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Terry Winograd's Thoughts on CPSR's Mission

The following is an email message sent by Terry Winograd, former Chair of CPSR and long-time Board member, to a group of active CPSR members. Terry is responding to posts about whether or not CPSR should take a stand in 1996 on pending legislation in California that involved ending Affirmitive Action (Proposition 209). This message sheds light on a debate that often arises in non-profit organizations. Terry has given his permission to post this message more widely.

From: Terry Winograd
Subject: CPSR's mission
Fri, 25 Oct 1996

Watching the debate over whether to oppose proposition 209, and the larger concerns being expressed about finding a coherent mission and direction for CPSR, I wanted to put in my own two cents worth about the problem. I'll start off with a general aracterization of public interest organizations, and then see where CPSR might fit.

There are three basic types of interest organizations: advocacy-driven,principle-driven, and problem-driven.


These groups exist to promote the interests (direct or indirect) of a particular constituency. The most obvious relevant ones to CPSR are professional organizations, such as ACM, IEEE, Association for Software Design, Usability Professional Association, etc. Other examples that aren't professionalinclude organizations such as AARP and those for particular ethnic or regional groups.

People who join or support advocacy groups are generally members of the benefited constituency. The group need not be selfishly devoted to only that group, but the measure of whether an issue is relevant or not is how it will affect the specific group.

CPSR has explicitly stated that we are not an advocacy group for computer professionals, and that has been one of the things that has distinguished us from groups like those listed above.


Some groups are devoted to a particular principle, regardless of how it is situated at the moment in current issues. Two obvious examples are the ACLU, with it's focus on first amendment rights, and true pacifist organizations, such as the Friends. Principled groups may find themselves at odds with their habitual allies when their principle takes priority over political concerns (e.g., the ACLU defending the right of Nazis to march in Skokie, pacifists opposing participation in WWII even though they detested Hitler).

People who join or support principle-driven groups are those who believe in the principle. They may have very different views on other issues, come from different interest groups, etc., but their unshakable support of the principle gives a clear guideline as to what stands the organization should take.

CPSR has explicitly stated that we are not a principle-driven group in this strong sense. Of course we all have our principles, (it isn't "unprincipled"), but there is no single litmus test of whether you agree or disagree with the organization, or whether a certain issue does or does not fit the mission. We have always sought a more diverse set of people and views.


Problem-driven groups are held together by a common recognition of some social or political problem that they can deal with in a way that helps some segment (or all) of the public. At times, groups with very different constituencies and principles can work together if they agree on the problem and are at least compatible in their approaches to solving it. A group need not have a single problem focus, but it can't take on all the problems in the world.

Generally a problem-driven group will be able to describe not just the problem, but also the "opponents" - the social or political forces that are creating the problem, making it worse, or benefiting from it. Much of the energy for action comes from being able to identify and fight against the opponents.

CPSR has always been problem-driven, but it isn't clear what the problem is. Here are several possible ones:

  1. MILITARISM is the problem This was the initial impetus for CPSR, during the height of Cold War militarism. Computers were an instrumental technology in nuclear warfare, and potential computer problems could trigger war. The opposition was the military-industrial complex, and the coalition groups were the wide variety of peace groups. For the first few years, CPSR was basically a single-problem organization.
  2. LACK OF SOCIAL JUSTICE is the problem Social and economic issues of inequality have been a broad concern for many of CPSR's major participants over the years. The connection to computers has been more direct in some cases (e.g., access for non-rich to the Internet) and less in other cases (e.g., affirmative action). The opposition includes large corporations, and the general drift of American profit-driven consumption-oriented capitalism. Coalitions are plentiful, with a wide range of organizations that consider themselves "progressive".
  3. ENCROACHMENT ON INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS is the problem After the first few years, this has increasingly become CPSR's focus, with the work on privacy, freedom of speech on the Internet, etc. The libertarian wing of the organization can focus on these problems, while disagreeing strongly with the socialist's wing view of social justice. The U.S. government (or any large established power) is the opponent. Allies include the range of groups concerned with civil liberties, privacy, etc. (EFF, ACLU, EPIC, and lots more).
  4. TECHNOLOGY is the problem This is the position of various anti-technology groups, often associated with ecology, radical feminism, etc. The opposition from this viewpoint is the entire range of people who have a vested interest in pushing new technology, including the scientists, programmers, corporations, etc. This is not a viable position for CPSR, since to some extent we are the enemy. We can be sensitive to the issues (technology isn't the solution either) but cannot base the organization on a fundamentally anti-technology stance.
  5. IGNORANCE ABOUT TECHNOLOGY is the problem This is what it actually says in our mission statement: that we believe in the importance of having solid education and information about technology as the basis for policy making. We use our expertise as computer professionals to provide a better foundation to other people and groups who are concerned with computing issues. The opponent in this case is very abstract - ignorance. It is hard to be against education, so this is a fairly bland mission as long as it doesn't get tied into one of the more political concerns above. When I tried to think of other groups with similar missions, the one that came to mind was the League of Women Voters.

There is, of course, no need for an organization to focus on only one problem, but when there is more than one, it creates stresses - people feel that there is no common direction, and often will disagree with each other on whether a particular issue or action is appropriate (for the organization, or at all). CPSR is in that situation - some people who see Social Justice as the problem want CPSR to sign on to a wide variety of causes that may be antithetical to people who see Individual Rights as the problem. If there are one or more issues that are important enough to everyone, they are willing to swallow their differences and make common battle. If not, the question is always "Why shouldn't I do this work instead in an org anization that agrees with me?" The "Ignorance" problem is too abstract to be the unifying element. In fact, most of the time when members really put energy into the organization, it is because they believe that if ignorance were dispelled, it would cause other people to agree with them about one of the other problems they really care about (rights, social justice, etc.).

CPSR can't be all things to all people. If we take a stand for social justice issues in general, then we have to be willing to alienate people who don't agree.

If we focus on individual rights than we have less appeal for people who think that the key work to be done is getting collective social control over resources that are now dominated by profit motives. It is possible that some issue will come along that will unify and motivate people across these boundaries (SDI was a great example of a prime issue being thrown into our laps, for example), but we can't just sit and wait for that.

I'm a product of the sixties, and for me Social Justice is the key problem for our society at this point in history, with the others taking a secondary place (though often they may lead in compatible directions). That was typical of many CPSR members in the early days, but I don't know about the mix today. This current discussion may be a way to find out, and to clarify (possibly at the cost of a membership reduction), so that the organization can have a clear common purpose and direction. We don't need a single statement of faith, but we need more of a common ground than "We think people should be educated about technology."


Created by admin
Last modified October 24, 2004 05:34 PM

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