Peeking Into a Future

Written Monday, January 16, 2023

It's been six weeks since I published Disability Driven Development. A lot has happened with that project in that time - more than I can fit into this update. There will be more news there soon, but I wanted to take a moment and explore a bit more of what I'm doing, now that the why is out there, as well as to dig into more detail about how I imagine all this unfolding.

The entire effort of Disability-Driven Development hinges on one crucial question: who is getting left out of creating digital technology, and how can we change that? I've chosen to focus on this particular kind of creation for a few reasons.

First, and most pragmatically, it is my own area of expertise. I had a long career creating complex software projects, including some very advanced technology. I've been doing this act of creation for over thirty years at this point.

But more than that, my desire is to share something. To me, making software isn't just about doing something interesting with a computer. Making software has given me access to imagination, to exploration, to places to play and discover myself just as much as the world around me. Software has brought me community, connection, and support throughout a lifetime of painful and often horrific experiences.

For me, the ability to create things - that I wanted, for no other reason than I wanted them - has given me a deeply rooted sense of my own power to affect my life. It hasn't always made much difference against the outside causes of my pain; but it's given me a lifeline to cling to, and a way to find other people and ideas and resources that have helped me escape many layers of abuse and mistreatment. Digital creativity and community have helped me reach a point in life where I can begin to truly thrive despite oppression - and given me the tools to start fighting back.

Making software also directly affects my day-to-day lived experience. I use tiny programs and software-concoctions, of my own devising, to help me navigate my life. I deal with invisible disability and struggle severely with executive function, intense anxiety, an autistic difficulty with spoken communication, as well as other practical challenges. I am truly privileged and fortunate to have the ability to create things that make my existence easier - and, sometimes, even quite pleasant - despite these obstacles.

I want to share this ability, as widely as I can, because I know first-hand how transformative it can be.

Moreover, I want to share this ability first and foremost with those who are the least-empowered, the most-burdened by oppression, and the least likely to benefit from such technology in the world of right now.

That, however, is an eventual goal - a sort of target, by which many of my plans are guided and shaped; but it is not where I'm starting. In order to reach that kind of destination, a lot needs to happen.

I'm not one for predicting the future. I don't think that's a skill I'm likely to ever have. But what I can do is see a possible course ahead, and start trying to navigate it; and along the way, make sure I'm dynamically adjusting as needed to stay on track, no matter what unpredictable complications may arise.

Chapter 1: Access to Programming

As it stands today, computer programming is a very privileged skillset. It requires a proficiency in a certain kind of thinking. As a matter of practical limitation, it all but demands comfort with typing text using the Latin alphabet (preferably with English words), in specialized "languages" that are structured in very specific ways. Moreover, there is a deeply entrenched sense of bigotry in the programming world, which insists that not only is this a good state of affairs, it's the best possible one.

These things represent very real access barriers. Anyone who does not think in the same ways as contemporary programming languages is likely to find the field prohibitive. Anyone who does not use the Latin alphabet to express their ideas in English on a regular basis (or does not prefer it) will find it tedious and difficult to do programming today.

Despite who the so-called "tech sector" wants to consider relevant, the vast majority of our population falls into one or both of those categories - to say nothing of those who are not going to spend their days in front of a keyboard and screen.

I don't think this is a reasonable situation at all.

The vast majority of creative and imaginative power, across the world, is currently excluded from being involved in making software - from doing programming. As a direct result, the quality of our digital technology in the world suffers, immensely. But more importantly, the quality of life that could be achieved with digital technology is also being actively denied to those people, as well.

Changing the landscape of programming - and, therefore, the future of software as a very concept - will begin with radically destroying the barriers to access.

This is the first part of my own work on Disability-Driven Development. It is less about creating a specific project and more about demonstrating a mindset - a way of thinking that can open up a lot of potential for further exploration over time. By seeing the act of "programming" in a new light, I believe that we can open up access to those who think of things differently than typical programming languages tend to do.

Moreover, I am confident that this mindset will directly enable other kinds of accessibility as well. This is a way to break free of the Latin/English stranglehold on programming, as well as shattering the field's exclusive reliance on text altogether.

The first prototype example of this mindset is a system I am calling SwitchBoard. I will have much more to say about that project soon. It's coming along very well and I'm deeply excited by the possibilities it represents, but it will take time to make it reality.

Chapter 2: More Interaction

Nothing exists in a vacuum.

On its own, a new paradigm for computer programming won't affect much. In order for this to really become significant - to truly push towards the goal of Disability-Driven Development of opening up creative power for those who don't usually get to make digital technology - we need community.

