Photo by Oscar Webb

I Will If You Will

Conditional Commitment for Civil Disobedience

I was recently contacted by some activists from a current large-scale social movement, who were seeking advice before building their own piece of technology. They’re exploring an idea for a civil disobedience campaign, using a “conditional commitment” mechanism to create a debt strike. For example, this could look like: “I pledge to stop paying my student loan if X other people also pledge by Y date.”

Software for Conditional Commitment in Community Organising

After talking to people on Twitter, on the eCampaigners Forum, and at Newspeak House, I found only one currently active platform:

  • Who’s In is a beautiful modern app, for general purpose conditional commitment campaigns. I contacted the founders and learned they’re on hiatus while they seek further funding.
  • Beckton is a simple little app for collecting recurring payments from members if X number of people sign up. It’s not a mature, maintained product, but it looks like a nice piece of work. Code is on Github.
  • BECTU is a big union in the UK media & entertainment industry. In late 2017 they built some custom software and ran a recruitment campaign with a conditional commitment mechanism. Their efforts are beautifully documented, well worth reading.

Academic Research

Academic and activist Roger Hallam has contributed extensively to the literature on conditional commitment in social change. This piece he published in 2015 is a great introduction to the tactic. From a technical perspective, probably the most insightful piece for me was his way of defining different approaches to seeking commitment. He introduces T1 (“Will you take this action?”), T2 (“Will you act if you know X number of other people will?”) and the more complicated but more impactful T3 (“what is the minimum number of committed people who would convince you to act?”). T2 is a simple binary threshold, T3 involves gathering more data and theoretically gathering a much larger group.

Conclusion

After a few hours of poking around on the internet and chatting to activists and techies, I got very excited about the potential of the conditional commitment mechanism. It seems like a brilliant way to overcome one of the biggest obstacles to social change: “I want to change but nobody else is doing it, so why should I?”

A Postscript About Debt Resistance

Debt resistance is an extremely risky proposition, not to be taken lightly. Organising such a campaign could put you very far on the wrong side of the law. Rather than giving you my unqualified opinions about this strategy, I’ll point you to some much more experienced campaigners. If I were considering a debt resistance campaign, I would start by contacting these folks:

I write about working together. Me: richdecibels.com My work: thehum.org