Social Ecology for the Technologist.

Technology – especially information and communications technology – is playing a very large role in the environmental crisis we currently face as a society. From big tech companies contributing 2-3% of global CO2 emissions in 20211., to the training and use of generative AI models like ChatGPT and DALLE-2 projected to use 6.6 billion m3 of water by 2027 while 1.1 billion people don’t have access to water2., something must be done. As technologists, we might think the solution is in the system – we can just hack our way out of the environmental crisis with more energy efficient GPUs, and use autonomous vehicles to reduce the number of cars owned and on the road3.. We are blinded by the shiny lights and promises of “Artificial General Intelligence” solving all our problems, failing to recognize it might be deeply nested in the problem itself.

So, what is the problem? The industry itself. “Big Technology” is deeply rooted in patriarchy. Corporations are running away from open source in favour of proprietary software. The tech’s view of decentralism is just capitalism in a trenchcoat. Profit is placed in front of people and the planet. The industry is unregulated, unorganized, and has no sense of community apart from searching for jobs on LinkedIn.

If we as technologists wish to work towards a better future socially, ecologically, and communally, we should learn some lessons from a philosophy called Social Ecology.

Lesson 1: Design outside of a hierarchy.

The tech industry is infamous for “bro culture", with reports of industry leaders and venture capitalists being accused of sexual assault and harassment, making comments unlike the archetypical frat bro4., just with significantly more money and power to their name. Even beyond the social culture, tech unknowingly reinforces gender or race stereotypes through biased data used in AI modelling and training, making it discriminatory towards women or people of colour5.. We as technologists need to (first of all) recognize that this is a problem, and (after that bare minimum act) realize that this issue is deep-rooted in society.

Instead of calling it human nature, Social Ecologists recognize that hierarchy was socially learned and used as a tool to rank people, all to justify domination from one group to another6.. We don’t need hierarchy to function as a society, and technology should be designed with this goal in mind. In our work, make sure everyone has equitable access to a product, whether through following accessibility guidelines for the web7., gender-inclusive design8., or through broader strokes with value-sensitive9. or universal design. More than this, our industry needs to make changes to be more diverse in the workforce, going against the standard of cisgendered, straight, white men holding all the power.

Through the Social Ecologist’s view, we learned how to exploit nature through our exploiting of people6.. To design technology outside of a hierarchy is to not only design with equity for people in mind, but for equity with the environment in mind.

Lesson 2: Create for the commons.

When laypeople think of early computing, they picture an image of a group of shaggy-haired nerds creating companies in their parents’ garage. Since the 1980s, groups of researchers and enthusiasts have been working with Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) like the GNU project and BSD, allowing people to use, reuse, and redistribute software with others10.. Nowadays, FOSS exists but is less common, with many companies making exclusive deals for proprietary software rather than open sourcing, such as OpenAI’s exclusive license to Microsoft for GPT-3, different from their open source predecessor GPT-211..

For Social Ecologists, the commons and the act of commoning is important as it keeps the connection between the work that went into the object and the object itself12.. The commons go against the nature of capitalism to give access to the people what the people create, without the profit-hungry middleman. In line with designing outside of a hierarchy, commoning technology can grant equitable access to systems with the potential to make positive change. Whether by contributing to large FOSS projects, the Creative Commons Library, or other open source, open access, or copyleft projects, we can help to build a better socio-ecologic future through our tech.

Lesson 3: Decentralize, but for the planet.

If tech enthusiasts on social media are to be trusted, modern technology is already working towards decentralization through blockchain and other decentralized technologies. Social Ecology embraces decentralism and technologies that, for example, work towards local or regional energy generation and enable denser and pedestrian-friendly cities in the name of making them both socially and ecologically friendly13.. Where the current state of decentralized tech and Social Ecology’s values meet is the rejection of a world controlled by major corporations, yet the tech industry is still blinded by the need for profit. The loudest voice in decentralized information technology are the “Appcoins” such as Bitcoin, allowing for “ownership” of digital goods14., which falls neatly in capitalism’s commodification of anything for profit.

Informed more by Social Ecology, we need to shift the idea of what decentralized technology means for the industry, focusing less on profiting off selling digital images of crude drawings of monkeys, and using the bones of the tech to work on projects that are more people- and planet-focused. Projects like Mastodon as a decentralized alternative to platforms like Twitter (now X) can be a local or regional platform for activists to spread information and organize. Us as technologists should work on systems that aim to decentralize for the people and planet, not profit.

