17 Aug 2016

Rabble: coder, activist and a little bit of an anarchist

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 3:08 pm on 17 August 2016

Technology creates possibilities and it should be doing more than making a few people rich; says coder and activist Evan Henshaw-Plath.

Evan Henshaw Plath

Evan Henshaw Plath Photo: Supplied

Henshaw-Plath AKA Rabble is a coder, activist and a little bit of an anarchist.

He doesn't just talk the talk about internet activism, he walks the walk. He was the lead developer at the company that eventually became Twitter, but left when it veered off its original vision of creating a platform to help to organise activism.

He’s in New Zealand this week to talk about using technology to encourage activism and openness at the ‘Open source, Open society’ conference. 

Henshaw-Plath believes that, as a tech activist, his role is to promote social justice, and he is eager to empower civil society to influence politics through the use of software.

That was the original anarchic spirit that informed the creation of Twitter, he says, and traces of it remain today.

“In the US you see things like ‘Black Lives Matter’ a social movement combating police brutality, and the very way in which we refer to the social movement is as a hashtag”

Twitter wasn’t the creation of a few coders in a room, he says, users made it what it is today. The use of hashtags, the @ symbol all came from users of Twitter and became the norm.

Henshaw-Plath says a group of “slightly Asperger white guys” by writing software code, are writing the new laws that govern us; and that’s a concern for broad participation in society.

“Now we have this thing where we have increasing productivity, but we don’t have now an economic system that rewards people for participating in it.

“What is the future of work? What happens when trucks drive themselves?” 

A noticeable number of articles about the Rio Olympics are written by software, he says. So software is now encroaching on areas thought to be immune to the de-jobbing ravages of technology

“Things we thought couldn’t be replaced by software are. Universal basic income (UBI) is that the solution, or part of the solution? We don’t know.”

Despite his background, Henshaw-Plath is ambivalent about the disruption technology brings

“Frankly I’m not sure the world is better for Uber. There’s a vision of the start- up world that is ‘let’s just roll through everything and create businesses that are much more efficient and re-capture the excess of the creative destruction, and no one else matters.”

And the future he says will be “unruly”.

“We’re looking at a space where companies want it to be very orderly, and they want you to live in the nice walled-garden of Facebook.

“Truth is most traffic is out elsewhere on the internet, Facebook, itself the dominant walled garden, can’t possibly retain its position.”


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