Back in April 2020, Tech Learning Collective was informed that we were one of three Electronic Frontier Alliance member groups to win the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s 2019 “Activity Challenge.” We were unaware of the challenge because we had submitted our application for EFA membership very late into the year, on August 13th, so this award came as a pleasant surprise. It meant that Tech Learning Collective had produced enough events—twelve, by EFA organizer’s count—in a mere four months to earn our place as the group with the second highest number of events recognized by the EFA.
Our fellow New Yorkers, the CyPurr Collective, who have been EFA members for numerous years, narrowly beat us out by one EFA-recognized event. Their total was 13 events, spread across the full twelve months. We would like to take the opportunity to congratulate the CyPurr Collective on their 2019 Activity Challenge victory! We’re very proud to represent our hometown of New York City in the top two slots for this challenge.
Even more recently, as part of a follow up to the EFA 2019 Activity Challenge, Tech Learning Collective was excited to be interviewed by EFF EFA organizers for a feature profile that is now published on the EFF Deeplinks blog in an abridged version edited for length. The profile is part of their blog series highlighting grassroots groups educating communities about digital safety and online privacy. The series has already featured CyPurr Collective and CryptoParty Ann Arbor, who were both in attendance at our recent Hackers Next Door 2019 conference at the end of last year.
The full interview was conducted over email in early May 2020 but was shortened for publication on the EFF Deeplinks blog, so we have reprinted it in full here.
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Here is the current boilerplate text about Tech Learning Collective that we ask other groups to use when writing about us. Feel free to trim this down if needed:
Tech Learning Collective is an apprenticeship-based technology school for radical organizers headquartered in New York City that provides a security-first IT infrastructure curriculum to otherwise underserved communities and organizations advancing social justice causes. We train politically self-motivated individuals in the arts of hypermedia, Information Technology, and radical political practice.
Founded and operated exclusively by radical queer and femme technologists, we offer unparalleled free, by-donation, and low-cost computer classes on topics ranging from fundamental computer literacy to the same offensive computer hacking techniques used by national intelligence agencies and military powers (cyber armies).
Our students are primarily people of marginalized groups and other individuals who are politically engaged. Unlike coding bootcamps that focus on moving the highest number of students through rote memorization exercises for the goal of job placement, Tech Learning Collective teachers facilitate foundational skill building through Socratic discussion and kinetic, experience-based training.
What inspired you all to start the Tech Learning Collective? How has the group changed over time?
In 2016, a group of anarchist and autonomist radicals met in Brooklyn, NY to seek out methods of mutual self-education around technology. Many of us did not have backgrounds in computer technology. What we did have was background in justice movement organizing at one point or another, whether at the WTO protests before the turn of the century, supporting whistleblowers such as Chelsea Manning, participating in Occupy Wall Street, or in various other campaigns.
This first version of Tech Learning Collective met regularly for about a year as a semi-private mutual-education project. It succeeded in sewing the seeds of what would later become several additional justice-oriented technology groups. None of the members were formally trained technologists. None of us have ever held computer science degrees. Many of the traditional techniques of and environments offering technology education felt alienating to us.
Nonetheless, everyone involved recognized the transformative and astonishingly powerful capacities that modern digital technologies could have in the hands of people whose focus is ethics and justice rather than profit—exactly the opposite ethos as that enacted by Silicon Valley, despite their claims to “make the world a better place.” So, after a (surprisingly short!) period of mutual self-education, we began offering free workshops and classes on computer technologies specifically for Left-leaning politically engaged individuals and groups. Our goal was to advocate for more effective use of these technologies in our movement organizing.
We quickly learned that courses needed to cater to people with skill levels ranging from self-identified “beginners” to very experienced technologists, and that our efforts needed to be self-sustaining. Partly, this was because many of our comrades had sworn off technical self-sufficiency as a legitimate avenue for liberation in a misguided but understandable reaction to the poisonous prevalence of machismo, knowledge grandstanding, and blatant sociopathy they saw exhibited by the overwhelming majority of “techies.” It was obvious that our trainers needed to exemplify a totally new culture to show them that cyber power, not just computer literacy, was a capability worth investing their time in for the sake of The Movement™.
Following the 2016 US Presidential election, Tech Learning Collective members dispersed into a number of urgent community projects, but the need to offer high quality technology education to groups and individuals engaged in radical, grassroots, and non-profit work remained. Then in early 2019, and now engaged in numerous different new groups, several of us worked to loosely codify a curriculum development and student mentoring process that we had experienced ourselves be dramatically more effective at “upskilling” interested students than those provided by code bootcamps, digital vocational training, and other employment-centric initiatives. This lived experience of contrasting the different pedagogies convinced us to form what is now Tech Learning Collective’s free, by-donation, and low-cost educational efforts in our existing formats.