Lesson 4: Work with capitalism to work against capitalism.

Taking another look at the present, the current state of the industry is capitalism incarnate. FOSS technology can fall short in light of better proprietary alternatives. Mega-corporations around the world profit crazy amounts of money by selling our personal information and data for “marketing purposes”. Start-ups, including ones with explicit ecological goals, rely on venture capital funding to get off the ground. Social Ecologists argue that capitalism and an ecological future are incompatible, where technologists and entrepreneurs looking to do good for the environment not only cannot get anywhere but cannot even enact change within the system itself15.. A system that relies on growth to survive cannot do good for the environment.

We as technologists are then left in lockstep: so much of modern technology that could be used for good requires working with or for big tech, but it’s argued that change can’t be made within the system. To get off the ground, we might need to put Social Ecology to the side for a bit. Work with or for the capitalists in order to get a footing in the industry; in the process trying to make as many positive changes socio-ecologically as possible through universal design, open sourcing, and planting the seeds of decentralization. Exploit the skills gained through capitalism and use them to create technology that protects against capitalism’s exploitation after.

Lesson 5: Unionize, organize, create Dual Power.

With all of the social knowledge learned from Social Ecology and technical know-how learned from work, we are left with a final, ongoing task: enabling the creation of a democratic “counter-institution” for tech. Social Ecology introduces the idea of “Dual Power”, where a grassroots, democratic group builds itself up to the point where it can begin to play in the same field as state-led or mega-corporations16.. Thinkers say this can happen by bringing many like-minded, smaller groups together to form a “confederation” to rise in power faster and easier.

Us as technologists should follow the same, and some in the space have already pushed for something not far off from the Social Ecologists’ idea. Mike Monteiro, a designer based in San Francisco argued for the creation of a Designer’s (inclusive of developers, system architects, product designers, everyone involved in the creation of technology) professional organization or union in his book Ruined by Design17.. Not only would this help with workers’ rights and setting standards and ethics for the technology created within the industry, but this could also be extended to act as a confederacy of designers and disrupt the current State of the industry, and broadcast lessons from Social Ecology broadly.

Reflecting and References.

Overall, the technology industry has its problems. We as technologists need to take them seriously, and a framework like Social Ecology can give us a great starting point. I (we) as a technologist, designer, and human being have the ability to make change in an industry by many different means and have a moral obligation to in order to see a socio-ecologically friendly, free, future.

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  2. Gordon, C. (2024, March 7). Ai is accelerating the loss of our scarcest natural resource: Water. Forbes.
  3. Igini, M. (2024, March 5). Environmental pros and cons of self-driving cars. Earth.Org.
  4. Griffith, E. (2022, September 24). Silicon Valley slides back into “bro” culture. The New York Times.
  5. Najibi, A. (2020, October 26). Racial discrimination in face recognition technology. Science in the News.
  6. Biehl, J. (1997). The Legacy of Domination. In The Murray Bookchin Reader (pp. 75–86). essay, Black Rose Books.
  7. W3C Web Accessibility Initiative. (2024, March 7). WCAG 2 Overview. Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI).
  8. Fonseca, S. (2020, September 4). Designing forms for gender diversity and inclusion. Medium.
  9. About VSD. VSD Lab. (2020, October 5).
  10. Gonzalez-Barahona, J. M. (2021). A brief history of free, open source software and its communities. Computer, 54(2), 75–79.
  11. Hao, K. (2020, September 23). OpenAI is giving Microsoft exclusive access to its GPT-3 language model. MIT Technology Review.
  12. Linebaugh, P. (2010, January 8). Some Principles of the Commons . Counter punch.
  13. Korsár, J. (2009). Rebuilding Our Cities. Communalism, 16(1), 6–10.
  14. The decentralized web. MIT Digital Currency Initiative. (2017, August).
  15. Bookchin, M. (2006). Grow or Die. In Social Ecology and Communalism (pp. 41–45). essay, AK Press.
  16. Bookchin, D., & van Outryve, S. (2019). The confederation as the commune of communes. ROAR Magazine, (9).
  17. Monteiro, M. (2019). Ruined by design: How designers destroyed the world, and what we can do to fix it. Mule Design.