Book review – Beyond Capitalism: Building Democratic Alternatives for Today and the Future

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]

beyond capitalismThis 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 3: commoning, digital infrastructures and/for social movements, and white men taking up space

May 4, 2015 § Leave a comment

Social Reproduction and the Emerging Institutions of the Common opened with Fiona Jeffries’ and Pablo Mendez’ work on ‘Domesticating the struggle! Commoning Care in the Global Encampment’. Jeffries, presenting, framed the encampment protest-form recently (re)popularised by Occupy and other Squares movements as a way of making the domestic visible. The encampment challenges the binaries of public/private and personal/political, turning ‘home’ inside out. There’s been a lot of debate about the failure of political encampments, but Jeffries and Mendez argue that their significance lies in the ways in which they showed the necessity of placing social reproduction at the centre of struggle. The home space is where the crisis is experienced, and where people have to address it. Silvia Federici reminds us that home has a double character, both a site of reproduction of relations of domination, and as a site for potential resistance.

Elise Thorburn followed with ‘Communication Technologies and Social Reproduction: Securitized and Autonomous’, discussing the CUTV livestreaming of student strikes in Quebec. She began by noting some of the ways in which digital technologies can be seen as alienating us from our very existence as human beings: the neoliberal fixation on productivity and speed separates us from the solidarity and connections that would help us build resistance. There is a need to liberate our channels of communication (not just digital, but also embodied) from neoliberal control. CUTV made an attempt at this by using high-definition livestreaming equipment during student strikes in an attempt to humanise the protesters, to build audience’s connections with them, and to monitor police violence. For some protesters, livestreamers provide a sense of safety, a space which is at least moderately protected by counter-surveillance. Livestreaming technology is harder to shut down, because of the connection to different networks (including 3G and 4G) and the ability to turn the packs into wireless hotspots. However, livestreamers can also become a target for police violence, and livestreaming can be used by police to watch protesters (we also talked about some of the debates around livestreaming in our research on Occupy Oakland). After a certain point, CUTV made a decision to move away from filming people’s faces, and to avoid filming acts that protesters might be charged with. We need to be prepared to constantly adapt our uses of digital technologies, as repressed forces co-opt them or counter our efforts.

Symon Benetti, #Macao in Assemblea – #tuttisumacao

Enda Brophy ended the session by exploring the Cultural Workers Organize project. He emphasised the need for responses to increasing precarity among cultural workers that consider ways of decommodifying labour and build possibilities for escaping wage relations. The research team has been looking at some of the occupations of theatres, cinemas, and other spaces which began in 2011 (building on a longer history of related occupations). Many of these have become laboratories for horizontal management through open assembly. They also tend to be spaces in which there is a radical openness to the community around them, creating forms of organisation that are expressly articulated around the idea of the common, rejecting the binary of public/private. However, they face serious challenges, including evictions by the state (as has happened to the Cinema America) and the need to find income streams to support participants. The sheer audacity of these initiatives encourages us to aspire to something beyond the binary of ‘good work’ and ‘bad work’, and to look for ways to build institutions of the common.

The next session addressed Social Movements and Digital Technologies. Stephane Couture and Sophie Toupin opened by looking at two case studies in ‘Digital Infrastructures and/for Social Movement’, both of which respond to the increasing commodification and surveillance of the Internet. Stephane discussed the World Free Media Forum (there are also notes on this in my summary of day 1), which has lead to the production of the World Charter of Free Media and journal edition on Free Information and Open Internet. He talked about attempts to use free software in the organising of the Forum (for example, mumbles rather than skype), and to set up spaces for tech activists to share their knowledge with others. However, there are challenges to this work, including the difficulty of working some tools and ideological clashes. The second case study was about feminist servers, broadly defined to include software, hardware, code design, social solidarities, and space (this was also addressed at the FemHack event I went to in Montreal). Feminist servers are a response to violence, bullying, harassment, surveillance, and the corporatisation of the internet. Infrastructure matters, even if by design infrastructure is made to be ignored (we often forget the infrastructure, until it fails). And frequently infrastructure is not designed by people thinking about safety, particularly not from a feminist perspective. As in yesterday‘s presentation from Melissa Meade and Cricket Keating, Sophie emphasised the importance of a “do it together” rather than a DIY ethos. (And perhaps you can also do it together, as the next TransHackFeminist convergence happens in Mexico in July). Both Stephane and Sophie emphasised the difficulty of bringing different communities and struggles together, and the necessity and value of doing this work. There is a need for more spaces and people that do this bridging work.