Community is how ideas get shared. Community is how resources can be mobilized and routed to places of need. As more people become able to create software, more people will be able to take part in creating and shaping digital communities.

In these early days, my own relationships and connections will be essential to the effort. It is through helping people I actually know to do programming in new (or better) ways that I'm able to focus my own work on things that actually are effective and make a real difference. And it is through the support of community that I'm even able to take on this work in the first place. My dream is to see many such tiny pockets sprout up over time - separate (but inter-communicating) clusters of people, all working together to expand what this project can be, on many different fronts simultaneously.

These communities will be vital for growing the overall ecosystem of programming, and helping reach more who could become involved in this new form of creation. I also see these collectives and interactions as being central to sustaining the livelihood of people as well. New communities mean new ways to share material support and mutual aid. New communities mean new opportunities for emotional care and healing. New communities mean new life.

Efforts of community connection and mutual aid will almost certainly spill over into benefiting people who never even get involved in "development" at all; and this is a very intentional effect of the strategy. My goal isn't just about unlocking technological creation for its own sake, after all; it's about giving new means for the underserved and the shoved-aside to actualize better realities for themselves, on their own terms. In this way, the digital technology is simply one means to an end, and communities will use it as they see fit to tackle their own challenges, even ones that have nothing to do with computers.

Inevitably, as such communities pop up and grow, they will reveal hard edges - access barriers to who is still being left out. As social interaction spreads, we begin to discover the "negative spaces" of exclusion. Every new form of community in history has experienced this, because it is an inevitable property of how interaction happens in the first place.

However, it need not be framed as a problem or an unavoidable failure. Instead, I see this outcome as ripe with opportunity. By continuing to ask who is being left behind, and focusing our efforts on making sure that changes, we can continue to nurture the process of Disability-Driven Development.

My guess is that one of the first major hurdles that we will encounter in this process will be physical access. Breaking the barriers of who can think about making software is a great start - but it's not enough. We also need to tackle the problems of who gets to interact with a computer at all.

Chapter 3: Transcending Physical Barriers

There are two major problems when it comes to the question of "who is using computers." One is the issue of direct accessibility - can I actually meaningfully interact with the digital technology in front of me? The other is availability - are my circumstances in life going to give me the chance to even see this technology in the first place?

Solving direct accessibility will require a tremendous amount of group effort. There are unfathomably many different obstacles to using digital devices and technologies. In today's world, we're asked to wait until the privileged - those with access to the power to create digital technology - can create solutions for those who need assistance and accommodation. We're forced to hope the "tech sector" will give us the access we need.

The tech sector not only continues to fail us all, but it can never actually succeed, even in principle. It is an abysmally bad choice for where to place our trust.

The motivations, pressures, and opportunities that catalyze "development" in the existing tech sector are overwhelmingly shaped by kyriarchy: capitalist, white-supremacy culture, rife with sexism, ableism, racism, classism, nationalism, and more. Expecting these poisoned seeds to ever yield good technology is a tragic mistake, and always has been. (To be perfectly clear, I don't say this from a position of judgment or criticism of anyone who relies on the tech space in any way; there has, historically, not really been a choice.)

To get free from this situation, we need to focus on giving creative power directly to the least-empowered. The tech sector occasionally gives lip service to this idea, but I want to be pointedly clear that I am not talking about extracting ideas for products from the marginalized and the oppressed. I'm talking about eradication of obstacles as well as exploiters.

The entire idea is for those who are sidelined, exploited, and discarded by our current world to have nothing and no one standing in the way of creating anything and everything they want. And in terms of direct accessibility, the best way to help more people gain access to creative power is to help them create their own access solutions.

I think it's important to approach this from a perspective of collaboration. It is not sufficient to create fancy tools and throw them over a metaphorical fence, and ask the disadvantaged people of the world to build their own better future. We need to both offer those tools to everyone who needs them, and also trust that they will be the best suited to actually deploy and use those tools, for their own ends.

Nobody understands particular access needs as well as those who actively experience exclusion because of them; and so nobody else can possibly be better qualified to create access solutions. But because of the nature of systemic oppression and exclusion, those with the needs rarely have the resources to envision or implement those solutions. Any form of escape from this situation requires us to tackle both aspects of this simultaneously.

As communities continue to grow and evolve, they will offer the necessary infrastructure by which the resources can be guided to those with needs. Ideas and creativity can flourish in a healthy community; and when all of these ingredients combine, they can produce truly wondrous things. By curating and cultivating our connections with each other, we can open the way for even more people to become involved.

