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CPSR Dissolution and Gary Chapman, Winner of CPSR's Norbert Wiener Award
Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility Dissolution and
Gary Chapman, Winner of CPSR's Norbert Wiener Award for Social and Professional Responsibility
It is my unenviable task to announce that Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR), a non-profit educational corporation, has been dissolved.
CPSR was launched in 1981 in Palo Alto, California, to question the computerization of war in the United States via the Strategic Computing Initiative to use artificial intelligence in war, and, soon after, the Strategic Defense Initiative — “Star Wars”. Over the years CPSR evolved into a “big tent” organization that addressed a variety of computer-related areas including workplace issues, privacy, participatory design, freedom of information, community networks, and many others.
Now, of course, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of organizations and movements that are concerned not only about the misuses of ICT by governments and corporations (and others) but also about trying to develop approaches that help communities work together to address issues related to economic and other inequalities and environmental degradation — as well as broader issues such as war and peace.
CPSR to me provided a vital link to important ideas and to inspirational and creative people. These people believed that positive social change was possible and that the use of ICT could play a significant role. For example, in 1993, CPSR developed a document designed to help shape the National Information Infrastructure (NII) program promoted by the Clinton/Gore administration to help guide the evolution of networked digital communication. Through a variety of conferences, workshops and reports, CPSR encouraged conversations about computers and society that went beyond hyperbole and conventional wisdom.
Although in many ways the issues that CPSR helped publicize have changed forms they generally still remain. The ethical and other issues surrounding the computerization of war, for one thing, have not gone away just because they’re not prominent on the public agenda. CPSR’s original focus on the use of artificial intelligence in “battle management” etc. and the possibility of launch on warning is probably still pertinent. The advent of ubiquitous and inexpensive drones definitely is.
Apparently, as many people know, the age of the participatory membership organizations is over — their numbers are certainly way down — and we in CPSR had certainly noticed that trend. I personally suspect that this development is not necessarily a good thing. I certainly would welcome another membership organization with CPSR’s Big Tent orientation.
On the occasion of CPSR’s dissolution we’ve developed two small projects for keeping CPSR’s spirit alive.
The first is that it would be a good opportunity to catalog the groups and organizations around the world that would be natural allies to CPSR if it still existed. We’ve started this cataloging (see http://www.
publicsphereproject.org/civic_) but presumably have only captured a small fraction of these organizations. Please open an account on the Public Sphere Project site and add the information about your organization. organizations
The second is less concrete but probably no less important. To help the current and future generation of activists as we envision possible futures and interventions, we’d like to put these two related questions forward: What applications of ICT are the most important to human development and sustainability?And, on the other hand, What are the strongest challenges to these applications? Please email me your thoughts on this and I will do my best to compile the thoughts and make them public.
With this note I also want to announce that CPSR’s final Norbert Wiener Award for Social and Professional Responsibility winner is Gary Chapman, who served as CPSR’s first executive director from 1985 to 1992. The award recognizes outstanding contributions for social responsibility in computing technology. Named for Norbert Wiener (1894-1964), who, in addition to a long and active scientific career that brought the word "cybernetics" (and, hence, cyberspace) into the language, was also a leader in assessing the social implications of computerization. Writing in Science (1960) Wiener reminds us that, “...even when the individual believes that science contributes to the human ends which he has at heart, his belief needs a continual scanning and re-evaluation which is only partly possible. For the individual scientist, even the partial appraisal of the liaison between the man and the historical process requires an imaginative forward glance at history which is difficult, exacting, and only limitedly achievable...We must always exert the full strength of our imagination.”
Gary who died in 2010, spent nearly three decades working towards peace and social justice as it related to information technology. As Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy and Information Center (EPIC) stated, Gary “made many people stop and ask hard questions about technology. Not just ‘Is it cool?’ but ‘Does it make our lives better, or more just? And does it make our world more secure?’ ”
Gary’s technology column, "Digital Nation," was carried in over 200 newspapers and websites. He taught and lectured all over the world, most recently as a guest faculty member at the University of Porto in Porto, Portugal. Since his time at CPSR he had been involved in a multitude of related projects including the International School for Digital Transformation (ISDT) that he and others at the University of Texas convened annually in Porto, Portugal.
Gary was on the faculty of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin. On the local level, he also worked to bridge the digital divide, the gulf between those with access to technology and those without. In 1995, for example, he worked on the successful grant application that led to the establishment of Austin Free-Net (www.austinfree.net), which installed the first public access Internet stations in Austin, and continues today as a national model for bringing digital opportunities to low-income and digitally challenged residents. And in 2010, Gary co-founded Big Gig Austin (www.biggigaustin.org), which anchored the successful community campaign to bring the Google gigabit fiber network to Austin.
Gary was a principled and untiring advocate for the use of the Internet a tool for collaboration and other means to bring people together. Also, as a former medic with the Army Special Forces, Gary was especially concerned about the uses of computing in warfare. In his articles in the CPSR Newsletter, he warned that “Automating our ignorance of how to cope with war will produce only more disaster.” With David Bellin he co-edited “Computers in Battle: Will They Work?”, a book on the implications of computer technology in war, and was involved for many years in a rich collaboration with the Pugwash-USPID (Unione Scienziati Per Il Disarmo)-ISODARCO (International School on Disarmament and Research on Conflicts) community in Italy and elsewhere.
Gary contributed chapters to several books that I was involved with. Most recently, he contributed The Good Life, one of the patterns (publicsphereproject.org/
People who hope for a better world feel the need for a shared vision of the "good life" that is flexible enough for innumerable individual circumstances but comprehensive enough to unite people in optimistic, deliberate, progressive social change. This shared vision of The Good Life should promote and sustain conviviality and solidarity among people, as well as feelings of individual effectiveness, self-worth and purpose. A shared vision of The Good Life is always adapting; it encompasses suffering, loss and conflict as well as pleasures, reverence and common goals of improvement. An emergent framework for the modern "good life" is based on some form of humanism, particularly pragmatic or civic humanism, with room for a spiritual dimension that does not seek domination. Finally, the environmental crises of the planet require a broad vision of a "good life" that can harmonize human aspirations with natural limits. All this needs to be an ongoing and open-ended "conversation," best suited to small geographic groups that can craft and then live an identity that reflects their vision of a "good life."
Although this will be CPSR's final Weiner award, the work that Gary and other activists from CPSR and other organizations helped launch over two decades ago is now being carried forward by scores of organizations and thousands of activists all over the world, as digital information and communication systems have assumed such a central location on the world's stage.
Several projects including a Festschrift or other book project or event related to CPSR and social responsibility have been discussed although no firm plans have been made.
Gary Chapman was patient but persistent in his pursuit of progressive goals and a better life for all. Sadly, Gary left us before he could see his vision brought to fruition. He'll be missed but we all must push forward with his vision.