The revolution will not be hosted on Amazon Web Services - a provocation by Dr Kim Foale

At our February Meetup we had the incredible Dr Kim Foale arguing that modern technology is an integral part of the arms and security industry.

Kim (they/them) is a community activist with over 15 years’ experience working with a wide range of campaign groups in Leeds, Manchester and Nottingham. They have built dozens of websites and apps for a large range of community organisations over the last 20 years. They also co-founded Resistance Lab, a collective that brings community organisers, scholars and technologists together to fight state violence.

Kim started the provocation by announcing that we will never destroy Facebook or Amazon if we are using tools that were built by Facebook or Amazon. Taking down power structures won’t work if we continue to use the tools that those structures provide for us, as tools embody the value set of the people who create them. This is not a new idea and comes from the work of Audre Lorde:

"It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master's house as their only source of support."

Lorde, Audre (1984) The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House

Another idea that Kim explored in this provocation was the consistent and willful ignoring of urgent social problems, in lieu of solving problems that are more “interesting” or lucrative (technosolutionism). Lorde’s example of this was white feminism: the feminists who fought for equality in the work place, without considering the challenges that all women (queer women, women of colour, older women), face in our patriarchal society.

What are the master's tools?

In the technology sector, these are tools that we use, knowingly or not, nearly all the time -- but these are tools built by the very institutions that many of us are fighting against. Tools are not neutral conduits that live in isolation. They exist because there is a human, social, or capitalist desire to make change. Amazon Web Services (AWS) and React.js by Facebook are two great examples of this.

AWS is possibly the most dominant hosting service in the world: 6% of all websites run on it, as well as 90% of Fortune 100 companies. It offers over 200 sub-services, many of which you can't get without AWS. Learning to be a software engineer also means learning how to use AWS: there are 4,600 tutorials teaching you how to use it on Udemy alone. So despite the fact that it’s squarely aimed at enterprise applications, it has taken over tech pedagogy as a default way of doing things -- the 90% vs 6% stat is demonstrative of this. Where at first Amazon's goal was to have a piece of every financial transaction in the world, it's clear that with AWS they also want a piece of every digital product -- and can therefore potentially control what is even possible to talk about if it breaches Amazon ToS.

React.js is a JavaScript framework which was developed by Facebook. It’s goal is to make it easier to build highly interactive apps for both phones and the web. It prioritises scaling and is generally used on large products worked on by lots of people to create interactive user interfaces. Netflix, Paypal, Reddit, Airbnb, and Uber Eats all use it. It's now common that new developers don't learn JavaScript at coding schools, they learn React, because it's so useful when it comes to building large, complex apps and services quickly. This has changed the way that people think about what a website or app is and makes it easier to create apps that look and feel like Facebook but doesn’t really do anything for hobbyists.

By using these two tools, we inevitably behave more like Facebook and Amazon: they both encourage and prioritise global scalability, with an implied business model of creating a captive audience whose data you can sell. Because they make it 'so easy' to do what was before, very difficult.

The third 'master's tool' that Kim highlighted was Human Centred Design. This is an approach that claims to focus on the needs of humans (or users) at every step of problem solving when building new products and experiences. So while this framework seeks to 'help' users as much as possible -- within an implicit framework under which lots of white designers are given a load of money to make an app or other intervention -- it does nothing to address the underlying systemic problems that consistently bring harm to several user groups.

Kim cited Vroom as the perfect culmination of AWS, React, and Human Centred Design. It's an initiative founded by the Bezos Family Foundation which uses all three of these tools. The purpose of Vroom is to improve early child development in readiness for formal education. This is given as a sort of “gold standard” example in IDEO’s “Introduction to Human Centered Design” course.

Jeff Bezos could almost certainly simply choose to end poverty for parents in the USA. But instead he chooses to siphon off negligible amounts into projects like this, which use fluffy language and provide high paying jobs for tech professionals. Kim summed up this section of the discussion by saying that Jeff Bezos and the like do not want to tackle underlying problems, because they won't make any money that way. HCD seems perfectly placed to make it look like you are doing something and to win a few awards without actually changing anything - the fact that this is also a tax writeoff for Bezos makes it extra gross. We can’t underestimate how much this kind of work warps the perception of what tech is.

Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire had no time for this. He wrote: “False charity constrains the fearful and subdued, the ‘rejects of life,’ to extend their trembling hands. True generosity lies in striving so that these hands — whether of individuals or entire peoples — need be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work and, working, transform the world” (The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1970). It’s fair to say he wouldn’t have had anything nice to say about IDEO’s training materials, which almost read like a training manual for doing the opposite.

The tech industry is an offshoot of the arms trade

This is quite clear when you consider how Alan Turing developed a ground-breaking machine in the second world war, which cracked the German military codes, and thus was instrumental in the UK 'winning' the war.

Dr Kim also outlined further concrete examples of this, and how Western societies have continued their colonisation via computing and the internet, leading right up to the present day.

Firstly, how IBM directly facilitated the Holocaust: the relationship between IBM and The Third Reich was not incidental, as if IBM happened to be the only source of the kind of technology Hitler needed. IBM in fact reached out to the Hitler regime to make clear that they could provide any solution the Nazis needed. The result was a 12-year relationship, in which IBM constructed a centralised database containing key information on Jewish citizens, and all work and prisoner data from all concentration camps. These systems were custom made, especially for the Nazis.

It’s worth noting that IBM’s prestigious AI - Watson - is named after the CEO who facilitated this relationship.