This will, in a way, require additional creativity and imagination in terms of how programming is done - new people gaining access to the power to create will help us collectively find answers that currently feel elusive, and it will also lead to asking new questions. The process of finding the edges of exclusion and breaking them down will create space for more community and connection; and those connections will allow for yet more growth and change - a mutually perpetuating cycle.

The history of disability justice is rich with an abundance of examples of curb-cut effects - situations where focusing on access yields ideas and changes and solutions that end up being beneficial to far more people than just the original "target audience" so to speak. This kind of tidal force lifts everyone - and it is that principle which underlies the motivation of Disability-Driven Development as a philosophy. Giving direct, unobstructed power to the multiply-marginalized will improve every community.

Community will not only be at the core of solving direct accessibility though - it is also a crucial component of how we tackle availability. All the accessible creation power in the world can't do any good for someone who can't actually get a computer.

Software is relatively cheap to distribute and share, and that is also a large part of why I've chosen to focus on that aspect of digital technology creation first. Eventually, though, in order to continue bringing creative power to those who are excluded from it, we'll need to solve the question of getting people hardware.

Good software-creation tools will be able to help create more efficient software, which reduces the need for expensive hardware. This is one layer of improving material access, since the costs of even modest computing devices remain prohibitive for large swaths of the population. Cheaper devices means availability to more people. But there will be other challenges as well, and we'll need to find ways to overcome those obstacles together.

Community structures, mutual aid projects, and other similar infrastructure will be instrumental in helping with the physical availability of the devices and hardware needed. I suspect this will be a very substantial challenge for quite some time, given the realities of capitalism and the ongoing politically-motivated denial of resources to much of the world. At some point, we'll become limited by the actual, practical ability to put hardware in reach of more people - and we'll need to start thinking in new ways in order to proceed.

Chapter 4: New Perspectives

Socioeconomic barriers need not stop us for long. Much like other barriers that have come up already, we don't need to see these as just obstacles that get in the way of helping spread creative power and access. We can also see them as opportunities for inventive approaches to our goals.

To put this in very concrete terms, if we want everyone on Earth to have free access to creating digital technology for themselves, we're going to run out of hardware devices in a hurry. This is not because those devices do not exist or cannot be distributed; it is because there are very real forces - national politics, systemic oppressions, and so on - that will act to inhibit this distribution. Make no mistake, this vision is going to encounter a lot of hegemonic resistance.

We've already imagined a future where we don't need to rely on the software industry to create better software. So what if we didn't need to rely on the hardware industry to create devices, either?

What would it take to change the way we build "computers" and digital devices, such that it was a very real prospect that a small community could create their own, without dependence on outside resources or "permission"?

Given an existing network of communities for sharing ideas and material resources, how could we then "seed" this kind of hardware-creation more widely, all around the world? Could we devise plans for digital devices that could be made with little more than household materials - devices that could then seamlessly join into our existing ecosystem of radically-accessible technology, as equal participants?

If we are willing to let go of certain facets of current physical hardware, such as compactness and efficient processing speed, can we open ourselves up to the introduction of alternative forms of hardware? Can we then collectively refine those forms, without needing to wait for the acceptance and agreement of existing economic forces? Can we freely share our ideas for better and better physical devices, around the world, in a way which outpaces the "innovation" timelines of capitalist tech manufacturers?

What happens when we stop thinking in terms of a harsh dichotomy between "software" and "hardware"? What happens when our computers - both the devices and their programs - can be built out of physical objects, literal moving parts that can be rearranged and repurposed as needed, but still retain a completely integrated relationship with the other kinds of digital technology we're already familiar with?

If the components and parts needed to build such devices were more readily available (and/or more easily distributed) than circuit boards and microchips, how many more people could we provide with easy, unhindered access to the power to create? Who would become able to reclaim their own authenticity, autonomy, and joy? Whose access to life would give rise to new connections, new communities, and even more new dreams of better futures?

What would we need to do in order to create a way for a rural, agricultural community in the Global South to build their own communal digital technologies, for whatever purposes they wanted to pursue together? What if the systems they constructed could also talk to the Internet, and other communities around the world? What happens when no place on Earth is prevented from accessing our ever-expanding ecosystem of connection, sharing, and support?

How much more joy, how much more life, can we unlock in this way?

Chapter 5: Beyond Silicon and Wire

Accomplishing universal access to digital technology would be incredibly transformative in and of itself; and it's no small task, to be sure. But I don't see any particular reason why this sweeping tide of change to the digital technology space needs to stop there.

In fact, I'm not sure we can get to such a place without also confronting other realities of our present day world head-on. At some point, the question of "who is getting left out of this creative power" is going to fade into the question of "what is the cost of doing this, in more than just human terms?"

