Tag: anti-capitalism

Self-described activist creator of Cell 411 app weirdly refuses to discuss its closed source tech because of anti-racist Twitter handle of the person asking

About a week ago I published a post cautiously praising the work of Boulder, Colorado based SafeArx, the company behind a smartphone app called Cell 411 claiming to cut down on the need for police:

Let me be clear that I love the idea of a decentralized emergency alerting response platform. I think it’s incredibly important for such a tool to exist. […] I want to see a project with Cell 411’s claims succeed and be a part of abolishing the police and the State altogether. I think there’s real potential there to make headway on an important social good (abolishing the police, dismantling the prison industrial complex, among other social goods) and I want to offer whatever supportive resources I can to further a project with these goals.

In the post, I raised some basic questions about Cell 411 that seemed to have gone unasked by reporters covering it. Chief among them is that the app claims to be a de-centralized alternative to 9-1-1, except that it’s not decentralized at all. I described this discrepancy as follows:

On the Google Play store, Cell 411 describes itself like this:

Cell 411 is a De-centralized, micro-social platform that allows users to issue emergency alerts, and respond to alerts issued by their friends.

The problem is in the very first adjective: de-centralized. To a technologist, “decentralization” is the characteristic of having no single endpoint with which a given user must communicate in order to make use of the service. Think trackerless BitTorrent, BitCoin, Tor, or Diaspora. These are all examples of “decentralized” networks or services because if any given computer running the software goes down, the network stays up. One of the characteristics inherent in decentralized networks is an inability of the network or service creator from unilaterally barring access to the network by a given end-user. In other words, there is no one who can “ban” your account from using BitTorrent. That’s not how “piracy” works, duh.

Unfortunately, many of the people I’ve spoken to about Cell 411 seem to believe that “decentralized” simply means “many users in geographically diverse locations.” But this is obviously ignorant. If that were what decentralized meant, then Facebook and Twitter and Google could all be meaningfully described as “decentralized services.” That’s clearly ridiculous. This image shows the difference between centralization and decentralization:

The difference between centralization and decentralization.

As you can see, what matters is not where the end users are located, but that there is more than one hub for a given end user to connect to in order to access the rest of the network.

Armed with that knowledge, have a look at the very first clause of Cell 411’s Terms of Service legalese, which reads, and I quote:

1. We may terminate or suspend your account immediately, without prior notice or liability, for any reason whatsoever, including without limitation if you breach the Terms.

This is immediately suspect. If they are able to actually enforce such a claim, then it is a claim that directly contradicts a claim made by their own description. In a truly decentralized network or service, the ability for the network creator to unilaterlly “terminate or suspend your account immediately, without prior notice or liability” is not technically possible. If Cell 411 truly is decentralized, this is an unenforceable clause, and they know it. On the other hand, if Cell 411 is centralized (and this clause is enforceable), other, more troubling concerns immediately come to mind. Why should activists trade one centralized emergency dispatch tool run by the government (namely, 9-1-1), for another centralized one run by a company? Isn’t this just replacing one monopoly with another? And why bill a centralized service as a decentralized one in the first place?

Despite this, I was hopeful that Cell 411’s creator, Virgil Vaduva, and his team would be willing to at least address the point, perhaps by discussing their development roadmap. Maybe it’s not decentralized yet, but they intend to decentralize it later on? That would be awesome, and important. Moreover, I asked if they would be interested in combining efforts with me or others with whom I’ve worked, since we’ve been developing an actually decentralized, free software tool with the same goal in mind called Buoy for a few months now. I said as much in my earlier post:

I want to see Cell 411 and Buoy both get better. Buoy could become better if it had Cell 411’s mobile app features. Cell 411 could become better if its server could be run by anyone with a WordPress blog, like Buoy can be.

I sent Virgil Vaduva an email last week, and tweeted at him before writing my post. (My previous post includes a copy of the email I sent him.) I was ignored. So I started tweeting at others who were tweeting about Cell 411, linking them to my questions. It seems that’s what got Mr. Vaduva’s attention, since today I finally got a response from him. And that response is extremely concerning for Cell 411’s supposed target audience: activists. Here’s how Mr. Vaduva “answered” my technical questions:

I’m not entirely sure why technical questions like these were answered by a hyper-focus on the militantly anti-racist Twitter handle I happen to be using right now (it’s actually “Kill White Amerikkka”), unless of course if Vaduva is having some kind of trigger reaction caused by (evidently not-so-latent) internalized white supremacy. Later, he called my original post, which, again, included outright praise for Cell 411 a “shitty hit piece.” I even offered to change my Twitter handle (as if that has any bearing at all on the technical matters?) for the duration of a discussion with him, but again, the only replies were, well, have a look:

The full thread is…well, classic Twitter.

