August 10, 2015 § Leave a comment
This Saturday I was privileged to attend the CHRE postgraduate colloquium, where several students presented their work. One of the pleasures of being back in Perth is being able to connect with a research community again, drawing on the work other people are doing to extend and deepen my own. Baden Offord’s opening comments about the value of critical friendships and serendipitous discoveries really highlighted some of the ways in which events like these can be helpful, not just for postgraduate students but for all of us.
I took a bunch of notes, but rather than posting them I want to write more generally and leave space for presenters to develop and share their projects online themselves, especially given how personal much of the research is. One of the things that really struck me about the day was the ways in which presenters drew together their own experiences with robust theoretical analysis. Auto-ethnography and other tools for rigorous critical reflection are central to this; we weren’t taught to situate ourselves within our work in my degree, and it’s been very interesting seeing how others go about this.
August 5, 2015 § Leave a comment
The Ada Initiative announced today that they’ll be shutting down. I am, of course, sad to see them wind down, but I also recognise the value of making thoughtful decisions about the lifespan of organisations.
I appreciate the care that has gone into making sure that the knowledge and experience embodied in TAI’s work is made available to others to use and build on. Open sourcing the Adacamp Toolkit, the Ally Skills workshop material, and Imposter Syndrome training, means that other people can continue this work. TAI’s closing announcement also pointed to many other organisations doing congruent work, and ways that people can support women in open technology and culture.
Val is going to continue teaching workshops, and Mary will be looking for something new. I’ve loved all my interactions with Mary, and I think her work is incredible: if you know of an opportunity that will fit her, I hope you’ll get in touch!
Personally, I’ve gained so much from TAI’s work. I loved the first AdaCamp I went to, back in Melbourne. That and AdaCamp Montreal helped me to meet a bunch of wonderful people, and to get a sense of what a safe(r) space might really look like. I also appreciate that work by TAI and others to get Codes of Conduct in place for conferences is started to spread to academia. I hope that some of the resources TAI has produced find new life, particularly in Australia.
June 12, 2015 § Leave a comment
Jeff Shantz and Jose Brendan Macdonald (eds), Beyond Capitalism: Building Democratic Alternatives for Today and the Future (New York, NY, London, New Delhi and Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2013).
[Note: I accidentally agreed to do this book review before realising the journal, Political Science, isn’t open access. The text is below, and the citation is: Sky Croeser, ‘Book Review: Beyond Capitalism: Building Democratic Alternatives for Today and the Future’ Political Science June 2015 67: 84-86, doi:10.1177/0032318715582131]
This volume is a necessary and important contribution to the exploration of economic systems, which centre on human needs and potential, and which put in place limits to growth for environmental and social reasons. It outlines a number of different models for radical change, arguing that alternatives to capitalism are not only possible, but also, in many cases, already exist in nascent forms. In discussing these alternatives, it also emphasises the need for change by outlining the deep crises that societies around the world are already experiencing.
The first part of the book outlines broad models for alternative economic structures and activism, including cooperatives, participatory economics and anarchist organising. Heloisa Primavera’s discussion of social currencies (currencies based on barter or small localities) is notable here, and makes strong connections with extensive literature from those involved in the social currency movement. The second part of the book investigates particular case studies, many of which offer deeper insights into the challenges and benefits of implementing the models introduced in the first section. These case studies primarily focus on Europe and South America, although there are also important examples from Africa (such as the chapter on farmers’ cooperatives), the US and Canada (including discussion of union involvement in the protests). Sadly, this leaves Asia and the Middle East unexplored, apart from brief references to India in Dada Maheshvarananda’s largely theoretical chapter.