Elisabetta Ferrari followed with ‘Social Media for the 99%? Rethinking Alternative Media and Social Movements’ Identity in the Corporate Web 2.0′. This research explores some of the changes to the alternative media landscape since the late 1990s. One of the issues for social movements is that corporate platforms like Facebook and Twitter have become vital spaces for making alternative perspectives visible. Elisabetta’s analysis of Occupy Chicago’s use of these platforms produced some surprising results: a very limited proportion of content deals with identity, and mass media content shared with endorsement outweighs the proportion that’s shared with critical commentary. This is in part because OC was making an attempt to develop relationships with mainstream media – putting out press releases, holding press conferences, running media training, and even producing PR guides. The lack of identity material can be seen as a response to the difficulty of defining “who we are” for Occupy: reporting an actions provided a way to balance this by saying “what we do” instead. The lack of identity content can also be seen as a coping mechanism for movements where there is a fundamental disjuncture between a diverse, decentralised movement and accounts on social media that are built around singular identities. It is useful to investigate the relationship between political choices and technological choices: movements benefit from using corporate social media, but at the same time the structures of these media exacerbate existing political tensions in decentralised movements.

Image from @ksurkan

Image from @ksurkan

Finally, Anne-Marie Romanko talked about ‘Pepper Spray, Photoshop, and Protest: The Meme as a Tool for Socio-Political Protest’. Romanko argues that photoshop memes can create opposition to hegemonic forces through powerful political messages, focusing on the image of Lieutenant John Pike pepperspraying protesters at UC Davis. Memes give agency to polyvocal discourse: they allow for the voice of the other to be included in the message. They can act as a way to influence or counter mainstream media discourse, and while some scholars believe images and politics are trivialised through memes, they create dialogue, and humour can be a powerful form of dissent. Memes can connect people who might otherwise have little in common.

Anyone following me on Twitter will have gathered that I found the ‘question’ session on this panel very frustrating. There are useful critiques to be made of question sessions, and of the hierarchical structure of experts and audience. However, the commonly-expressed frustration at “more-a-comment-than-a-question” is based in part on the fact that those making “more a comment” are often the privileged (rather than marginalised people disrupting power hierarchies). I expect a moderate level of “more a comment”s at conferences, and have learned to sigh and bear it, but this panel was particularly remarkable because there were five or six white men in a row who took the opportunity to talk at length about their own ideas, the case studies they thought were relevant, or the arguments they thought should be used to frame these issues. Only one of them appended any pretence at a question mark. I asked a question (and made a note that others hadn’t), and as soon as presenters answered, there were more “comments” from the audience. Frustrated, I nervously tried to speak up and point out what was happening. And then one of the female presenters got thirty seconds into talking about her arguments before another white man interrupted to argue with her.

There are obviously things that individual men could, and should, be doing to avoid this: being aware of the demographics of who speaks and who is interrupted and how they might be contributing to that dynamic is a good start. (Similarly, white women need to be aware of the ways in which our voices are privileged in some spaces.) Continuing on from my previous post on thinking about conferences as technologies which should be approached with the same critical perspective we’re turning on digital technologies, there are also steps that organisers can take to build a better “question session” technology. For example, it might be useful to set out guidelines for moderators that include using a progressive stack to take audience questions, and making it clear whether comments will be accepted (if they are, making this explicit will make space for those who don’t feel confident commenting in a question session).

If we’re going to talk about the ways in which particular digital platforms marginalise or facilitate particular voices, we should also be prepared to think about that in our own spaces.

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.

A screenshot from TimeTraveller.

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.

Lauren Cruikshank, Relaxomaxoscope, 2014

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.

Ultra-red, Sixty Sounds of the War on the Poor, 2007–2011, image from CD insert

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

Montserrat Boix, Media, politics and civil rights Tunisia 2015 World Social Forum Casa do Brasil

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.

I missed the second panel to go to the #SOSblakAustralia protest at the Australian embassy, although I didn’t manage to find the other protesters. Hopefully they made it there at some point!

Alejandro Linares Garcia, Tequio by Jose Marcos Zenteno Aguayo at the Alebrije Parade of the Museo de Arte Popular, Mexico City

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 Women Stayed: the untold story of the Euromaidan

The Women Stayed: the untold story of the Euromaidan

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.

bodywirelessMél 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’).

Elsipogtog land defender Annie Clair (centre) is fighting legal charges

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.

We the protesters

We the protesters

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.

Theorizing the Web and conferences as technology

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.

Flore Allemandou, “Lanyards”

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.

Theorizing the Web Day 2: here comes every body + h8 + lockscreen + algorithms + technologies and pathologies

April 19, 2015 § 1 Comment

Pretty Fat II-Spring 2013~ Kadejah H.

