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#PDF14 Preview: Featuring Charlie DeTar, Web Developer and Activist

BY Sonia Roubini | Monday, April 28 2014


Charlie Detar is a web developer and activist who is currently working on tools for democratic engagement. Previously, he’s worked on InterTwinkles, a collection of tools to support consensus-based group decision making and co-founded Between the Bars, a blogging platform for people in prison. Charlie will take part in a Breakout Session on “Tools for Democratic Self-Organization”.

1. How did you come to be interested in tech and its impacts on society?

I grew up as an environmental and social justice activist. I escaped an early tendency toward Luddism, brought on by increasing awareness of the negative impacts of industrial technology on the natural world and the sharp social divide brought forward by digital technocracy, and started programming computers. I've come to believe that it's necessary to not stick our heads in the sand, but instead to take technology by the horns and try to steer it toward more convivial ends. No technology is neutral -- whether it's a Microsoft operating system, a advertising-based search engine, or a predator drone, each is designed with a sharpness for particular social results. My interest is to fight for a stance of technology production that promotes explicit aims of social justice and democracy.

2. What's the most satisfying part of your work?

It's incredibly satisfying to build something that people find useful, and to see them using it in ways that make the world a better place. After immersing myself in theory, paper-prototyping, working with user communities to design a new tool, coding for weeks, testing, debugging, polishing, and beautifying, it's rewarding to see people I've never met finding the tools powerful and productive.

3. How has the web changed the nature of democratic engagement? Do you also think that it's changed its impact?

The web has been a powerful venue to amplify protest, and has shown a lot of potential as an accelerant for social change. But we have yet to see a compelling expression of democratic power-taking on the web -- forums, petitions, social media and so on remain side shows to the still centralized traditional sources of political power.

I believe that the value in speaking of the web as something which has agency in democratic engagement is diminishing -- no more than we would think of preceding technologies such as radio or TV as instrumental drivers of engagement. It's more important what we do with it, how we organize it, whom we amplify. The web is far from finished; it's up to us to build it the right way.

4. What are the key issues tech and politics/society to pay attention to at the moment?

We must remember that structural inequalities that we've inherited over the centuries, and more recent oligarchies from a very wealthy few, will be mirrored in the technologies that we use and design unless we are very intentional about counteracting them. It's not enough to create "neutral" or "free" spaces online; in the face of wide disparities in power, "neutral" is weighted toward the powerful.