2014-03-13

Co.Exist

The First Things First Manifesto Pledges The Tech Industry To Create Meaningful Work

In the era of Flappy Bird and the NSA, the manifesto's signers want to revive a sense of ethics and social responsibility in technology, a field they feel is giving way to surveillance and frivolity.

Nearly 500 designers, programmers, and creative technologists have signed their names to a fiery manifesto created last month asking digital workers to re-examine their consciences and contributions to society.

The "First Things First" manifesto was originally penned by activist designer Ken Garland in 1963, but has been revived once before: In 2000, 33 visual communicators signed an updated version published by Adbusters that decried contemporary versions of rampant consumerism. Today’s update, created by Canadian designer Cole Peters, examines the ethical implications of "big data," the lucrative world of one-hit-wonder apps, and the lack of diversity in science, technology, and engineering fields.

The manifesto, while intentionally vague, doesn’t skimp on the polemic:

"…we have applied ourselves toward the creation of trivial, undifferentiated apps; disposable social networks; fantastical gadgets obtainable only by the affluent; products that use emotion as a front for the sale of customer data; products that reinforce broken or dishonest forms of commerce; and insular communities that drive away potential collaborators and well-grounded leaders. Some of us have lent our expertise to initiatives that abuse the law and human rights, defeat critical systems of encryption and privacy, and put lives at risk. We have negated our professions’ potential for positive impact, and are using up our time and energy manufacturing demand for things that are redundant at best, destructive at worst."

When I asked for specifics, Peters didn’t go into what those trivial products were—though he did cite "Flappy Bird rip-offs," "weather apps," and "Instagram knock-offs" as projects that maybe didn’t require the most critical thinking. But, like a few other signatories I spoke to, Peters said he had been most galvanized by the NSA leaks of 2013.

"While people were going nuts over Twitter’s IPO and Path was getting ready to close a $25 million funding round, we were learning how the NSA and GCHQ had been stockpiling the population’s data and subverting major online security systems for years," Peters wrote in an email. "I felt something needed to be said in a very loud way about what I saw as an increasing lack of ethics in the industry, both in the work we choose to produce and the way we treat other (and would-be) members of the community."

Paul Carvill, a technical director at advertising agency R/GA, also signed the online manifesto. He sees the gender imbalance in his field as one of its most pressing issues. "It is important to realize that no advertising agency is motivated by evil intentions," he wrote in an email. "But they fall short in a number of areas, most notably gender, race, and age diversity. It’s one thing to moan about this, but another to take responsibility for making the necessary changes."

At the same time, it’s fair to ask: What, exactly, will the manifesto change? It’s much easier to sign a manifesto than refuse work that pays a person’s bills.

"I think these manifestos act as reminders of where one stands in one’s practice or one’s industry. It’s not like everyone who agrees with this is [sworn] by blood or by death or something," Lisa Maione, a lecturer at the New School and assistant professor at Queens College who also signed the pledge, said. Rather, she sees it as a reason to open up a dialogue about putting more efforts towards educational, medical, or journalistic purposes with a community of her peers.

For others, the manifesto represents an opportunity to slow down and take stock of the rapid technological changes in recent years. Eric Heiman, co-founder of Volume Inc. and associate professor at California College of the Arts, found some of the manifesto’s language lacking "nuance," in the way it talked about big technology companies (they’ve been some of his clients in the past), but signed the statement because it invited an opportunity to reflect.

"Living in the Bay Area, it’s hard to be a naysayer in this technology that’s so enabling, but I’m also a teacher," Heiman said. "I believe we should be thinking critically about this, and backing up and asking questions—things are happening very quickly that maybe feel like they’re a little bit out of our control."

To read the manifesto in full, click here.

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