I don’t know about you, but the idea of installing a closed-source app that reports my location to a centralized database controlled by a company whose founder actively deflects legitimate technical questions by objecting to a militantly anti-racist Twitter handle and making immature pro-capitalist statements when asked technical questions doesn’t sit well with me. But even if that were something I could tolerate, it raises even more concerning questions when that very same app is one touted as being built for anti-police brutality activists.

Last week, I would have told my friends, “Go ahead and try Cell 411, but be careful.” With this new information, my advice is: “Don’t trust anything created by SafeArx, including Cell 411, until and unless the technical issues are addressed, the source is released as free software, and its creators make clear that anti-racism and anti-capitalism is a core intention of their development process.”

In my personal opinion, tools like Cell 411 that purport to be “made for activists, by activists” need to be comfortable materially advancing the destruction of whiteness and white identity, as well as standing in solidarity with militant resistance to white supremacy. But even putting aside concerns over Vaduva’s discomfort with anti-racist Twitter handles, any technologist worth his salt who wants his closed-source technology to be trusted should be able to answer some basic questions about it if he’s indeed unwilling to release the source code itself.

Mr. Vaduva and Cell 411 fall short on both counts. The sad thing is that any potentially latent racism in Cell 411’s creator wouldn’t be a technical concern if Cell 411 itself were actually decentralized free software, since the intentions or social beliefs of an app’s creator can’t change how the already-written code works. As I said in the conclusion to my previous post:

It’s obvious, at least to anyone who understands that the purpose of cops is to protect and uphold white supremacy and oppress the working class, why cops would hate a free decentralized emergency response service. Again, I want to use such an app so badly that I began building one myself.

But if Cell 411 is centralized, then it becomes a much more useful tool for law enforcement than it does for a private individual, for exactly the same reason as Facebook presents a much more useful tool for the NSA than it does for your local reading group, despite offering benefits to both.

Cartoon of a protester ineffectually trying to shoot corrupt government officials with a 'Facebook' logo positioned as a gun.


As long as Cell 411 remains a proprietary, closed-source, centralized tool, all the hype about it being a decentralized app that cops hate will remain hype. And there are few things agents of the State like more than activists who are unable to see the reality of a situation for what it is.

Admiral Ackbar: Proprietary and centralized software-as-a-service? It's a trap!

If you think having a free software, anarchist infrastructural alternative to the police and other State-sponsored emergency services is important and want to see it happen, we need your help making Buoy better. You can find instructions for hacking on Buoy on our wiki.

What tools should we be building to end capitalism?

Someone recently asked me:

In terms of ending capitalism, what tools do we need to start building? How can we help one another connect to the resources we need? If we need laptops and phones to stay connected, but we do not have the natural resources to build them in communities close to us, how do we help one another connect and create while staying decentralized? Does that make sense? Are you already envisioning particular tools?

I wrote an answer I think is the synthesis of a lot of my thoughts about this, and want to share:

That is a really big question. To fully answer, I think it requires an agreement on definitions and a solid shared understanding of those definitions. That’s not something a lone email will be able to offer, so I have to refer you to a number of other sources for that kind of background. (We’ve talked about a lot of them in person, already.)

That said, with the necessary background, I think the answer to “what tools should we be building in terms of ending capitalism” is to rephrase the question so it’s more like: “What are some useful paradigms/models/frameworks we should be building tools based on in order to speed capitalism’s demise?”

I think it’s more important to understand capitalism as a way of thinking than it is to understand that a given tool X is implemented “capitalistically,” because ultimately capitalism is not a thing any more than love or hate are “things.” Capitalism is not a thing one can hold in one’s hand. Rather, it is a way of experiencing the things one holds in one’s hands, or feels about other people with whom one has relationships. There is no physical or digital tool that can directly change such an abstract thing.

Change must come from the other direction: how one thinks and what one values. It is obvious that “how one thinks and what one values” greatly affects the tools one makes, as well as affecting how one chooses to use said tool(s). If you value domination, you will choose to make tools that increase your ability to be dominating. Domination is ultimately what capitalism—the way of being a productive member of society as we know it today—rewards, both financially and otherwise. If society is to thrive, that needs to change away from valuing domination and towards valuing empathy and trust. A society based on domination is not one in which most people’s individual quality of life is high. That’s not just my opinion; a lot has been written in a great many academic and other fields about the importance and correlation of empathy and trust in societies for a joyous life. (Google it.)

