust?

Can true privacy exist alongside lives lived online and powerful machine learning?

How do we see ourselves - how are we most meaningfully connected to one another?

Our little drop-in group has always pulled heavily from the experiences of its participants: from citizen science projects, to on-the-street organizing, to codecrafting, to entrepreneurship, to cooperative facilitation. This year more than ever, our current events and contexts demanded to be noticed.

We discussed environmental data justice and algorithmic racism just as the United States started COVID quarantine, a pandemic that has highlighted systemic injustices. The Consent and Content Moderation and Data Monopolies conversations occurred over those early quarantine months, as the population at large adjusted to living more fully online. The Trust and Privacy conversations took place during the George Floyd rebellion, with avatars of the state surveilling and enacting violence on peaceful protestors nationwide—leading to a final conversation on U.S. election day about Polity: what are the ties that bind us, and the values through which we form shared identity? What is it that brings us together?

I love this little group. I love creating the obligation for myself to seek and pore over citable explanations for aspects of our work and world. I love the ninety minutes at a time where I can see the faces of people I’ve come to know in this specific context of near-future worldbuilding. I love listening over again to the conversations, pulling the themes back out into something digestible as a blog, hearing the arguments afresh and realizing that if I were back in that moment, I would have something new to say.

As ever, Data Together is an open group. You’re welcome here, to drop in and share your perspectives, even if you haven’t done the readings. The only prerequisite is that you care about these questions: how can we build from the world we have, to make a better one?

Photo by Sven Brandsma on Unsplash

2020 Data Together Syllabus