While the political and economic perspectives discussed vary significantly, this work is notable for its openness to anarchist perspectives. The foreword argues that attempts at reform have failed because ‘the real problem is party politics, representative democracy, and the domination of politics by professional organizations’ (p. xxv); several chapters explore the tensions between hierarchical organisational forms and those that attempt to build a more open and decentralised structure. This is also visible in the emphasis throughout the book on empowerment and participation: the opening chapters all argue that people need to have more control in the workplace and the broader economy if we are to live in a truly democratic society. Jeff Shantz’s chapters, in particular, focus on anarchist approaches to change and the need to draw together anarchist and labour organising. Shantz joins others in the volume, including Gregor Gall and Peter Ranis, in drawing attention to tactics that fall outside official channels. These tactics include a willingness to engage in illegal factory occupations and unsanctioned strikes, as well as direct action during protests, which might include marching outside assigned routes or resisting arrests and other forms of police violence. This makes the book a welcome and useful addition to a body of literature on globalisation and its alternatives that too often stays within the narrow bounds of institutionalised dissent.
This is not to imply, however, that the state is always positioned in the volume as antagonistic to attempts to build more democratic economies. While the chapter by Albert outlining principles for a participatory economy (within a model labelled ‘Parecon’) argues against central planning, Maheshvarananda’s following chapter sees a federal government as playing an important coordination role. This diversity of approaches is also echoed in the case studies. Many authors point to the state as a repressive force, and specifically note ways in which top-down attempts to implement social economies have failed. For example, Satgar argues that the post-apartheid state in South Africa has implemented a form of afro-neoliberalism that has widened inequality,and that its encouragement of cooperatives has failed due to a lack of commitment to fundamental cooperative principles. In contrast, Monedero’s writing on the social economy in Venezuela positions the Chavez government as playing a vital role in supporting alternative associational forms and shifting away from neoliberalism (with some caveats). The volume holds open, then, the possibility of a state that will support shifts towards democratic alternatives to capitalism, although the case studies do not entirely support this optimism, creating a thought-provoking tension across the contributions.
Considerations of the role of the state are part of a broader dialogue about how democratic alternatives can exist within the current neoliberal system. The need for supporting institutions and movements is, perhaps, most visible through case studies that explore the success of cooperative movements in different parts of the world. Gall argues that the abandonment of the factory-occupation-turned-cooperative tactic as part of the labour movement’s repertoire in Britain is at least partially a result of the lack of a strong cooperative movement able to provide support and share necessary skills. In contrast, Alessandra B. Azevedo and Leda Gitahy’s research on the Mondragon experience highlights the many ways in which a network of research institutions and industrial cooperatives has been developed in order to produce one of the strongest and most long-running cooperative movements in the world. These chapters, and the several others discussing the role of unions (by Macdonald, Gall, Shantz and Ranis), provide an antidote to the current tendency to overlook effective labour organising as a prerequisite for building successful alternatives to capitalism.
Overall, this volume argues that alternatives to capitalism are not just a utopian dream: many different initiatives already exist and are demonstrating successes. These initiatives are not perfect. They face challenges in the form of capitalist backlashes, state violence and internal difficulties as those involved attempt to build skills for cooperation and mutual aid that often go against their previous training in the workplace and the broader community. Similarly, this book is not perfect. I found it particularly jarring to see unnecessary sexist [Note: I actually wrote ‘cissexist’ here, but it seems to have fallen victim to an editor] language used (p. 6) and references to indigenous peoples as ‘simple people’ (p. 5). More perspectives from activists and academics that draw on anti-colonial and intersectional analysis may have provided a deeper analysis of the ways in which gender, sexuality, race and other structures of oppression are linked to the problems of capitalism. The editors could also do better than a gender balance of three women authors out of 13. However, as a whole, this is a valuable contribution for authors and activists working towards the structural change we so urgently need.