Today, Tech Learning Collective continues offering exceptional Information Technology (IT) educational opportunities at a much lower cost than traditional computer courses (free, in some cases!) and provides supplementary funding for the existent activist projects that grew out of the first version of Tech Learning Collective meetings in the mid 2010’s. In keeping with our original mission, Tech Learning Collective is especially in service to people who might identify themselves as being “outsiders” to the mainstream “tech world.” That is, we are primarily invested in those folks who have either never been tech workers or who have otherwise felt at odds with the general culture of technocapitalism, its tech bros, and its monocultural intentions.
Tech Learning Collective’s singular overarching goal is to provide its students with the knowledge and abilities to liberate their communities from corporate and government overseers, especially as it relates to owning and operating their own information and communications infrastructures, which we view as a necessary prerequisite for meaningful revolutionary actions. Using these skills, our students assist in the organization of activist work like abortion access and reproductive rights, anti-surveillance organizing, and other efforts that help build collective power beyond mere (“voter”) representation.
One thing that hasn’t changed over the years is that, at Tech Learning Collective, students learn how to extend and enhance the existing capabilities of their projects and communities using free, open, and increasingly ubiquitous digital technologies.
Who is your target audience?
Anyone who is serious about gaining the skills, knowledge, and power they need to materially improve the lives of their community, neighbors, and friends and who also shares our pro-social values is welcome at our workshops and events. This means we take political stances including anti-capitalism, feminism, queer rights, trans liberation, anti-racism, animal liberation, environmental justice, and other social justice causes extremely seriously. Tech Learning Collective instructors make a point to embed these values in all of our workshops (“it’s a machine-in-the-middle, not necessarily man-in-the-middle”), and all of our workshop materials use examples relevant to political organizing scenarios as the basis for practice labs and other exercises (“if ‘you are part of the Rebel Alliance and a traitor,’ how will you communicate safely such that the Empire does not catch you?”).
Another way to say this is that we are uninterested in teaching people who have a lot of access to other, more mainstream technology education. If you often enjoy your downtown IT or tech Meetup group, you probably won’t find Tech Learning Collective classes comfortable. Although thankfully rare, we have occasionally had to ban some people (mostly men) for taking up too much space in classrooms, or people who seem more interested in learning just enough basic tech to begin a startup regardless of their self-identification. We are not shy about doing this because we are a grassroots political group first and a technology school second, not the other way around like basically all other professional-level tech training options out there right now.
There are dozens upon dozens of places you can go to learn how to memorize the answers to interview questions, get a tech certification, or pigeonhole yourself into a career path. Folks interested in that kind of activity just don’t last very long as Tech Learning Collective apprentices or students because we’re not putting down what they want to pick up.
What are some steps you take to ensure your work is accessible to people without a background in tech?
Making our workshops and other events accessible to people without a background in tech is actually really easy for us because both our materials and our methodology actually begins at the beginning. We know that’s something a lot of people say they’re doing but, to be blunt, we simply don’t see it happening a lot outside of Tech Learning Collective classes and workshops.
We know what it’s like to wade into the world of digital security as a novice because we’ve all done it at one point or another. Some of us did it as recently as a year or so ago. We felt confounded or overwhelmed by the vast amount of information suddenly thrown at us. Worse, much of this information purported to be “for beginners,” making us feel even worse about our apparent inability to understand it. ‘Are we just stupid?’, we often asked ourselves.
No. The reality is that these self-proclaimed “beginner” resources are either wildly self-referential, full of assumptions of prior knowledge, or just simply bad explanations that are incoherent at best. Often, the security resources you’ll find when you do an Internet search are all three of these things.
You are not stupid. Digital security is genuinely hard. Look, most people just don’t teach cybersecurity well, if they even bother to focus on teaching in the first place. We insist that you can understand this stuff. It’s just that, most of the time, you’re being shown a scattershot, piecemeal presentation coming through a human filter who, often, isn’t deeply familiar with the material in the first place. Given that, is it any wonder this stuff seems damn near impossible to learn?
The real reason it often feels like you’re having a hard time understanding what the teachers at a cybersecurity class are trying to show you is that they don’t know how to explain what they’re doing. In fact, most of the time, they don’t even show you anything at all, preferring instead to discuss how something might work in some hypothetical scenario rather than showing you, right then and there on their computer screen, how it actually works in real life today. Very often, these classes and events offer nothing more than slideshows containing oversimplified diagrams after a rundown asserting that the teacher holds some credentials, even though none of those credentials are “Masters of Education.” Too often, they never even actually show the technology being discussed, which we think is just absurd.