Tech, as it exists right now, is largely created via a very extractive mindset. In order to make hardware, we destroy organic life, shredding it en masse in order to rip minerals and metals from the earth. In order to make software, we destroy human life, by extracting time and energy from creative minds, and subjecting bodies to unhealthy circumstances and physical strains for endless hours across long years.

We're told to look the other way, that the life being eradicated in order to mine and process materials isn't as "important" as human life, even as the planet's climate collapses around us in response to the careless, unceasing murder of lives that aren't homo sapiens.

We're told that the eradication of our own life is not actually bad; after all, people can get paid a lot of money for making software (I would know!) - so clearly it must be absurd to say that it kills people!

But this is only true if we think of "death" exclusively as a singular, binary event. We're systematically told to ignore the slow, subtle, nearly-invisible death that capitalism, colonialism, and oppression subject us to every second of every day. Our bodies may operate longer now than in centuries past, but our life is being stolen from us, often without us even realizing it's happening. We exist longer so we can die slower, making sure we "produce more" along the way, all in the service of systemic violence.

I have no interest in a future of digital technology that continues to operate by means of extraction, exploitation, and death.

Instead, I think a key facet of the long-term strategy of Disability-Driven Development is actually also an ecological strategy. In a very real sense, we cannot hope to accomplish the goal of providing creative power to everyone using the systems and patterns of our current world. It simply cannot be done - both because it is logistically untenable, and because the existing systems will fight against us every step of the way.

As with the theme we've seen before, though, this need not be thought of as only a problem that gets in the way. It is also an opportunity to think of alternatives - to create options that get what we want, while also obviating the need to rely on (or even involve) the existing systems at all.

Once we're thinking of computing - of digital technology in general - as more than silicon and bytes, we've got a very real foothold into thinking of these technologies in more holistic ways. We can picture technology that evolves beyond the materials and substances used today, and shifts towards an approach that fundamentally strives to uphold good relationships among everything that shares life on our planet.

We can start to envision communications infrastructure that doesn't use buried cables, but instead harmonizes with mycelia growing in the ground: high-speed Internet access made available by carefully and thoughtfully interacting with continental-scale plant and mushroom ecosystems.

We can imagine computers that are not made of plastic and metal microchips, but are built of organic components. When we are done with a device, we need not generate "e-waste" which leeches poisonous chemicals into the ground in some anonymous, easily-forgotten landfill for centuries to come. Instead, when it comes time to replace our technology, we can return its raw materials to the broader ecosystem of our world.

Think of a world where instead of throwing away our old electronics, we compost them in our gardens, to help feed our neighbors. Think of a world where those same gardens may be growing the raw parts we need for our next act of technological creation, right alongside our own future meals.

Think of a world where we all have access to create, to unlock our own joy and agency and innate power - and where we can do this not by taking from the world that gives us our existence, but by adding to it. I'm deeply moved by the notion of a future wherein our creative energy is not used to continue the historical trend of exploitation and domination, but is instead redirected to where it belongs: the enrichment and cultivation of all life.

These are already some very lofty ideas. Even the first "chapter" of this tale is an ambitious stretch. I find myself scraping the upper limits of my own imagination as I try to glimpse what may be possible in the decades ahead of us.

Fortunately, the entire point from the start has been that this is about all of us collaborating - building together. I don't need to see the whole path ahead to this vast, radical destination. It is enough to be able to clear the way for a few steps immediately in front of us, so we can build our numbers and continue to move forward.

The Beginning

As I said earlier, I'm not one for trying to predict the future. This is merely one single glimpse at one possibility. The range of potential is far greater than even the wild dreams I've managed to articulate, and the specifics and details will certainly not play out exactly as I've imagined them here.

It may seem too uncertain to be possible. But we can proceed, regardless of that uncertainty, knowing that the underlying ideas and motivations of the effort can help us steer our way towards whatever future we decide to create together.

Our world is wracked with a web of overlapping, interconnected systems of oppression and subjugation. These serve to hold us back from the joy and the life that we all rightfully deserve unfettered access to. We are restricted - often in very real, practical, material terms, but also just as often by conditioned beliefs - the idea that we have no thing to offer, that our efforts cannot make a difference (or enough of one), that we'll never contribute anything that really matters.

These notions are all lies.

At the core, Disability-Driven Development is about shining a piercing light into those untruths, and revealing that we can all be a part of unlocking a more joyous, more alive existence… for ourselves, for each other, and for our entire world.

I'm excited beyond words to find out what your own creations will add to this future.