The second day of Theorizing the Web was as intense as the first, and many of the presentations discussed potentially-distressing issues, including anti-fat prejudice, online harassment and abuse, police violence against people of colour, suicide, and transmisogyny. This post will only give a short overview of the presentations (and conversations) that happened. My notes from day one are here – I also recommend checking out the TtW15 website and hashtag for more information.



Day two began with Here comes every body, and Apryl Williams‘ discussion of fat activism online. Like most movements, fat activism is fractured: ‘body positivity’ is often still very much about healthiness, with strong moral undercurrents (for example, attempts to counter the idea that fat people are lazy by showing fat people exercising). ‘Fat acceptance’ rejects the idea that fat people have to prove their worth through performances of health, instead insisting that fat people (whether healthy or not) are valuable and retain autonomy over their own bodies. Williams notes, however, that fat activist spaces reproduce hegemonic ideology: fat activism often continues to frame women within the male gaze (“fat women are sexy too!”), and fat positive spaces are often dominated by white women. The Fat People of Colour tumblr provides an alternative space that includes men and genderqueer people, resists the fetishising of fat people, and invokes intersectional approaches (including considering class and disability).


Legacy Russell followed with a presentation on feminism and glitch body politic, asking how experimentations with sex and gender in the digital arena can act to undermine the discourse of sex and gender. Art by glitch feminists like Amalia Ulman, AK Burns, Ann Hirsch, Mykki Blanco, and Fannie Sosa, creates cracks in the glossy narrative of the patriarchal gaze and invites us to consider ways of disrupting platforms at the same time as we use them. Glitch feminism not just about individual projects, but about the connections and spaces in between them.


Mariam Naziripour‘s ‘Craft of Beauty: Make-up after the Internet’ tracked some of the ways in which technology (including older technologies like photography and black and white film) have changed our approach to make-up. Jenna Marbles’ early vlogs demonstrate the strange tensions in how modern Western society views make-up: women are meant to ‘look natural’ at the same time as we’re expected not to look like ourselves. We’re pushed to engage in constant attempts to meet particular (unachievable) standards of beauty, at the same time as we’re criticised for artifice and deception. This also reveals tensions in many people’s relationship to make-up, which is in some ways an imposition (to look a certain way, often at significant economic and personal cost), but also a source of creativity and experimentation. Online communities like Makeup Alley have created one of the richest archives of make-up practices ever to exist, documented by the people who use make-up (rather than poets or essayists writing misogynistic critiques of makeup, as was often the case in the past).


Image search results for 'virtual agents' on Google

Image search results for ‘virtual agents’ on Google

Finally, Emily Bick talked about the ways in which ‘virtual agents’ (virtual assistants, custometr support bots, and so on) reproduce and enforce gender roles. These programs are often gendered, shifting from the more gender-neutral agents of previous decades (like Microsoft’s infamous Clippy), and are subservient and obedient. They represent-and help reinforce-an ideology of a feminised support worker who is constantly available and deferential. Thinking about this now, I’m curious about ways in which this is additionally racialised (with the idealised Western virtual agent usually presented as white, at the same time as a significant proportion of caring work in Western countries is undertaken by women of colour), and about the ways in which glitches or limitations of these programs might be understood as acts of resistance by virtual agents.


The h8 session opened with Alison Annunziata’s discussion of Love and Terror in the Digital Age. She outlined two central problems with dealing with cyberstalking and digital harassment: firstly, that technology shifts more rapidly than the law, and secondly, that both the law and police as individuals are often not capable of understanding the language of threat (and of terror). Antistalking laws, for example, often have a requirements of ‘credible threat’ – would a ‘reasonable person’ see this as genuinely dangerous? Victims are often the only ones with the right intelligence to understand why a particular action is threatening or violating, and they bear a  heavy burden of proof.


Caroline Sinders extended this by talking about Twitter’s UX problem, starting with the very real impact of this: her mother was recently swatted, which lead to a painful discussion in which Sinders was asked by her mother, and local police, what gg is and why they’re mad at her…which is kind of hard to explain, when the answer is “I tweet about feminism sometimes”. (This reminds me about some of the discussions at AdaCamp around resources to give to therapists: for people experiencing online harassment and abuse, it can be useful – and even necessary – to have an information pack to give therapists and other support people to explain the background and kinds of abuse that are happening. Sinders mentioned abusive tweets, doxxing, swatting, sealioning, and dog piling as particular issues.) Sinders notes that Twitter has a very specific problem with harassment, in part because it was never designed from a perspective that recognised and aimed to prevent harassment. Legal frameworks (as Annunziata explained) don’t deal well with misogynistic stalking and harassment, and particularly haven’t kept up with online abuse, but Sinders argues that there’s a lot that Twitter could do to become safer, including rewriting community guidelines to recognise and ban emerging uses of the platform for abuse, look at and learn from Block Together, redesign their interface, allowing more user agency, and using algorithms and data better (for example, enacting the PGP Web of Trust, recognising that often friends of friends are safe to interact with), and allowing batched submissions of abusive tweets. They should also be drawing on the knowledge of people who have experienced these forms of abuse in developing their responses.