In contrast, Tech Learning Collective classes are dramatically more interactive, which makes them far more digestible and approachable for actual beginners as well as experienced technologists both. Our methodology focuses almost exclusively on providing guided, kinetic, experience-based training in fully-fledged, real-life scenarios using physical hardware, cloud environments, or both. There are never slideshows, which means it feels less like a business meeting and more like watching an episode of Mr. Robot with the director’s commentary on.
Best of all, our pedagogy is intentionally Socratic, which means our teachers repeatedly engage students with questions and challenges in real-time. We do this because we know you can watch a slideshow, read the manual, or run through the practice lab on your own time. It’s very obvious that the best use of our time together is to do what humans do best; converse, question, and mimic one another. This means everyone always gets a lot out of class time precisely because it avoids the all-too-common situation where one person runs into an error and everyone else has to wait for the troubleshooting to end before the class can resume.
We regularly receive feedback from students who have little to no background as technologists expressing surprise that they learned as much as they did as quickly as they did. But don’t take our word for it: have a look at our Testimonials page to see for yourself.
Last Winter you hosted the Hackers Next Door conference in NYC, could you tell us about how you approached such an ambitious and collaborative project? Were there any surprises along the way?
Hackers Next Door was an incredible event, with over 25 speakers and two full days of workshops and talks. Unfortunately, we dramatically underestimated its popularity and as a result quickly ran out of capacity at our 100 person venue. In fact, we had to enlist several friends to act as bouncers as we realized that we would have to more strictly enforce our no-walk-in policy simply out of respect for our hosts and safety concerns at the space. So, until recently, Hackers Next Door was the largest event we ever facilitated. (We recently held an online event called Mr. Robot’s Hacker Happy Hour that more than doubled Hackers Next Door’s registration numbers.)
Although it did take a lot of coordination between teams (and, really, our core team went above and beyond the call of duty, personally hauling equipment like loudspeakers on the NYC Subway late into the night), we didn’t do anything particularly special to make the event happen. The biggest hurdle was simply coordinating with speakers, ensuring that all the confirmed speakers were given a time slot that they liked, and making sure that any special requests were taken care of.
Most of the coordination tasks were extremely well-regimented. Communication happened in a bulk and automated fashion. This just means we wrote email templates as the needs arose, and then sent out notices to the speaker or ticket holder lists via mail merge so everyone had the correct information about their specific session or ticket details. This is the kind of thing spreadsheets and computers have been doing since the 60’s and 70’s.
At the end of the day, we think a lot of other groups could (should?) be making events like Hackers Next Door happen a lot more frequently, even with small organizing teams like ours. This message, that small groups of well-organized and skilled individuals can punch way above their weight, was what we hoped to have folks take away from their experience. The event itself was simply proof that it could be done in very little time, with very little money, and with few pre-existing resources.
The TLC is incredibly active, with an impressive 15 events planned for May (and even more in June). How does your group share this workload and avoid burnout among collective members?
There are three primary techniques we use to do this. These will be familiar to anyone who has ever worked in an office or held a position in management. They are: automation, separation of concerns, and partnerships. After all, just because we are anti-capitalist does not mean we ignore the obviously effective tools and techniques we have at our disposal for realizing our goals.
The first pillar, automation, is really what we are all about. It’s what almost all of our classes teach in one form or another. In a Tech Learning Collective class, you will often hear the phrase, “If you ever do one thing on a computer twice, you’ve made a mistake the second time.” This is a reminder that computers were built for automation. That’s what they’re for. So, almost every component of Tech Learning Collective’s day-to-day operations are automated. This includes updating the Web site, publishing new events to the calendar, sending out Webinar access details to registered guests, adding (or removing) members from our various teams, syndicating (cross-posting) events to partner sites, and more. The only time a human needs to be involved is when another human wants to talk to us. Otherwise, the emails you’re getting from us were written many months ago and are being generated by scripts and templates.
Secondly, separation of concerns: this is both a management and a security technique. In InfoSec, we call this the compartmentalization principle. You might be familiar with it as “need to know,” and it states that only the people who need to be concerned with a certain thing should have to spend any brainpower on it in the first place, or indeed have any access to it at all. This means that when one of our teachers wants to host a workshop, they don’t need to involve anyone else in the collective. They are autonomous, free to act however they wish within the limits of their role. This makes it possible for our collective members to dip in and out whenever they need to, thus avoiding burnout while increasing quality. If one of us has to step away for a while, the collective can still function smoothly.
This kind of separation of concerns probably wouldn’t be possible without the automation we’ve put in place to automate the minutia of daily operations. Without that, we would need to at least double if not triple or quadruple the number of people who could devote many hours to managing the logistics of making sure events happen. But that’s boring, tedious, repetitive work, and that’s what computers are for.