UDC2015 Circuits of Struggle Day 2: journalism and climate change, culture/appropriation, struggles over digital technologies, and femtechnet
May 3, 2015 § Leave a comment
The second day of Circuits of Struggle opened with Robert Hackett arguing that the global climate crisis changes everything, including journalism. We need to be looking at the ways in which the logic of capitalism shapes journalistic institutions, and how the need to make a profit creates a form of censorship. In building these critiques, it’s vital to look for journalistic forms that can facilitate an appropriate societal response to climate change. Part of this requires changes within the existing structures of media, including reconsidering the frames through which climate change is presented. For example, we need to build narratives that combat people’s alienation from processes of political change: this means presenting success stories around climate change, normalising political action (rather than building a divide between ‘activists’ and the many people who don’t think of themselves this way), connecting struggles around different issues, rejecting consumerist greenwashing and false opposition between employment and the environment, and reframing conflict as being between the global fossil fuel industry and global civil society. Journalists need to report in depth, not just act as stenographers for politicians and industry. It’s also vital to explore alternative media forms that can work without succumbing to market pressures. Finally, we have to recognise that radical structural change towards a post-capitalist society is the only way to effectively deal with climate change.
The second panel I attended was on Seizing Culture, Heritage, and Citizenship: Struggles Against the Appropriation of Tradition. Patrick MacInnis began with ‘Appropriating City Spaces: Exploring Practice, Process and Policy in Aboriginal Street Art’, talking about the 7th Generation Image Makers. This project aims to centre Aboriginal people and Aboriginal issues in Canadian cities, as well as providing space to explore the complexities of urban Aboriginal identity. Patrick made a distinction between ‘open access’ and ‘cultural commons’, noting that murals by the 7th Generation project are not open access in the sense of being instantly accessible to passers-by. Instead, understanding of the murals draws on cultural commons: particular symbols and histories linked to Anishinaabe culture (which are not shared between all Anishinaabe communities). It is possible to see street art as a kind of urban enchantement: it takes you out of the flow of urban life and grounds you in a specific moment, inviting an encounter which may not be easy (or even fully accessible). These murals are an attempt to reappropriate Aboriginal cultural rights, and to think about how they can relate to urban life.
Eva Athanasiu followed this with ‘Survivance Stories: Aboriginal Networks of Resistance and New Media Art in Canada’. This project combines networked Aboriginal histories with digital art histories, looking at Aboriginal art communities producing digital art, such as CyberPowWow, and Abtec. Some of the critical themes emerging from this work are survivance (a continuation and ongoing transformation of culture and community), the importance of networks and networking, and the need for problem-posing education. This work is also a reminder that networks of resistance and decolonising projects are extensive and complex: moments of visible protest such as marches are supported and sustained by ongoing networks and communities.
Henry Svec’s artistic work at the New Brunswick Laboratory of Imaginary Media Research + Design explores media that might become real, that we dream of, and that is dead or obsolete. Henry argued that the imaginary is an important component of media history, and that it provides opportunities to explore counterhegemonic tactical media assemblages, particularly if we focus on how are our attempts to think the impossible are coralled or blocked by our society.
Lourdes Morales ended the session with ‘Digital Citizen Strategies: The Present Case of the Mexican Movement for Peace’. She traced some of the effects of the Mexican government’s ‘War on Drugs’, a process of militarised policing which has done little to address the underlying political corruption that sustains the drug trade, while at the same time leading to huge increases in homicides, kidnapping (levantón), extortion, and missing people. In this context, people are trying to develop forms of communication which can help them survive. #Red132NoEstanSolos is one example of this: it’s a network of parents trying to support the political activities of their children. For example, when police surround protesters, parents walking at the back of the protest will try to stay in touch with them. The network also distributes information on what to do in cases of arbitrary detention. These efforts are dangerous, with many of those who are involved being murdered. Surveillance technologies like Kingfisher have been found on servers in Mexico, not run by the government but by private security companies, and these expose people to the risk of violence. Nevertheless, communities continue to build resistance, producing cartographies that map the risks around them and potential strategies for avoiding or managing them. Fear and anger work as a productive power (potenza) in these efforts.
The Struggles over Digital Technologies began with Sherry Yu’s work on ‘Ethnic Media and New Media Technologies’. Sherry pointed out that often when we raise concerns about media centralisation, we turn to alternative media (and noting this makes it clear to me how often our visions of ‘alternative media’ are very white, and very Anglocentric). Ethnic media (media by and for immigrants) can be an important form of alternative media that deserves more attention. It is frequently both diasporic and hyperlocal, with a focus on revenue generation rather than intercultural communication strategies. This is because the political economy of an analogue era continues within ethnic media.
