Volunteering the Valley: Designing Technology for the Common Good in the San Francisco Bay Area
civic technology , capitalism , labor , volunteering , silicon valley , digital technology
How can digital technologies be designed for good rather than harm? Dozens of civic organizations under the “tech for good” banner have emerged in recent years to address exactly this question. Although these organizations have commendable goals, many scholars have criticized them for naively believing that technologies can solve complex social problems. However, we do not yet have empirical data on how they are, in practice, working to address local social problems. This study investigates one particular effort to design digital technologies for the common good: civic technology. Civic technology organizations are made up of technologists—employed or seeking employment in the high-tech industry—who volunteer in their spare time to build digital technologies to be used by municipal employees and local residents. Drawing on participant observation and interviews with civic technologists in the San Francisco Bay Area, I argue that civic technologists’ efforts end up being less about serving local residents and more about proving that, despite current critiques, the Big Tech industry can still ‘save the world.’ To capture the complex dynamics which lead volunteers to repair their investment in the Big Tech industry even as they critique it, I develop the concept of the “spirit of civic technology,” which is an ethos comprised of value judgments about what makes a ‘good’ technology, technologist, project, and organization, and which are exported from high-tech workplaces into civic organizations. I conclude the spirit of civic technology leads volunteers to inadvertently reinforce the epistemic, economic, and cultural power of Big Tech firms.