Resources for Humans Who Build the Internet

by Corey Kohn

As the humans who build the internet, now more than ever, we are responsible for infusing our work with real, human qualities and values. In our work, we have the opportunity (and responsibility) to reinforce interconnectedness, and the spaciousness and dependence on our natural environments that the human nervous system needs in order to survive. It is on us to build an internet that devalues isolation, antipathy, disembodiment, despair, disconnectedness, greed, injustice, oppression, speediness, and profit-at-all-cost. We can make an internet that outshines the toxic ethos of winner-takes-all.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, people were ever more likely to be isolated from one another and ever more likely to be relating to themselves, each other and the world through a rectangular web interface. Screen time has increased up to 60% since the beginning of the pandemic. Daily average number of Zoom users alone rose from about 10 million in December 2019 to 300 million daily users by the end of April 2020. The texture of our daily realities are increasingly negotiated through online experiences. And many of those online experiences are part of an internet that has become "a machine that applies the science of psychological warfare to the affairs of ordinary life, a machine that manipulates opinion, exploits attention, commodifies information, divides voters, atomizes communities, alienates individuals, and undermines democracy."

As producers of those online experiences, developers and designers are charged with the quality of that experience and what it implies in our lives as users. Because interaction that we have with each other as humans is so often mediated through software, why and how that software is built is increasingly impactful. We may not have as much control over the why but we can do a lot with the how.

At Dojo4 we understand that people, communities and natural environments have been harmed and are suffering because of manipulative and purely profit-driven applications of technology. We know that antidotes to this include spending time in nature and in genuine human connection. It's part of our manifesto and we've got some work-in-progress on building solidarity around that perspective. More on that soon, but in the meantime, here are some resources and toolkits:

Luckily, lots of people are thinking about this kind of thing. In particular, the Center for Humane Technology provides guidance to technologists for building a more "humane" internet. They remind us to examine our assumptions in these ways (see:

  • Technology is never neutral: our values and assumptions are baked into what we build.
  • See in terms of human nature: consider the vulnerabilities of the human brain.
  • Shift product culture: emphasize humanization not productization.
  • Create market conditions for humane technology: become a stakeholder in a marketplace that rewards humane technology.

Their Principles provide a practical touchstones that we can use as do our work:

  • Obsess over values not engagement metrics
  • Strengthen existing brilliance, instead of assuming that more technology is always better.
  • Make the invisible visceral, instead of assuming that harms are edge cases- drive for deeper empathy with actual users.
  • Enable wise choices, instead of assuming more choice is always better- help people make choices in ways that are informed, thoughtful, and aligned with their values as well as the fragile social and environmental systems they inhabit.
  • Nurture mindfulness, instead of vying for attention.
  • Bind growth with responsibility, instead of simply maximizing growth- invest in understanding the delicate cognitive, social, economic and ecological systems that your technology operates in.

We can build an organic, living, humane internet that emphasizes, rather than diminishes, meaningful human qualities. We are doing it, we can do it better, and we look forward to connecting with you about how to do it together.

> image, at the top, by Denis Sheckler<