David Jackson followed with a discussion of Ultra-red’s work on militant sound investigations. He focused particular on a project called Structural Adjustments, which explores “the sound of the war on the poor”. Neoliberal narratives around gentrification muffle the voices of displaced communities: they don’t ask (or answer) questions about where people go once public housing is privatised, or what happens to communities that are ‘developed’. Ultra-red uses field recordings as a way to provoke, reveal, and critique neoliberal framings, using listening as a political tool to make community voices audible. By sonically organising the social field Ultra-red is attempting to reconfigure space and find strategies to oppose oppression in the form of ‘development’. Listening can become a tool, an empathic practice that roots the body in the world.
Elise Thorburn raised some important provocations around the ways in which surveillance studies, as a field, tends to be structured by whiteness and a non-intersectional approach. While there’s a growing narrative around a tide of surveillance’ washing over all of us, it’s vital to recognise that surveillance targets particular bodies. Similarly, while critical discussions of digital technologies occasionally touch on the ways these are used within prisons, this is mostly as a mere footnote, or otherwise the prison is discussed purely as a metaphor. However, the prison abolition movement is a key site for anti-authoritarian politics today; we need to think more deeply about the ways in which digital technologies are used in (and move out from) systems of surveillance and control in prisons. We also need to be aware of the links between carceral and extra-carceral spaces: Elise mentioned catering companies that serve both prisons and many North American universities, and in the Australian context it’s hard not to think of the spreading influence of SERCO and G4S. A closer examination of the role of digital technologies in the prison system can be a vital starting-point to recognising potentials for resistance and struggle.
Finally, Andrew Mestrinaro argued for understanding Silk Road as a heterotopia, a space of counter-cultural community and otherness, which has both elements of shared experience and is, at the same time, placeless. This raises some interesting contradictions, as it’s both a place of deviance and privilege (requiring particular knowledge and technologies to access it).
The final panel looked at feminist activism and pedagogies, with most panellists coming from FemTechNet. Melissa Meade and Cricket Keating opened with a talk on shifting “from ‘Do it Yourself’ to ‘Doing With Others'”. This work explored a Distributed Open Collaborative Course (DOCC) launched 2015, a feminist response to MOOCs. Melissa and Cricket collaborated on a shared syllabus with overlapping assignments and readings. While they started with a DIY ethos, they began to move beyond individualist expressions of identity and isolated and isolating digital practices, thinking instead about connected learning. This also requires thinking carefully about issues to do with solidarity and coalition, remembering that we should not confuse home (a place of comfort) and coalition (which is often deeply uncomfortable). There was also some useful reflection on the discomfort and ambivalence with students’ preferred technologies [for more on this, I recommend my and other chapters in An Education in Facebook?]. I enjoyed the prompts from the FemTechNet manifesto, including: “Collaboration is a feminist technology”, “Care is a feminist technology”, “Irony, comedy, making a mess, and gravitas are feminist technologies.” It feels reassuring to see these ideas (and these emotions) centred, when they are so often absent from academia.
Joan Donovan followed with ‘What is a Broadcast? Activist Archives and Transmedia Storytelling’, talking about the role of livestreaming in protests. Livestreamers and citizen journalists covering protests on Twitter or other platforms strengthen connections between what could be considered discrete events. While new people might emerge covering each event, there are also networks of people who travel between protests, building narratives (and also sharing knowledge with each other about the technology they’re using). Livestreamers are not just a tether between the streets and online networks: online networks also provide useful information back to the streets as people share knowledge. (Tim and I have also written a bit about this as it relates to #oo).
