REPORT OF NATM.1 (Nov 24/25, 2020)
As the Covid-19 pandemic rages on, the abusive power of Big Tech corporations and Big Brother states also batters our communities. The compunding of technology with health and economic crises, raising inequality, and growing authoritarianism is not a random historical coincidence. It is the result, among other important factors, of our growing dependency on extractivist technologies, a dependency encouraged and fostered by corporations and governments. The mining of data from our lives now complements the appropriation of our natural resources, the exploitation of our labor, and the decimation of our public goods and services. In response, society needs to define and claim technosocial spaces beyond the profit-motivated model of Silicon Valley and the control-motivated model of the Chinese Communist Party, the two centers of power of this emerging colonial order. That is why a Non-Aligned Technologies Movement is necessary.
Around fifty people from every continent in the world came together on November 24/25, 2020, to discuss what NATM would look like, what challenges it would seek to tackle, and what agendas it would prioritize.
It was immediately clear at the meeting that while we all seek to articulate our own approaches to decolonization, we share a sense of anxiety, and a common understanding of the problem. We also share a sense of urgency, and the optimistic assurance that there is no colonialist order that can completely subsume our capacity to imagine and resist. Through the mist and shadows of our current crisis, we saw that the negotiating capacity of the periphery is weakened. The ability of each subgroup to find their rights upheld and their demands satisfied is already quite limited. Thus, we were reassured in our belief that we can only effectively push back by creating as broad a front as possible. That is why we must take steps to ensure that NATM grows from the bottom up, by creating the space to listen to each other's concerns and grievances while understanding the commonalities between our struggles. Developing a common language and a sense of shared direction fueled by solidarity is the only way forward.
Lessons from the past
In the early 1950s, as much of the global south struggled for its independence from colonial powers, a movement was being incubated. It’s leaders had a key insight: In order for our economies to work in favour of our peoples, we would need to come together to push back against imperialism, whether in the form of the old european powers, or the US and USSR, the new empires that were fighting a Cold War over the control of the world's resources. From the Bandung Conference of 1955 to the formal launch of the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961, a diverse coalition of people coming from different political and economic systems as well as cultural and religious backgrounds managed to band together to resist extractivist colonial powers, end apartheid and combat racism. With the collapse of the USSR, many argue the NAM program lost its appeal. However, given the continued attitude of the US towards the South and the rise of China, together with the explosion of extractivist technologies, we believe that a rearticulation and reimagining of its original principles is not only necessary but urgent.
To ensure the direction this movement takes is defined by a collective, we started by posting some thoughts on an open wiki where anyone could suggest additions and edits. This was followed by an invitation to engage in this first meeting, where the RSVP included a short survey with a set of questions to gauge people’s expectations, interests and backgrounds, as well as readings they might want to share.
Based on the survey responses we collected we built a second survey for participants to complete as part of the meeting, where we asked them why they think NATM is needed at this time (problem statement) and what the short-term agenda must focus on covering ( pictured below). Once results were sent in, and before opening up the discussion to the broader group, we invited three selected discussants from different backgrounds to provide their perspectives regarding these questions.
Part 1 of the meeting: If NATM is the solution, what is the problem?
Question 1: Problem statement: Indicate the importance you assign to the following statements by distributing 100 points among them.
Question 2: What should the NATM have as priorities in the short term? Order the following
Thus, the first part of the meeting was focused on the substance. Why do we need NATM, and what should such movement be focused on?
The big themes that emerged during this first half included the urgency of the initiative, the challenges that such a movement would face, the politics of the coalition-building process, and the importance of intervening in national debates.
With regards to the urgency of setting up such a movement, several participants underlined the speed at which digitalization is taking pace since the pandemic exploded, and how both big companies and big countries are being able to increase their pressure on smaller actors in financial distress. The window of opportunity to ensure we realign the digital world with rights is slim and getting slimmer. On the one hand, this situation underlines the importance of this movement, whilst on the other, it creates challenges for the establishment of a balanced bottom-up process that requires careful deliberation.
One specific challenge that was brought up was the co-option of data sovereignty initiatives as a way to lessen the critical challenge they pose to Big Tech. Participants agreed that it will be important for NATM to position itself as an independent and radical political movement.
At the same time, it will be crucial for NATM to build coalitions, particularly in terms of organizing actions and shaping the discourse at the national and global level. Youth groups were mentioned as a crucial stakeholder. Yes, NATM should work with established local political organs, but instead of simply asking for a seat at the table, we should create new tables around which different social groups, not only corporations and governments, are able to set the agenda.
Part 2 of the meeting: Imagined Futures
The second half of the meeting was focused on strategy. How to make such a movement succeed, and what does success look like? In this half, participants were asked to react to the following prompt:
"The year is 2040, and you are talking to young people about the emergence of NATM. How would you summarize the challenges the movement faced, and what allowed it to eventually succeed and thrive?"
As responses flowed in through the chat, four previously appointed respondents were called to provide their answers.
Fig. 2. Word cloud based on the responses submitted by participants
Some themes that emerged within this section were around the scale of the challenge and the need to create a very large base of supporters to overcome it. How to make the harms triggered by bad actors more traceable to them in the eyes of the general public, and how to provide meaningful ways for them to engage in this struggle.
Below are a few responses that explore how these challenges would emerge and be overcome. The responses are framed as future histories, which explains why they are written in past tense.
“The challenges we faced: a feeling of being overwhelmed by the scale of what needs to be done. Where to start? How do we crack open the system to begin to make the changes necessary, and to do so quickly? NATM succeeded by forming a grassroots, radically oriented global network committed to direct, disruptive action. Within this network, we worked in smaller groups to achieve specific goals of the NATM (i.e. privacy/surveillance; sovereignty, etc.)”
“We overcame this by harnessing the previously growing popular and political backlash to engage with politicians and governments across the world to fight back at a policy level (and keep policy shifting with tech advancing), helping spread awareness, connecting activists, encouraging activism among the most active tech users, and helping prepare people in areas of technological expansion to address that expansion with agency and resistance to the negative aspects.”
“the biggest challenge was moving people from thinking that technology was the only way forward for humanity. But once more people started imagining futures that did not have digital technology at the center of every part of life....”
Moving forward: What's next?
The meeting underlined that there is a diverse and experienced group of people willing to move this agenda forward. The challenge will be to find the right balance between moving sideways to broaden the base, and moving forward in terms of defining the agenda. In our quest to ensure this becomes as broad a front as possible, we hope to hear from you. We want your input on the framing, the substance and the strategy towards achieving what you see as the most urgent challenges.
As immediate next steps, we will:
- Set up collaborative online platforms to continue the work and collect resources (including the public wiki at nonalignedtech.net and the members-only community forum at nonalignedtech.net/community).
- Use these platforms to discuss what working groups should be formed, and begin assigning members to the various groups. These may include, but are not limited to, a group to draft a charter or manifesto, a group to organize a BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement against Big Tech and extractive corporations, etc.
- Continue to invite members.
- Beginning planning for the next meeting, early in 2021.