Promising Signs for 2021

By Madeleine Nicoloff | January 29, 2021

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Koi fish in a reflecting pond
Better Fortunes in 2021

Looking ahead into 2021, one of the things I’m excited to watch is the growing collaboration between the world of tech and the world of art and storytelling. The background research into futurist thinking that I’ve done recently has opened my eyes to the current initiatives and conversations taking place around the power of art, virtual reality, and immersive experiences as tools for transforming our decision-making. I’m encouraged by the movement led by organizations like Superflux, Algorithmic Justice, and Tactical Tech toward delivering alternate or interactive experiences to people so we can better understand the reality of others or of our future selves, and enable ourselves as a society to act on that.


Whether across geographic lines, socio-economic classes, or future generations, this is a compelling approach to learning that sparks critical reflection and imagination and appeals to the power of empathy. By starting these conversations, art and storytelling around tech can impact our collective priorities and decisions on how we want to act now to shape technologies and policy issues at the intersection of tech and social justice. In the face of the existential challenges confronting our world, I’m excited to see the potential that these strategies have to help us transform our thinking and build more equitable and sustainable systems for change.  


I've been inspired by recent innovations in the field of internet freedom and digital rights that address the need for secure communication channels, access to information, and strengthened support networks among at-risk communities, journalists, and human rights activists around the world. Despite the many attacks and setbacks that internet freedom and cybersecurity has faced globally this past year, the community of activists developing for activists has been resilient. Our team has begun working with new partners in this space who are providing critical internet freedom infrastructure such as the virtual private server platform and hosting services by Greenhost, and the Internet-independent wifi communication application that circumvents censorship and surveillance.


I’m looking forward to seeing the ways in which these tools and others continue to develop, adapt, and expand in 2021 to meet the needs of people on the ground and to respond to the changing landscape of threats to democracy. Internet freedom infrastructure projects and developers are increasingly working to contextualize new tools and prioritize participatory processes that take into account the specific needs and suggestions of women, ethnic minorities, and other groups who face particular security risks. I’m interested to watch how these tools will influence the strategies and reach of human rights defenders around the  world this year and, above all, the impact that these tools will have on the fabric of democracy by uplifting voices of marginalized communities and advocates in our turbulent online spaces.


I’m also looking forward to seeing the actionable steps that come out of the growing conversations around data justice, intersectionality, and community ownership in tech and its regulations in our society. Maybe 2021 will be the year that we work together to shift our social, political, and economic norms around the way we use and develop technology. In 2020, we saw an increased willingness to put pressure on big tech coming from governments (including the U.S., the E.U., and even potential steps being taken in China) from the public, and from within companies themselves– including the recent example of the outrage after Google’s firing of Timnit Gebru and the establishment of the Alphabet Workers' Union shortly after.


We are at a critical turning point with the opportunity to begin restructuring the power dynamics and incentives behind tech development and implementation. Speaking to the potential to generate this shift, a recent podcast by Your Undivided Attention explores how we can reimagine how our global social media spaces are structured and how we can work with communities through a bottom-up approach to co-design robust and resilient technologies. Channeling this growing momentum and empowering these voices could give us the chance to create more equitable and democratic online spaces and tech policy in 2021.