KJ Surkan spoke about his experience ‘Hacking the Global Map: Connected Cartography in the Feminist Classroom’. The FemTechNet Situated Knowledges Map is a way of working with feminist practices of mapping, recognising that “maps are active…they exercise power”. This is an experiment in thinking about the relationship between space, place, mobility, and knowledge production and circulation. Asking students to pin a google map with places that are significant to them and add narratives helps to explore issues through situated knowledges. This doesn’t always go smoothly, but important dialogue develops between pins as students question each others’ frames and add nuance.
This was a great session – I’m really glad my talk got put in and gave me a change to connect my current work with FemTechNet perspectives. I’m looking forward to exploring the FemTechNet site for some upcoming projects.
UDC2015 Circuits of Struggle, Day 1: the World Forum of Free Media, community media in Oaxaca, Activating bodies, State violence, and an early night
May 2, 2015 § Leave a comment
The first session, with Stéphane Couture, Gretchen King, and Sophie Toupin of McGill University, looked at the World Forum of Free Media (WFFM) and the Charter of Free Media. This discussion touched on some of the issues I’ve felt myself around the World Social Forum, including its institutionalisation. However, the panellists noted that their experience of the 2015 Forum was that there was space (often outside of official scheduling) for important collaborations. Gretchen talked about some of the debates that informed the development of the Charter, and I particularly liked her point that ‘hegemonic’ media is a better term than ‘mainstream’ media: we want alternatives that challenge existing power structures and narratives, and that means that we do want some independent media to become mainstream, in the sense of being broadly accessible and reaching a wide audience. On a related point, both Sophie and Gretchen spoke about the need to create bridges between different communities: hackers, media activists, feminists, queer activists, and others. Often, the cultures within these groups may be different (even when they overlap), but there’s a need to find ways to collaborate (and, as Stephane says, there’s also a need for this to be fun). As the 2016 WSF approaches, there’s a hope that activists in Montreal can work to set up autonomous infrastructures, including mesh networks, that will not only be a resource for the forum but also continue afterwards, and be a space for people to learn how to set these up themselves.
The lunchtime talk, by Loreto Bravo and Peter Bloom, looked at community radio stations and cellphone networks in Oaxaca, Mexico. The growth of indigenous media in Oaxaca comes out of the specific history of the area, and a form of community governance and social reproduction that Floriberto Díaz, Jaime Martínez Luna, and others have called comunalidad. Comunalidad includes a concept of communities linked to specific territories; structures of community governance rooted in traditional law and community assemblies rather than representative politics; community work (tequio) which all community members must contribute to, even if overseas; and festivals that build connections and allow people to build their organising skills.
Loreto talked about the ways in which women have lead community media initiatives since the 2006 protests in Oaxaca, when a group of women took over the mainstream TV station, Channel 9, living inside the station for a month, as well as 12 radio stations. After 2006, many local radio stations have started in the area, with people talking about their own issues in their languages, but the challenge is to provide education in relevant technology-especially free software-to allow them to appropriate it. This means not just how to use computers and mixers, but also how to fix radio transmitters and other hardware problems.
Peter’s talk focused on Rhizomatica‘s work setting up autonomous GSM networks, at first working with people from community radios and extending those networks and then building cellular networks for communities from scratch. Rhizomatica can do this much more cheaply than major cellular providers, at a cost that communities can fund themselves, which also makes it much cheaper to make and receive calls. However, all of this was done illegally at first: only .14% of the spectrum is available to freely use without permission, and Rhizomatica set up community networks before getting permission. Usually, all of the spectrum is sold off to the highest bidder often for billions of dollars). Rhizomatica was lucky in that the Mexican government had a portion of unused spectrum, and gave retrospective permission for it to be used. It’s important to think about how to set up networks that can be defended from attacks by the state or capital: in the case of these cellular networks, there are 19 different networks, one in each community, and they network but would have to be shut down individually. If the government tried it then communities wouldn’t cooperate, and the government would then also need to answer questions about their failure to provide coverage.
There were also some hints at the challenges involved in how these networks are run and might reproduce existing structural inequalities. Hosting communications data (such as records of calls) within the community may allow people to escape external surveillance. However, it can also expose at-risk groups to surveillance within the community: Peter noted that men had asked him, “what if someone calls my wife while I’m out? How will I know?” Loreto also talked about the ways in which women’s work with community radio might strain their financial resources, create problems with childcare, and expose them to the risk of paramilitary attack.
