Wednesday, June 5, 2013

CPSR: Can't Prolong Sadness, Really

Last month brought the official dissolution of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility.  The initial reaction to this event, for those of us who cared about it, was of course sadness.  It marked the end of an era, of nearly 30 years of activism, education, and outreach.  As one who served on the CPSR Board for many years, and as President briefly, it feels a bit like an old friend has died.

But the truth is that current realities call for different kinds of organizations, and that CPSR lived longer than we had any reason to expect.  CPSR was founded in the early 1980's, one of many organizations born in reaction to the Reagan-era military build up and, most particularly, the Strategic Defense Initiative, commonly known as the "Star Wars" program.  The goals of that program were so far beyond the technology of the time that it struck fear into the hearts of most knowledgeable computer scientists.  As the program was initially construed, a single bug in a staggeringly complex program could easily have cost millions of lives, even as the program gave policy makers a false sense of security about the survivability of nuclear war.  It was flat-out terrifying to many of us

Most of the organizations that formed in that era found themselves winding down after the Reagan-Bush years, and certainly not surviving to the Millennium.  CPSR was different.  At its founding, it was the only organization focused specifically on the impact of computers on society.  As Star Wars faded, CPSR turned toward issues such as electronic privacy, computerized voting, participatory design, and online government.

In fact, there were so many topics of interest that CPSR could not contain them.  Several organizations that began their lives as spinoffs from CPSR continue today, such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and the 21st Century Project.  Other organizations that were not CPSR spinoffs, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), nonetheless diverted substantial energies from CPSR.  Over time, then, CPSR became the home for worries about the smaller issues related the role of computers in society, as the larger ones spun off to specialized groups.  

The capabilities of the Internet, and the general Millennial temperament, seem to favor more highly-focused organizations, rather than catch-alls such as CPSR.  It seems likely to me that social action groups will be more effective with such specialization, which makes the death of CPSR both more understandable and less lamentable.  But that doesn't mean that nothing is being lost.

CPSR, as a general-purpose organization, provided a social nexus for people concerned about multiple computer/society issues to exchange ideas and devise new strategies.  It's not clear to me where this is happening today, if anywhere.

But perhaps the worst aspect of CPSR's demise is that it leaves some "lesser" issues orphaned.  Sure, issues about privacy and liberty will be addressed by EPIC and EFF, but what of the issues with no such specialized organizations?  How will computing professionals organize themselve to address those issues?

Two issues, in particular, are of concern to me.  First is the question of electronic voting.  Electronic voting machines have an enorous potential to subvert democracy.   While there are individuals addressing the issue, without CPSR, I see no organizational home for them.  Second, and most ironically, is the role of computers in weapon systems and the military.  The issue which gave birth to CPSR is one of the most regretable orphans in the wake of its demise.

CPSR had a good run, and I can't shed too many tears at its end.  It was a 1980's style organization (some would say 1960's) fundamentally ill-suited to 21st century realities.  But now, as computer technologists, it is all of our responsibility to consider the social consequences of the rapidly-advancing technology we continue to build, and to create new organizations for new concerns.

Fortunately, I see signs that this is exactly what's happening.  I'm encouraged by the fact that, even as CPSR has been fading away, the importance of social responsibility has become an important part of a growing number of computer science programs.

CPSR was both too general, in the sense of trying to cover too many issues, and too exclusive, as if there could ever be computing professionals -- or even computer users, which is virtually all of us -- who do not have a moral obligation to worry about the consequences of new technologies.  In the absence of CPSR, each of us has an individual obligation to be a computer professional for social responsibility.


  1. Nathaniel,

    It's good to hear from you, especially on this issue.

    I might point out that while the organization has ceased to exist formally, its spirit continues. This is seen in various posts to the still active listserv (including this reference to your post) and in several ongoing discussions at many different levels regarding electronic voting and automatic weapons control.

    Perhaps the biggest regret I have is that CPSR did not change enough to operate effectively in the context of the twenty-first century. Perhaps it was asking too much that it should have? But we do need some modern way of coordinating activism regarding the issues you mention as well as some others. (Electronic surveillance comes to mind, for example.)

    Let us salute what it was we accomplished together--its impact went far beyond our size. And let us each build upon its tomb a new effort to address the uses of computing contrary to the public interest.

    CPSR is dead! Long live CPSR.

    . . . John M Dwyer

  2. One of the "orphaned" issues you mention, Electronic voting, is being covered by Of course, they focus on the security problems; not the usability ones.

  3. In addition to spinning issues out into other more focused organizations, some of CPSR's issues became mainstream. E.g., CPSR founded the conferences on Participatory Design and on Computers, Freedom, and Privacy, and both were eventually taken over by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM).

  4. Jeff, I stand corrected about But I would quibble with your comment about usability vs security. In fact, usability is gradually being recognized as a significant aspect of security. See, for example,

  5. Nathaniel,
    Thanks for taking the time to sum up your thoughts. I find that the issues are really proliferating, and every day I read something that CPSR would have wanted to address. We had working groups, as I recall, and people who really cared about universal access, commercialization of the Internet, computers in health care and schools, and on and on and on. I'm not sure who will pick this up, and I am not sure where to plug into balanced commentary. Thanks! Marsha