A new social contract between civil society and big tech: The UK foundation perspective

 

Cassie Robinson

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At the end of last year 30 UK foundations met to discuss their role in forging a new social contract between civil society and big tech, prompted by the film I shared in my previous blog post. In this blog post I will share some of what was discussed and how foundations responded to the film. 

We started the event by making a clear distinction between three things – 

  1. How civil society recognises the dynamics of technology and tackles the impact of technology on society 
  2. How civil society uses technology
  3. The challenge of civil society using technology that is built on values that are opposed to much of what civil society stands for

The film, event and the work that is being developed since, is all focussed on point 1 and point 3. Everyone had come to the event because they know the power of tech is something to be more mindful of and have more agency to do something about. Catherine Miller, CEO of UK-based think tank Doteveryone then started the conversation by talking about the ways that technology is currently changing communities and impacting on civil society.

‘It’s affecting every part of society, it’s not a distant future. The future is here now, it’s just not evenly distributed.’

As a group we discussed how some people and communities may experience this very perceptibly and acutely. Catherine used an example from Doteveryone’s Better Care work that details the impact of introducing technology into the social care sector where ill-thought through tech can exacerbate vulnerability and dehumanise care workers so they can’t do their work. It also shows up in the gig economy where workers see a ‘return to piecemeal.’ This brings with it financial insecurity combined with mental capture which stops people from planning a future. The film Sorry We Missed You is a heartbreaking narrative about this reality.  

Others may experience this much more passively in their lives but it’s there. Even if you’re not actively online, there are so many automated decisions made about you by commerce and the state (and an amplified combination of both) that affect decisions on your benefits, settled status, mortgages, and so forth. Automated decisions are also determining what products, people, information and news is made available to you – meaning that tech is continually shaping the society we all live in, as well our democracies. We spoke about how this can be used positively, but as Carl Miller comments in the film, technology is often camouflaging power, and that at the moment it’s the technology that’s shaping us, not us who’s shaping tech.  

‘There was a point where data was used to understand people, but we’re increasingly seeing data being used to direct – and perhaps even to control people. Given that most of that data is in corporate hands, closely followed by government –  that is not a healthy power dynamic.’ Says Catherine.

We explicitly talked as a group about what foundations could do more of in response to this – especially as what is felt to be so different about this ‘revolution’ is the pace and the scale. 

Catherine talked about how Doteveryone is very much an optimistic organisation and believes that there is a chance for them, alongside other organisations like Digital Action, Projects By IF, Engine Room, Catalyst, to seize that dynamic now so the change is directed in the public interest.  ‘But the window to do that is very short and civil society needs an awful lot of help to mobilise at the speed and scale of technological change. So in real terms that means funders need to engage in this with similar speed and similar scale.’

If funders don’t engage more with this agenda, then civil society finds itself with little but to take resource and sponsorship from the very companies they may want to critique. This can skew the narratives that need to be told.
Another reason that it can be difficult for foundations to resource this agenda is because impact frameworks don’t fit what is ultimately preventative work. International Human Rights funders may be more literate in how to do this, but for UK foundations this is not common ground.

‘Funders need to think bravely and creatively – we’re working to prevent intangible and still poorly defined potential harms.  How will we show a funder that a bad thing hasn’t happened?’

There’s also an important job to articulate the alternative future. “Technology has made its landgrab through innovation but also through rhetoric – it’s made it seem inevitable that the future defined by the tech giants in Silicon Valley will be the one that prevails.”  It’s the job of civil society, and therefore Foundations, to show how it could be different and to drive that alternative view through with advocacy and practical action to build an alternative.

Catherine talked about what an organisation like Doteveryone needs from funders – “We need speed and we need flexibility. We need core funding to make new organisations like Doteveryone, and others who are framing and shaping the field, resilient and adaptive to changing circumstances. If a funder is going to put out a call in January, spend a few months sifting through applications, do interviews across a few more months, and then award some restricted project money in October there are two likely outcomes – either the project we wanted to do is no longer relevant to the changed landscape or we are no longer here to do it.”

It’s important to highlight that this whole discussion was very UK focussed. We did have people from Luminate and Omidyar’s Tech & Society Solutions Lab, who alongside funders like Open Society Foundations and Ford Foundation, are already doing a huge amount in this area – however, it’s primarily international and more rooted in international civil society, through a human rights lens. 

So what’s next?
In the next blog post we’ll share what we’re starting to do to address this in the UK, with partners across the sector, and further afield, all with the aim of strengthening civil society to take a leading role in shaping the impacts of technology on our lives. And making sure foundations and philanthropy are helping to resource this.


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