But no tool, even tools that were carefully crafted to avoid conferring the ability to dominate on their users, are immune from being used in ways that dominate others. The evidence of this is simply that someone who wishes to dominate someone else can simply withhold knowledge of said tool from them (using the innate human ability of not speaking to that person), thereby increasing the gap of capability between themselves and the person they seek to dominate. And notice that this has nothing to do with the design of said tool. The problem is a human, cultural one, not a technological one.

So with all that said (and hopefully understood), if one chooses to build tools anyway, as I do, and if one chooses to do so with the intent of destroying capitalism, as I do, then it’s important that the tools we choose to build are carefully chosen so their predictable impacts have the most benefit to those who share our intent of destroying capitalism and the least benefit to capitalists.

There are some tools that benefit one group of people more than others. But knowing which these are or will be is complex because that trade-off is never static; it changes with each new tool’s introduction and also with the changing cultural morays of a given society in a given time. This isn’t always predictable, but what is predictable is the ways in which different groups incorporate new tools. Bruce Schneier writes about this when he says:

There are technologies that immediately benefit the defender and are of no use at all to the attacker – for example, fingerprint technology allowed police to identify suspects after they left the crime scene and didn’t provide any corresponding benefit to criminals. The same thing happened with immobilizing technology for cars, alarm systems for houses, and computer authentication technologies. Some technologies benefit both but still give more advantage to the defenders. The radio allowed street policemen to communicate remotely, which increased our level of safety more than the corresponding downside of criminals communicating remotely endangers us.

As anti-capitalists, one of our goals should be to identify, design, and deploy technologies that are more use to anti-capitalists than capitalists. There are many good examples of this. Food banks. Public libraries. Distributed telecommunications (like BitTorrent, IPFS, Tor onion services, etc.). Fighting for truly public spaces (like how Occupy Wall Street tried to take back public parks for living purposes). All of these things are anti-capitalist, and there are many more more like them. We should support all of these things and anything that supports those things, would be great.

In other words, we need to be building infrastructure. And when I say infrastructure, I don’t just mean anti-capitalist infrastructure (infrastructure useful for directly attacking capitalism, such as defunding and directly combating the existence of militaries and police, as projects like CopWatch or our project, Buoy, aims to do, although I do think this is useful and important, too). I specifically mean ALTERNATIVE infrastructure: infrastructure useful for doing things other than capitalism.

What does infrastructure enabling doing things other than capitalism look like? That’s a HUGE, diverse array of things that are actually pretty familiar. Public (shared) roadways are the canonical example. Roads themselves are a tool; they are neither capitalist nor anti-capitalist, they have existed long before capitalism. The capitalist part of the modern conception of a roadway is the part where someone thinks to themselves, “there’s a pothole here, but I’ll do nothing about that because it is not my job to fix it, it is the State’s job to send someone here to patch this up.” That’s how capitalism ends up taking over control of roadways. That’s the force that ultimately enables a powerful, dominating entity, such as a government or corporation, to put up toll booths and “privatize” and thereby control access to an otherwise uncontrollable, un-ownable thing such as physical movement.

We’ve already begun building alternatives to this way of thinking. For example, see the “citizen pothole reporting mobile app” developed over 6 years ago.

This kind of app is a nice try, and there have been a lot of these coming from initiatives like (the badly misguided) “Code for America” brigades, but it ultimately benefits capitalists because the developers of these apps take the basic assumption of capitalism (that someone “owns” the road—and that this owner is the State) and amplifies it.

A more anti-capitalist or capitalist-alternative “pothole fixing” app would have included instructions for how to fix potholes in the app itself, included a feature for locating the materials needed to fix potholes on the map (even if that just means directions to the nearest Home Depot), and then walked the end-user through the process of traveling to and fixing the potholes that they navigated to. Of course, anti-capitalism is a gradient. To offer an even more effective alternative to capitalism, the app could include a feature where people are able to list their own garages as spaces where other users (pothole-fixers) could freely take and/or borrow the supplies needed for fixing potholes. Like a pothole-fixing equivalent of a food bank. Instead, all the app does is further centralize responsibility, not to mention the knowledge, for fixing potholes in the entity who is already not doing a good job of fixing potholes: the local (capitalist) government, while also turning citizens into agents who, themselves, further enforce the cult of capitalism amongst their peers.

Do you see the difference?

So when you ask me, “what tools do we need to build in terms of ending capitalism?” my answer is: “we need to rebuild every single tool that exists, including the tools used for fixing potholes in the streets.”

Which tool will you work on? There are many to choose from. Each is important. Each is necessary. The key point to understand is that building alternatives to capitalism do not come about by building anti-capitalist technology. It comes about by building pro-social technologies IN AN ANTI-CAPITALIST WAY.

In other words, alternatives to capitalism are all about the process, the journey, the way in which you do a thing, not the product, the destination, or the specific thing you choose to do or build.

Hope this helps,