The panel on Activating Bodies In/to Digital Media Networks: Materiality, Narratives and Molotov Cocktails began with Marusya Bociurkiw’s work on feminist involvement in the Euromaidan movement. She talked about the absolute necessity of combining digital research with embodied research (which we’ve also argued for here and here). Marusya said that her initial ideas about the importance of social media in the protests were challenged once she travelled to Ukraine: Facebook and Twitter mattered, but it was the massed bodies on the ground, people’s willingness to face risks for their beliefs, that made the real difference. Her documentary focused on the Women’s Battalion, which started on Facebook but was used to organise actions on the ground.
I liked Laura Forlano’s discussion of the ways in which her diabetes diagnosis prompted her reflections on ‘Hacking the Feminist Body: Media, Materiality and Things’. Laura critiqued the ways in which hacker/maker identities are constructed, and suggested that a feminist hacker ethic would be built on a deeply personal reflective practice. Rather than making sweeping revolutionary calls for openness based on false discourses of meritocracy, feminist hacker ethics would be based on our own hybrid modes of existence. This also needs to create interventions into the capitalist cycle of consumption.
Mél Hogan’s ‘Electromagnetic Soup: EMFs, Bodies, and Surveillance’ built on these themes, opening with a discussion of the invisibility of how wireless data transfers and is stored. Cell phones become an extension of our bodies, our brains, and also our privacies, and this is an embodied process: we hold phones carry, them, expose our voices to them, and the hardware we use is produced and discarded in processes which are often tremendously environmentally damaging. This opens up questions of ownership and responsibility that are rarely addressed, including issues about how our bodies might interact with the electromagnetic fields that increasingly surround us.
The final presentation in the panel, from Mary Elizabeth Luka, looked at the CRTC consultation process around ‘Let’s talk TV’ and the ways in which rhetorics of consultation and collaboration are frequently undermined by an emphasis on the ‘citizen-consumer’. There’s an assumption that a more “competitive” television model will automatically benefit consumers, but this is often in opposition to the idea of media as a public good that facilitates (and is facilitated by) citizen engagement.
The final panel, Policing the Populace: Corporate Media, Social Media and the Mobilization of State Violence against Racialized Minorities, is topical at the moment. I’m glad that many of the presenters addressed their own personal standpoints with regard to state violence: it feels surreal, sometimes, for presentations on such deep issues to be presented at such a distance from our lives. I can understand the impulse, though, both for those privileged enough not to be personally affected and for those whose lives are shaped by the threat or actuality of violence, and of course do it myself (since it’s often hard to overcome this academic training in a pretence at ‘objectivity’).
Derek Antoine and Miranda J. Brady talked about the media discourses around the Elsipogtog struggle, contrasting mainstream media representations with those from the Halifax media co-op. Mainstream media coverage of Indigenous issues in Canada shifts between a binary of ‘noble or ignoble savages’, with Native peoples positioned as outside of the Western narrative of technology and progress. Struggles like those at Elsipogtog are presented as issues of law and order, or of well-intentioned but naive groups resisting technological progress. In contrast, the Halifax media co-op contextualised this struggle with reference to a history of colonialism, settler violence, broken treaties, and Indigenous resistance, as well as highlighting the processes of organising and deliberation happening around the Elsipogtog protests.
Chenjerai Kumanyika followed with ‘Beyond Techno-Utopianism: The Twitter Activism of @OpFerguson’. He argued that @OpFerguson, as well as being a valuable tool for organising, has also served as a key archive of the Black Lives Matter movement. Kumanyika said that while there are valid concerns around ‘Twitter activism’, these should not centre on whether it displaces on-the-ground work, but rather on the various ways in which capitalist platforms like Twitter and their media ecologies rely on systems of racial inequality and environmentally-unsustainable production and disposal. We also need to remember that while we often think of social media as authentic, what we see is mediated by algorithms and other aspects of the platforms. Nevertheless, @OpFerguson has served important important functions for organisers, providing counter-news information, promoting offline efforts, fundraising, representing and building solidarity, and also playing a role in consolidating leadership. Accounts like @OpFerguson can also help share attention for new waves of organising.
