Ethnography Report 3 | The Future of Work (Continued)

This April I sat down (virtually) with @JohnCoate to discuss his experience acting as community manager for the NGI project. We talked about the Edgeryders platform as a social space and we considered how it creates a unique vantage point from which to observe how ideas are shared, projects developed and networks of collaboration formed. John compared the Edgeryders platform to large social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, explaining that unlike Facebook, which is often based on existing relationships, and Twitter, which is primarily used as a “broadcast medium”, Edgeryders is composed of a broad range of new and existing relationships, offering more space for long-form project description and development. Importantly, as John pointed out, Edgeryders also differs from big social media sites in terms of the overall pace of interaction and the speed with which new content is produced. While Twitter and Facebook might be likened to waterfalls: quickly generating cascades of new and disparate content, Edgeryders, so John, operates more like a tidal lake, where ideas have time and space to float and grow. At the same time, like a tidal lake, interactions on Edgeryders rise and fall: some ideas many build up momentum and expand into larger projects, others are carried away by the tide.

In my last report, I spoke about the hope that our community members invest in the work that they do. Hope, as anthropologists Bryant and Knight point out, is the momentum towards a realisation of potential “otherwises”: alternative routes from our present realities. In this way hope represents a kind of futural momentum that presses into the future, attempting to “pull certain potentialities into actuality” (Bryant and Knight 2019:134). Potentiality, then, describes the “not-yet” actualised capacity of things, which we have yet to realise. As John and I discussed, our desire to harness the potential we see in the work that we do – and indeed in the potential for digital technologies to facilitate human-centric and just alternatives to our current status quo – often manifests as excitement and enthusiasm over new ideas. In this way, such affective positions may tell us a lot about the degree of momentum a given theme, project or issue may be gaining. To John, the task of community members and managers alike, is to keep up the momentum: to capture the potential of the near future and to provide reason for people to invest in future-making projects together. As @MariaEuler expressed to me in our conversation this March, while it’s important to come together to actualise a project, you also need someone who champions it - someone who continues to drive momentum, facilitate collaboration and provide resources.

Like my last report, this one unpacks salient themes around the future of work. By that I mean, topics that have been meaningfully addressed by our community members, and which we, the ethnography team, have been tracking and coding. In my last report I touched on topics like co-working and remote work as well as themes of access, mobility, ownership and precarity. Today, I will turn my attention to related though distinct themes of building open source alternatives, education and the trade-offs members of the tech (and tech adjacent) community face as they strive to build potential otherwises.

The Future of Open Source: Building Alternatives

A great deal of the hope and enthusiasm palpable on the NGI platform is invested in what the @nextgenethno has coded as “imagining alternatives” and “building alternatives”, and by this we mean designing and developing digital tools, platforms and systems that depart from or challenge what we have available to us now. Open Source represents one of the central means through which these alternatives are envisioned. In practice, open source might broadly describe a software or platform whose source is made available for modification by other users. This means that a broader range of people can participate in how a given tool or service is built and utilised, while also offering the potential for it to be adopted and expanded by others. Importantly, to the NGI community, free and open source systems (or FOSS) also represent a set of fundamental values and actions that they frame as foundational to a more equitable and representative future of the internet. These include, among others, “transparency, collaboration, freedom and empowerment”. In this way, the work that members of the open source community engage with is undergirded and driven by a commitment to build digital tools that embody these shared values and challenge the existing – largely proprietary – systems that dominate our life and work.

As community members have demonstrated to us over the last two years, open source not only has the potential to create viable alternatives to existing models, but it has real-world utility in the present: it redistributes ownership to developers and users in a way that shifts control away from big funders and business interests, it makes the process of knowledge production and knowledge sharing free and more widely accessible, and creates avenues to ensure greater privacy, security and data protection. Let’s also consider the urgent utility of open source systems in times of crisis: we heard from members of COACT Lab, who are developing methods for not only combating climate change, but for protecting the environment long-term. As the COACT Lab model (and many other tech incubators like it) show us, a commitment to open source solutions also relies on building a collaborative and supportive community of practice.

Open source systems were and continue to be pivotal during the COVID-19 pandemic: a year ago, Germany developed a corona virus tracing app using an open source code with the hopes that other countries would follow suit - copying and updating it for implementation. Certainly, this is only one example of the various usages of open source tools. However, it struck me as a key reminder of the ways in which open source can not only streamline, but also accelerate our access to important information and resources, in ways that proprietary models cannot. In fact, it could be argued that proprietary models often decelerate and even hinder knowledge and resource sharing.

Germany’s tracing app had limited success, not only in mobilising enough users nationally, but also in incentivising other European countries to adopt its source code. This, however seems to stem less from peoples’ inability or unwillingness to work with open source models, than with an ongoing mistrust of government-advertised applications. Reports out of Germany and Europe described that despite repeated assurances over privacy protection, concerns over data privacy prevailed.

Trust has become a central code in our SSNA and remains an urgent topic in our discussions over the future directions the internet and digital technologies will take. This raises the question as to how we can rebuild trust in our digital tools and what role open source alternative need to play in that process. How might past (and ongoing) abuses of and infringements on individual data privacy by governments, corporations and proprietary models may act as a barrier to new developments? How can open source solutions help build back trust in the digital age we live in? If we think about open source as intrinsically linked to the kind of work we – as the NGI community – do, then another set of questions seem to be: what kinds of labour are we describing when we talk about building alternatives to existing models? How do we ensure that the kinds of knowledge and labour we need to build alternatives are possible, safes, accessible, sustainable?

