Deconstructing Surveillance Week 8— Theories of Change

Nick Rabb
9 min readOct 23, 2023

As a reminder, this is part of a series of write-ups based off a class I’m teaching at Tufts University called Data and Power: Deconstructing Surveillance. If you would like more of a description of what the class is, check out the post from Week 1. If you want to keep up with this series, you can subscribe to receive email updates or on Medium where the write-ups are posted!

Our second week of considering ways to act ethically in the face of our analysis of surveillance technologies brings us to theories of change. I wanted to include writing and thinking from those who are solely concerned with how to bring about social and political change because it’s an entire branch of theory that is largely missing from the conversation regarding data science ethics.

As a brief reflection on this missing gap in typical data science and ethics education, I particularly think that this type of theory is important for engineers because it drastically expands the typical view of how society works. In our education, we typically have no classes that touch how society works, how power works, how social change happens. Yet when we become engineers in the world, we often find ourselves having to think about those questions. In the engineering world, the models for how change works are often the dominant view: powerful people make decisions, we can’t do much unless we become an executive. We absorb these from our surrounding culture, and subsequently close off what we think is possible for ourselves and for society writ large.

For this week, we watched a webinar from the Ayni Institute introducing participants to their concept of movement ecology, and we also read a chapter from Mark and Paul Engler’s This is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt is Shaping the Twenty-first Century. Both collections of ideas introduce us to thinking about how change happens in society through lenses that counter the dominant ways we are taught (implicitly or explicitly) to think about social change. They will be useful for us having a broad perspective when thinking about how to motivate and embody ethical data science practice, particularly regarding the surveillance systems we have analyzed.

Movement Ecology

We begin with a framing for thinking about different types of change. It’s very common for those who are interested in changing things that they don’t like about the world to get into arguments. We disagree over methods to make change, which fundamentally boils down to ideas about how the world works.

The idea behind the Ayni Institute’s framework of movement ecology is that, just like a natural ecosystem, there must be a diversity of organisms (organizations in this case) that coexist and interconnect with each other to have a healthy system as a whole. Organisms in the soil are just as essential as larger organisms like animals and plants. In a natural ecosystem, organisms are mutually benefiting from the behaviors and products of each other, while simultaneously somewhat being in competition for resources. With social organizations interested in the scarce resources of attention, people taking action, or which issues matter to people, the same can be true. Organizations can work together mutually to try to create the higher-order products of society (policy, norms, institutions) that are in their vision.

Ayni usefully provides three types of change-making cultures that exist: personal transformation, alternatives, and changing dominant institutions. Often, people from each camp dismiss and critique the others; for example, those changing institutions may say that those making alternatives are unrealistic, while alternatives people may say those working within institutions are co-opted by those same institutions. Ecology pushes us to think that rather than fighting, different types of change-making strategies should recognize that each other type is essential for a healthy diversity, and that they all benefit each other.

From Ayni Institute

There are at least two ways to think about this from the standpoint of our discussion of data science ethics and surveillance. For one, if we are interested in designing ethical technologies, then we can imagine technologies that support different types of change like personal transformation (e.g., through meditation apps), alternatives (e.g., being an engineer or analyst for an alternative school, or cooperative bank), and changing dominant institutions (e.g., voter registration apps, networks that help connect organizers).

Another way to think about this is that some technologies that we disagree with or want to see changed are subject to these theories of change. Facial recognition could be made more ethical as its engineers engage in personal transformation, learn about its ethical boundaries, and argue within their organizations for more ethical programming. Changing the dominant institution of law could result in bans of certain unethical types of facial recognition. Alternative institutions supporting different ways of dealing with crime — for which police have used facial recognition — could push back on police use of facial recognition as a way to alleviate the problems it claims to.

At the end of the day, a movement ecology view encourages us to embrace many different kinds of change-making within the sphere of data-driven technologies. Once we arrive at a vision of how technology should be being used, there are many avenues for change that can mutually benefit each other to bring that vision into the world.

Social Power versus Monolithic Power

With that framing in mind, we turn to some of the ideas from Mark and Paul Engler from This is an Uprising. One important piece of the chapter that we read describes different models of how power works: models of monolithic power, and social power.

Monolithic power is described as what many of us are taught (either implicitly or explicitly) as how power and change work. In this view, those at the top have all the power, so making change requires becoming the one at the top. Often, in the U.S., this translates into electoral politics and viewing the main change-makers as politicians, the president, or those with legal and lobbying power. This view has been critiqued as not being as all-encompassing as it may seem, as at the end of the day, even those in power require the consent and willing participation of the governed to follow their dictates.