Aziz Douai and Julianne Condon spoke on ‘Police Brutality in the Age of New Media: Online Audiences and the Framing of Police Use of Force against Racial Minorities in Canada’, focusing on the 2013 police shooting of Sammy Yatim. They noted that while the Toronto Sun’s coverage of the shooting was conservative, erasing issues of structural inequality and framing the killing as a law and order issue, a significant proportion of users rejected this narrative in their comments. Instead, readers provided counter-framing, citing issues with systemic racism and police inability to deal with mental health issues.
Finally, Doug Tewksbury spoke on ‘Social Media, Shared Empathy, and Online-Offline Interconnectedness among Ferguson Protesters’. He talked about the ways in which social media can build community, interacting with offline interactions. He drew on Kirsty Robertson’s work on tear gas epiphanies: moments of embodied togetherness and a shared rejection of the disciplinary system (unevenly) imposed on them. (Which for me also suggests moments in which relatively-privileged protesters become aware of state violence that’s a part of others’ everyday experiences.) Social media can bolster the togetherness that comes out of these moments, allowing people to share ideas, knowledge, narratives, and also feelings that are necessary to create movements.
Sadly, I’ve missed the night’s keynote from Astra Taylor – it looks amazing, but 9am-9pm is too many hours of conference for me, so I’ll console myself with reading a little more of her excellent book tonight.
April 20, 2015 § 5 Comments
Theorizing the Web was an amazing conference: the organisers and volunteers did a great job of finding a diverse mix of speakers and putting together a well-run event with a minimal budget. As my voluminous notes suggest, I came away with a bunch of new ideas and information which I’m sure I’ll be processing for a while to come. I was also very impressed by the organisers’ commitment to making attendance economically accessible: this is far too rare for academic (and academic-ish) conferences.
I do want to reflect a bit, however, on some of the ways in which my experience of TtW contrasted with AdaCamp. I enjoyed both tremendously, and there were aspects of TtW that weren’t present at AdaCamp (including a very strong analysis of the relationship between capitalism and technology). AdaCamp also has a very different format (it’s an unconference requiring applications to participate, and with much smaller attendance) than TtW, so I don’t want to imply that every part of AdaCamp’s policies could, or should, be transferred to TtW. I’m sure, also, that there are important ways in which AdaCamp’s policies are incomplete.
I have to note that I’m speaking from my own experience, which comes with its own limitations. So, for example, microaggressions related to gender are much more visible to me than those related to race or accessibility issues. Similarly, if I’m more aware of the ways in which many spaces are unsafe for trans people, it’s because I’ve been lucky enough to be exposed to the work of trans activists to highlight these problems (often at significant personal cost): many cis people will not be aware of this work. So this discussion will be missing a bunch of stuff, because I’m still learning myself.
Discussions at Theorizing the Web paid a lot of attention to the politics of technology: what does it mean to think of algorithms as architecture that shape our experience of the Web in particular ways? What does it mean if key communications technologies are privately owned? How do particular design choices contribute to platforms being safe or unsafe? A conference is also a technology, though. So it is useful, and important, to be thinking about how the conference-as-technology shapes particular relationships and power structures.
This becomes especially important when an event is likely to be attended by people who are risk of harassment or abuse, either within the conference or from external threats. At the moment, that potentially includes anyone who is writing about feminism and the Internet. Two of the women on the h8 panel yesterday had experienced sustained and potentially life-threatening online abuse (which transferred to offline spaces). There’s also clear evidence that gg is paying attention to academia, as well as to feminist game developers and game critics.
