I’d like to offer up two very personal musings inspired by the process which led me to my new role.
Policy needs more of…me
I am, to use the industry term, a “disrupter”. I have elbowed my way into tech policy not through law or academia, but through years of grafting over code, running a digital business, and supporting open source software communities. That makes me an outlier. This is a field dominated by button-down lawyers and bespectacled academics. And they all, absolutely, bring something to the table. Up to a point.
What I’ve been able to bring to the table is actual experience making, shaping, and improving the web. Been there, done there, got the t-shirt, made a quilt out of the t-shirts. Pushed code, screwed up code, fixed code, fixed the repo, fixed the codex, built the teams, and did that all on my own initiative, with no expectation of praise, acknowledgement, or public recognition whatsoever. That’s how the web is made.
Too many people working in tech policy, on the other hand, view the internet as a detached discipline of study, and one which supplements a very traditional course of career progression, recognition, and acknowledgement. They read about the web. They run studies about the web. They write academic papers and legal briefings about the web. They use all that stuff about the web to advance their careers. But do they truly understand how the web works? I’m sorry to say that far too many do not.
That’s how we have ended up with issues like privacy privilege, where lawyers want to lecture developers about sub-paragraphs of data protection law – without stopping to wonder if the developers know what data protection is at all. That’s how we have ended up with draft legislation created by middle managers, offering up statements like “can’t we just age gate all UK sites?” (honest to god this actually happened), with no regard for technical implementation, much less civil liberties. And that’s how we have ended up with academics pushing proposals to create criminal liability for senior managers for the user-generated content on their platforms, with no comprehension of the fact that this will cause collateral censorship – the takedowns of perfectly legal and normal content out of fear of personal arrest – as well as an exodus of tech talent who will take the first plane out of the UK they can get, rather than risk incarceration for what a troll posted in a comment.
You don’t realise just how deeply that detachment runs until you hear a scholar balking at the thought of not being paid for a conference talk, or a researcher asking you how much you think your software community – of open source contributiors – would be willing to pay for their proprietary product. If they don’t understand the nature of uncompensated expenses and volunteer projects, how can they possibly understand the other practical realities which shape the web?
What tech policy needs is, well, more of me. It needs fewer people who view the web as an abstract legal and academic concept, and more people who view it as a constrained substance from which things are built. I need to encounter more former developers, designers, and project managers in Parliamentary corridors, not more lawyers. I need to work with people who understand that 99% of web professionals will never read an academic paper in their lives, much less your paper. I need to work with people who have been in the trenches, with open source project teams, while their roadmap is bogged down in ad hominem project dramas, and not with non-technologists who believe that those teams can simply whip up solutions to all of society’s woes, and their inability to do so is, in fact, stubborn intransigence.
I need to work with more people who get it.
I’ve proven that it’s possible to make the leap from code to policy, and I want to help more people do it too. If you want to follow in my footsteps, get in touch. Let’s make more of me.
Humanity isn’t qualified by a contract
The second musing I’d like to share this morning is that being a freelancer in a pandemic absolutely sucked ass.
As with most self-employed people the world over, my normally intense workflow slowed to a trickle, and all but two clients faded away. What work there was to do felt like token gestures rather than the things which get me out of bed in the morning. I wasn’t eligible for the self-employed furlough scheme, so I skipped a few bills and prioritised others. I kept myself busy in other ways, though. Thank God I have a garden and a lot of crafty hobbies. I’d never baked a loaf of bread in my life before lockdown. I’m now past using bread recipes and I’m just improvising. Freestyle bread is the best bread.
But for me, there was a bigger problem than being a bored freelancer.
The UK is a very parochial country – and Scotland is extremely parochial – in the widely held societal assumption that everyone has tons of family members living nearby. It is just assumed that everyone has grandparents, parents, siblings, a spouse, a partner, in-laws, cousins, you name it. Loneliness and isolation are seen as problems which only impact those in advanced old age. And in a small Scottish village like where I live, if you don’t have dozens of family members nearby, you’re treated as some sort of freak, as if it was somehow your fault that everyone in your life either died young or crawled into a bottle.
Me? I was on my own from the time I was a university student, and after the end of my marriage, I’m alone again. I have one surviving family member, one, who preferred to ride out the lockdown elsewhere. I’m used to being on my own, although it’s nothing I chose, or would ever have chosen. But it meant spending lockdown completely alone. I went entire weeks without speaking to another person. I went entire days without opening my mouth to speak a single word. I went months watching TV adverts about big close loving families staying together through video calling, feeling like each advert was specifically designed to punch me in the stomach.
At a very low point I calculated how long I’d be lying dead on the floor from a sudden virulent case of Covid before anyone even noticed I was gone. For the record, four weeks.
And at that point, having had that thought enter my head at all, I realised something was very wrong. I can’t change the fact that I have no one in the world personally, as much as I want to. But I can change the fact that I have no one in the world professionally.
Because we’re all told that freelancing and self-employment are about personal freedom, but if you’re terrified of dying alone and unnoticed because the nature of your work means that there is no one in the world who has any sort of obligation to check in on you, that isn’t freedom at all.
So whoever you are, and wherever you are reading this, I have a plea for you. If you have freelancers or contractors in your work – people who are anything whatsoever outside a full-time employment contract – check on them. Check in on them. Just because you have no contractual obligation to do so, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. Don’t make the parochial British assumption that everyone has parents, grandparents, siblings, partners, and in-laws to fall back on. Don’t assume they chose to be a freelancer. Don’t assume they chose to be alone.
Nobody in this world should ever have to feel that they are not a real human being, or are somehow a less valid one, because their right to be a person has been qualified by a contract.
And I swear to God I will never allow myself to feel that way again.
We are people of enormous power and influence over the open web. I empower digital professionals to use that power wisely. I advocate for an open web built around international standards of human rights, privacy, accessibility, and freedom of expression. This is my personal site, and does not reflect the work or opinions of my employer.