By Coraline Ada Ehmke
This is the second in a series of guest blog posts exploring the real-world implications of the Decentralized Web Principles.
Coraline Ada Ehmke is the creator of the Contributor Covenant and the author of the Hippocratic License, an open source license designed to promote and protect human rights. In 2021, Coraline founded the Organization for Ethical Source and currently serves as its Executive Director.
In his 1976 paper “Communication and Cultural Domination,” sociologist and media critic Herbert Schiller warned of a future in which the cultural lives of individuals around the globe would be shaped and dictated by a small number of private media interests. The domination of US tech corporations in the online world today is the grim fulfillment of that prophecy.
Access to the vast store of collective human knowledge is increasingly predicated on the surrender of our rights of privacy, free association, and digital autonomy to gatekeepers like Google, Amazon, and Facebook, whose entire business models depend on the normalization of surveillance capitalism. And digital colonization — the violent and repressive imposition of Western values and taxonomies — is a fundamental component of their success.
“The internet is implicated in contemporary power structures, its promise tarnished by unaccountable digital corporations, data extractivism, the marketisation of democracy and network capitalism’s connivance with surveillance states.”(Anita Gurumurthy and Nandini Chami, “Towards a political practice of empowerment in digital times: a feminist commentary from the global South”)
Realizing the potential of the web to democratize the advance of human knowledge while preserving cultural autonomy and promoting universal human rights requires more than a begrudging (and often patronizing) nod to “global perspectives” interpreted through the lens of the Silicon Valley ethos. Achieving just outcomes requires actively prioritizing both equal access and equitable participation across social and cultural boundaries.
And this begins with centering the foundational principles of mutual respect, trust, and equity.
Achieving mutual respect is essential for effective communication and collaboration, and plays an especially critical role in conflict resolution.
It is important to distinguish between respect and tolerance. Tolerance is the privilege of the powerful: it is the granting of permission to deviate from the norms of the majority. And it comes with the unspoken threat that this permission can be revoked at any time. Asking the powerless to accept mere “tolerance” is asking them to endure their oppression for the comfort or convenience of their oppressors.
“That is the problem with toleration: others determine if they tolerate you, which rules and norms you need to meet in order to be allowed to participate.”(Petra De Sutter and Bruno De Lille, “Wij willen niet getolereerd worden, wij willen respect”)
Honoring and respecting personal, social, and cultural differences in our digital communities starts with defining clear and consensual social contracts that establish the rights, responsibilities, and privileges of participation.
Codes of conduct are important in creating and sustaining an environment of mutual respect, but in order to be effective they must be enforced consistently and fairly. This requires the additional layer of clear and transparent governance. Fostering a culture of mutual respect starts with making social contracts explicit, continually reassessing their impact, and evolving their conditions to address changes both within a community and in the world at large.
Sustaining a culture that respects our differences, rather than simply tolerating them, creates opportunities to leverage the richness and diversity of our communities for the greater good.
Building trust begins with an expectation of positive intent, and develops over time through mutual accountability. Trust is earned and sustained by accepting responsibility for our actions and their outcomes.
“Without trust, conflict is politics. With trust, conflict is the pursuit of truth.”(Patrick Lencioni, “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”)
Social scientists recognize two main forms of trust: cognitive trust and affective trust.
Cognitive trust is valued predominantly in Western cultures and is based on confidence in someone else’s skills and reliability. It is fostered by a continual display of competence and reliability, and is essentially transactional.
Affective trust is more prevalent in the Global South and Asia. This form of trust develops from a sense of emotional closeness, demonstrations of empathy, or even feelings of friendship. It is relational rather than transactional.
As with respect, trust must be considered within the context of power dynamics. Distrust toward those with power often has little or no real consequence to them, but withholding trust from the disadvantaged or disenfranchised only magnifies the impact of systemic inequalities. This is why it’s essential that those with power earn and sustain trust through what they do, while, in turn, extending trust to others by accepting and recognizing them for who they are.
Trust in a global context requires acknowledging, valuing, and developing both kinds of trust in our communities.
Equity is difficult to define, because there are so few examples of true equity in our world to draw from. One way of thinking about equity is a lack of disparity in agency across racial, ethnic, gendered, and other dimensions. The meaningful pursuit of equity requires interrupting the societal, institutional, and interpersonal injustices that sustain these disparities.
“New manifestations of racism and other forms of oppression continue to emerge and outpace our mechanisms and capacities to solve them… To be achieved and sustained, equity needs to be thought of as a structural and systemic concept.”(Race Equity and Inclusion Action Guide, Annie E. Casey Foundation)
Equity is not synonymous with equality. Equality assumes that everyone has the same needs and can succeed given the same opportunities. Meritocracy, widely heralded in the online world as a force for equality, is founded on the idea that our differences are irrelevant to success, rather than a contributor to success. This dangerously flawed premise, combined with an unwillingness to acknowledge intrinsic power imbalances, has only served to compound the impact of deeply-rooted disparities in the digital world.
Inequity is not a problem that can be solved from first principles. Those with power cannot define what is or is not equitable. Deciding what’s best for the marginalized, rather than meaningfully empowering them to make these determinations for themselves, is itself a manifestation of inequity. Racism and other forms of oppression are self-perpetuating and constantly evolve in response to efforts to mitigate them, so strategies for addressing these issues must also evolve and adapt. Focusing exclusively on “quick fixes,” for example, outreach without corresponding investments in cultural and structural change, often do more harm than good.
Injustice cannot be cured by mere consultation, engagement, or representation. To effect meaningful change, those whose authority and privilege are sustained by inequity must yield power and distribute agency to those who are most impacted by systemic disparities.
Closing the Circle
The values of respect, trust, and equity are interconnected and inseparable. Putting them into practice means continually reassessing and re-imagining what a just world might look like. It means acknowledging that the same technologies we create and use with the intent of realizing these ideals, can (and will) be abused to instead sustain and magnify systemic injustice — at an otherwise unimaginable scale.
Values that are expressed but that do not guide our actions are merely performative. Real progress can only come about when we go beyond our good intentions, and take responsibility for impact and outcomes. Ultimately, we are accountable not only to our collaborators and our users, but also to our broader global society.