The alternative view, social power, paints a different picture. It argues that power is exerted through institutions, and that changing institutions can move those power brokers who inevitably must exert their will through those same institutions. The Englers use the idea of pillars to imagine social power. Social power, in this view, rests upon several pillars (schools, media, the business community, churches, labor groups, etc.), which, if changed, can end up changing who has power in society.

These two views give us different models of how we might want to make change as ethical data scientists. Given an unjust application of facial recognition technology (say, by racist police), you could imagine on the one hand that you could change it by becoming a high-level executive, engineer, police chief, or lawyer in the technology sphere; or, on the other, you could imagine that you could make change by educating about its problems, making classes about it, starting student clubs opposed to it, discussing it in church groups, or making media portrayals of its problems.

Both methods of change, in an ecological view, are legitimate and can mutually benefit each other. But the important intervention here is to put forward that the monolithic view of power is not the only way that power can be exerted in society. Also, the social view of power often includes more people as potential change-makers. Adding in so many institutional pieces that can make change — schools, churches, businesses, community groups, media, etc. — presents us with a rich ecology.

Transformational and Transactional Change

The other useful framework from the chapter in This is an Uprising is the difference between transformational and transactional change. These two types of change often come into the picture when discussing changing dominant institutions, and the Englers identify (in other parts of the book) different movement strategies that try to do each type.

Transactional change is something that they argue is often pursued by electoral politics, legislative work, or labor union bargaining. Often, it is paired with what they term structure organizing: building a defined organizational structure to change something from the inside. Labor unions and political parties are prime examples of structure organizing. The key idea with transactional change is that concessions by the existing power structure are fought for by building power within the structure.

From Momentum | Momentum 101 —Two Dominant Traditions

Comparatively, transformational change is something that changes the ideas of what is even possible within society, working outside of the existing structures, and pushing the public who in turn influence power brokers. A type of organizing that often supports this change is mass mobilization: protests, demonstrations, civil disobedience. Mass mobilizations often change people’s perceptions of what is possible, as they give legitimacy to certain issues and argue in the realm of culture and ideas.

These two types of change-making are relevant for our ethical endeavors because they address two different types of things that we may be dissatisfied with in the current state of technology. Transactional change can address what we strive for with regulation, and ethical company and organizational behavior. Transformational change stands to alter how the public thinks about things like privacy, surveillance, their rights concerning their data, technodeterminism.

Particularly, putting forward a vision of transformational change, and seeing how it has worked in the past with issues of civil rights, same-sex marriage, or women’s rights, is markedly counter to typical discourse in the sphere of technology. Technodeterminism reigns supreme, and imagining a different world where privacy is preserved, we own our data, or monetizing our behavior is prohibited, seems impossible. Legitimizing the role of transformational politics and their long history of making powerful changes to what seems possible in society, is a crucial intervention for the world of technology and ethics.

Again, we need both types of change to address the critiques we have of surveillance technologies, and to move towards our value-driven visions of how data technologies should be used. The benefit of seeing these two types of change-making is that we can see our possibilities as more expansive: part of our ethics can involve helping make change in transactional ways, and also helping make change in a transformational manner.

For next week

Readings and reflections

In light of the material we interacted with, we can reflect on our view of how change works in society.

How did you conceive of change before interacting with these ideas? Is it something that you ever learned about in a class? Or rather was your viewpoint something that came from culture, media, etc.?

Then, reflect briefly on to what degree these ideas challenged your view of how change happens. Can you give examples of changes you know of from your life that fit into a theory or type of change?

For next week, we are revisiting our readings from Browne and Guendelsberger as they discuss resistance to surveillance systems. And also, we are featuring a special event: a panel of local change-makers who will talk with the class about their experiences in local government, state-wide legislative campaigns, and community organizing.

Register through the QR code in the advertisement, and you will be sent information about the in-person location, and the Zoom details for the event.

Thanks for reading along, and as a reminder, if you want to keep following these weekly updates or share them with friends, either follow my blog on Medium, or subscribe to the email list via this Google Form.



Nick Rabb

PhD candidate in Computer Science and Cognitive Science at Tufts University, organizer w/ Dissenters, MA Peace Action, formerly Sunrise Mvmt. Philosophy nerd.