One central tension that our community members have pinpointed is that free and open source systems do not yet enjoy the kinds of sizeable and robust financial backing that bigger proprietary systems and corporations do. As John has put quite bluntly, the reality still is that “the people getting ahead have funding and power”. This means that to disrupt the hegemony of Big Tech, is to disrupt their monetary and lobbying powers. Our community members have described this effort variously, and as @MariaEuler summarises in her Collection of “Future of Work” - Tellform posts - WIP "as long as non-extractive resourcing technologies and their uses relies on voluntary donations or institutional funding fads we cannot secure a next-generation internet that offers new functionalities to support people’s needs and to address global sustainability challenges while respecting the fundamental values of privacy, participation, and diversity”.

One symptom of the funding challenges open source development faces is that coders and developers themselves encounter a trade-off as they pursue their futures. As @Emile pointed out, they often have to “choose between earning a living and doing something they believe in”. The reality of insufficient access to funds, the inability for many to afford to remain in the FOSS arena, and the pressure this puts developers under, in many ways reflects the “tidal” quality of the NGI platform. As community members, managers and ethnographers, we observe how new projects emerge and pick up momentum, but also, unfortunately often loose momentum. This is in large part due to the financial precarity the open source community has to negotiate daily.

Despite the hurdles and trade-offs involved in building open source models, a palpable enthusiasm for and dedication to the values of FOSS continues to mobilise and drive interaction on NGI. A lot of this energy is being invested in finding viable and sustainable funding avenues: from secure stock options, to public procurement at the municipal and regional level and developing smoother alignment and coordination between existing funding schemes and procurement budgets.

Of course, the current predicament facing open source developers is not only that unstable funding sources limit their growth, but relatedly, that sustainable development relies on know-how: it depends on trained coders and skilled developers and relies on an ability to communicate and disseminate knowledge in was that are accessible and empowering. This means, when we consider the future of work and the role of open source systems within it, we must also consider the ways in which we are equipping communities with the tools necessary to participate in this future. As @erik_lonroth asks, “what happens to knowledge in our future digital world if proprietary world views on computers, internet and programming are left unchallenged?". Similarly, how can we better prepare and support future generations to challenge these views and build alternatives to our current models?

Future of Work: Educating the Next Generation

When it comes to the the dynamic relationship between technology and education, the NGI community has taken a wholistic view: on the one hand this means using digital technologies to improve and advance access to various forms of learning, education and knowledge production. We have heard about the ways in which fin- and ed-tech can impact behavioural change among children. @Bohjort has demonstrated the ways in which digitally mediated learning can more flexibly respond to a range of student needs and preferences than traditional education models do. In this way, educational technologies can at once respond to and better prepare young learners for the “digitalised economical landscapes” they will have to navigate in the future. Such an approach cuts to the core of several debates that have taken place on platform: firstly, that increasingly digitised environments are a central part of many of our realities and that we ought to harness their potential for education, and secondly, that younger generations are often already so-called “digital natives”, and we should support the development of their tech literacies.

However, as many have pointed out, the import of digital technologies and the values we espouse them to reflect needs to be reflected in the ways we teach. Community members have been investing in strategies to teach teachers open source: through creating networks for educators and FOSS practitioners to collaborate and share their expertise, such approaches seek to fundamentally change the education system in a way that embodies shared values: transparency, collaboration, freedom and empowerment. And, importantly, that these values are integrated into the ways in which younger generations learn to think about and interact with digital tools. In this way, following @erik_lonroth, “we can change the game for the benefit of future generations of internet citizens”.

Such an approach to education will have a dual effect: on the one hand it can help grow tech literacies – allowing present and future generations to more easily and independently navigate digital environments. The hope here is also that greater tech literacy will foster more critical relationships to the ways in which digital tools are developed, operated, funded and regulated. On the other hand, as @johncoate expressed, this means that we are investing in future programmers, which in turn can lead to prototyping better programmes.

The Covid-19 pandemic has further reified disparities in education access. Not only is there are growing divide between those who have access to the internet, to computers and other digital infrastructures, but there is also a tangible gap between those who are tech literate and those who are not. Many are hopeful that the advancement of e-learning tools and virtual work spaces will help broaden access to work and education, particularly in rural communities, that digitally mediated work and education will offer greater flexibility in many sectors – particularly to working parents. I flag this topic briefly, though there has been a great deal of discussion around this issue on platform. As many of us may be looking towards an easing of Covid restrictions and a gradual return to “normal” life, what lessons about digitally-mediated work and education will we take with us? And how will they be implemented in a way that is sustainable?

What is the Future of Work in the Digital Age?

My reports on the future of work have only scratched the surface of the core themes NGI members have brought to the platform. While I have certainly left many stones unturned, it has become clear that when the NGI community addresses the future of work, they are describing a fundamental change to our status quo. It means rethinking and re-structuring the ways in which we produce and share knowledge and resources. It means re-designing, from the ground up, the infrastructures which underpin how we work, how we regulate work and how we value work. As the NGI community has demonstrated, if we want to build alternatives to the present tech environment, we need to invest in building and nurturing the knowledge and skills necessary to do so, while creating environments that can equitably and sustainably facilitate this kind of change.