Finally, partnerships allow us to do things we could not do on our own. This also helps distribute the overarching workload, like creating practice labs or writing educational materials for new workshops. We work extremely closely with a number of other groups, which is possible because of our unique history in which our core collective members straddle several other activist and educational collectives. For example, one of our curriculum partners is Anarcho-Tech NYC, a collective of self-proclaimed anarchist hackers who provide digital security services for anti-fascist groups in New York City, with whom we collaborate on the bulk of our cybersecurity curriculum. This makes it feasible for us to take advantage of their work, while simultaneously supporting their efforts. It also means our teachers and, more importantly, our students have access to a much wider range of alumni opportunities than they would otherwise have had if we didn’t actively seek out and explore new partnership opportunities like these.
At the time of writing, we are in the middle of the COVID-19 health crisis. Many groups are struggling with shelter-in-place, but fortunately TLC seems to have adapted very well. What are some strategies you are employing to continue your work?
This is almost an unfair question, because the nature of what we do at Tech Learning Collective lends itself well to the current crises.
The biggest change that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to adapt to is the shuttering of our usual venues for in-person workshops. Fortunately, we were already ramping up our online and distance learning options even before the pandemic. So we simply put that into high gear. The easily automatable nature of handling logistics for online events also made it possible to do many more of them, which is one reason you’re seeing so much more activity from us these days. The other reason, quite bluntly, is that a lot more people are finally willing to give online events a chance, making it far more worth our time to put them on.
But also, there is widespread agreement within our collective that many effective strategies for organizing, or for continuing with daily work tasks, have actually not changed because of the pandemic. Yes, there is huge value in physical events and other in-person efforts, and obviously there is a whole class of labor that simply cannot be done entirely online. After all, this is exactly why “essential workers” are called essential; you may be able to order groceries over the Internet, but you can’t eat them off your laptop screen. That being said, it’s clear to us that the organizing strategies of the 90’s and the mass protest movements of the Occupy Wall Street era have proven largely ineffective against the neoliberal plague sickening society today, and that most white-collar “jobs” are, to paraphrase David Graeber, anthropologist and author of the 2018 book “Bullshit Jobs,” little more than a means of greasing the wheels of capitalist machinery which serves no ethical purpose.
Even before COVID-19 became the nightmare scenario that it has, we knew that effective political organizing required safe and secure telecommunication capabilities. The NSA, FBI, and CIA were spying on Americans long before 9/11 (COINTELPRO anyone?), much less before Zoom meetings became the de-facto “new normal.” And so, just as the Trump election in 2016 finally woke many people up to the things that privacy advocates have been saying for decades (“it’s not about whether you have something to hide, or whether you trust this government, it’s about whether you trust the next administration”), we are seeing many people who have been under shelter-in-place orders finally wake up to other aspects of this reality that has already been with us for far too long.
In certain ways, for many in our collective, this “new normal” is actually a rather dated 90’s-era cyberpunk dystopia that we’ve been experiencing for many, many years. In that sense, we’re happy that you don’t have to enter this reality alone and defenseless. We kinda built Tech Learning Collective for exactly this scenario. We want to help you thrive here.
Finally, what does the future look like for TLC?
We’re not sure! When we started TLC, we never thought it would end up becoming an online, international, radical political hacker school. In just the last two months since we’ve been forced to become a wholly virtual organization, we’ve held classes with students from Japan, Italy, New Zealand, London, Mexico, and beyond, as well as many parts of the United States of course. Many of them are now repeat participants working their way through our entire curriculum, which is the best compliment we could have asked for. We hope they’ll stick around to join our growing alumni community after that. We’re also (slowly) expanding our “staff” outside of New York City, which isn’t something we thought would happen for many years, if at all.
So we’re excited about the possibilities of the future, even as we recognize the horrific state of the present situation. We would like to make new partnerships. We would like to hold more social events. For example, we loved the several Shift-CTRL Space “queer hacker parties” that we got to make some cool tech for and some in our crew are trying to figure out what the best way to replicate or even enhance that experience entirely online would be.
But right now, we’re primarily focused on moving the rest of our in-person curriculum online and creating new online workshops. Many of the workshops unveiled this month or planned for next month are new, like our workshops on writing shell scripts, exploiting Web applications, auditing firewalls and other network perimeter defenses, and an exciting “spellwork” workshop to learn about the “spirits” that live on in the magical place inside every computer called the Command Line. So in the near future, expect to see more workshops like these, as well as more of our self-paced “Foundations” learning modules that you can try out anytime for free right in your Web browser from our Web site.
After that? Well, some say another world is possible. We’re hackers. Hacking is about showing people what’s possible, especially if they insist it could never happen.