Dealing with this shouldn’t be left up to people who are at risk, it should be something that the whole community works at. It also shouldn’t require having to take the potentially-alienating step of opting out of a practice established as an event norm. The photo policy at each event is one example of this: at TtW the deal was basically, “you’re going to be photographed, your photograph will be used however people want to”, although presumably individual participants might have attempted to avoid being photographed, and speakers might start their talk by asking that the audience don’t photograph them. In contrast, at AdaCamp the lanyards used for name badges were colour-coded red (never photograph), yellow (ask before photographing), or green (go ahead!). This allowed participants to pick the option that most suited them without having to feel like they were making a fuss if they chose not to be photographed.
It also made a huge difference to me that these policies were reinforced by the organiser at AdaCamp. As well as reminders that it was okay to change your lanyard colour at any point, Skud stepped in to say that it wasn’t okay to approach yellow-lanyard people and say, “I’m going to take a photo, okay?” and assume that a lack of dissent meant consent. She also gave reminders about ableist language (suggesting alternatives), and about the scent policy. TtW has an anti-harassment policy, which is an excellent first step, but as far as I could tell it wasn’t mentioned in the introduction to the event or followed up with reminders in-session.
Building better cultures around conferences and other events should not just be up to conference organisers and volunteers. Participants also need to step in and say something (when they feel safe doing so). But this is much easier to do if organisers have already helped to set up a culture in which there are clear expectations around behaviour (including language). It’s much easier to say, “please remember than in the opening session the organiser asked us to avoid that language” than, “I’m very uncomfortable with that language”.
There’s a tendency in some places to see codes of conduct and safer spaces policies as autocratic, a way of enforcing rules in a top-down way. In some ways a top-down approach is necessary for temporary spaces (in the same way that conference organisers choose speakers and create a program, or choose participants, or a location). But safer spaces policies aren’t usually created in isolation: they grow out of discussions, challenges, and praxis built by feminist and trans activists, PoC, accessibility advocates, and others.
There were a few policies that would be relatively simple to implement at TtW, and which would not put too much pressure on resources, including:
- A clear photograph policy, including an easy way for people to signal that they don’t want to be photographed.
- A request that participants write their pronouns on their namebadges.
- A scent policy (I nearly left this out because my first response was, “oh, scents don’t bother me”, and then I realised how ridiculous that response was).
- Opt-in options for sexual content that don’t require participants to avoid important talks or spaces: while the looping video featuring disembodied genitalia was an interesting addition to the conference, playing it next to the keynote (and somewhere visible from the street) made it hard to avoid. Marking it as an option in the program (and with signs in the physical space) and playing it somewhere easier to avoid would be more appropriate.
- Announcements, including reminders if necessary, about key aspects of the anti-harassment policy.
- Announcements, including reminders, about who to contact about problems (there were reminders about this online, which was great, but with the wifi issues not everyone was online during the conference).
- [Edit: also clear policies and moderation in question sessions, which I discuss in more detail at the bottom of this post.]
There are also some steps which feel important to me but might require more resources to implement, including:
- Childcare (because our activist and academic spaces should have room for parents).
- Accessible spaces and pathways. (I’m not sure how, or whether, participants with mobility issues could reach the basement talks. [Edit: organisers have clarified that there was an elevator!])
- Access to enough bathrooms, drinking water, and snacks. This might seem extravagant, but for participants with mobility issues, fatigue, or related issues, it can make a huge difference to have basic requirements easily available. (I did really like that the organisers reminded people repeatedly that those without mobility issues should help out by going across the street for bathrooms when possible.)
It is awkward to write about these things, or raise these issues in academic or activist spaces. It is awkward to feel like I’m making trouble and being a bother. But it feels important to me. Honestly, I have minimal ability to effect change around many of the issues discussed at the conference: it’s interesting to consider the impact of Facebook’s algorithms, to examine new legal frameworks for regulating online spaces, or to consider the role of crypto in activist work in the Middle East…but I have limited ability to do anything about those things. But the technologies and processes of academic conferences is an area where I do have some agency, and I hope this contribution comes in useful in thinking about what we want our academic spaces to look like.