Thomas Rousse explored two case studies in implementing moderation systems for online communities using peer judgements: Wikipedia and League of Legends. He notes that this isn’t an issue of free speech: it’s about the management of bounded online communities, and not about the forms of speech that the state controls or represses. Rouse outlined two major models of community management: moderation, and ‘online vigilantism’. Many communities start without clear rules for behaviour, and end up defaulting to a vigilante approach as users try to find their own solutions: often these are incredibly inventive, and really terrible. Moderation offers better possibilities, but often requires a lot of work from community managers. Peer-judgement systems offer one alternative. However, democracy is not an inherent good, and majoritarian spaces can less to ‘a majority of assholes’. Neither Wikipedia nor League of Legend’s systems are without problems; in fact, the Wikipedia requests for comment system ended during Rousse’s research. League of Legends’ system has been more successful: it allows players to look at transcripts when players are reported, and decide if they should be punished or pardoned. 94% of those who were reported were punished. But using human adjudicators isn’t fast enough, so they took the body of data accumulated and used machine learning to create a machine judge. This opens up lots of interesting (and worrying) questions about the ways in which peer judgement processes and machine learning might be deployed in other spaces.


Click here for my slides

Click here for my slides

I closed the session by exploring some of the ways in which geek feminist activism is challenging the predominantly liberal and libertarian politics of the digital liberties movement (which I’ve written more about here and here). This was a very brief sketch of a complex movement that I’ll be writing about in more detail later, but I hope it brought up some useful reflections on the ways in which we approach-or might approach-issues around online harassment. While Rousse referred back to liberal democratic frameworks (talking about being judged by ‘juries of our peers’ and noting that Wikipedia’s system looked more like a ‘kangaroo court than the Supreme Court’), women, trans people, and people of colour are often very aware that existing liberal democratic frameworks do not work for us. Anarchafeminist praxis offers an alternative source of experience to draw on in considering how we might deal with abuse and harassment, silencing, and structural inequality, within communities that are frequently male-dominated, and in spaces shaped by the broader context of the capitalist system.


The Lockscreen: Control and Resistance extended the discussion on many of these themes. Harry Halpin kicked off arguing that ‘only cryptography can save us’. With the failure of the liberal state and the capitalist order, he says, we’ll be seeing hundreds of revolutions still to come. Technology won’t determine the shape or outcome of these, but it will affect the possibilities available, and if technologies of communication are open to surveillance then states will be able to crush resistance before it can grow. Snowden has argued that we can’t trust liberal mechanisms of governance, so we have to find ways of inscribing the values of the society we want into technology. I’m rather dubious about this idea, however. Sinders’ talk on Twitter’s UX problem described the problems that arise from building a platform based around the life experiences and priorities of a relatively homogenous set of designers (mostly white, relatively privileged, men). There are some excellent women and people of colour involved in crypto communities (as there are at Twitter), but even just within TtW there were many mentions of the problems with crypto culture. So it seems like before ‘we’ ‘inscribe our values’, more work needs to go into working out who the ‘we’ is here, and giving attention and hard work to the culture within crypto communities (and looking at the ways in which these communities overlap – or fail to overlap – with those of users for whom this technology might be a life-or-death issue).


Ted Perlmutter continued the discussion of ‘Twitter revolutions’, but also noted that while people have been very enthusiastic about the platform when it seemed to be supporting progressive revolutions, it becomes more worrying when it’s used by groups like ISIS or gg as a recruitment tool (I’d also add that the US state apparatus is far less enthusiastic about movements organising on Twitter when it’s happening within the US). How should we be disrupting violent hate movements using Twitter? And if we isolate participants, are we sticking them in an echo chamber that will only radicalise them further? This was an interesting talk, but it seemed strange to me to discuss gg primarily through the lens of other male theorists, and without drawing on the experience or analysis of women and other marginalised groups that have been attacked by them.


How would we read this image if the protester didn’t have their hands up? How would we read it if they were flipping off the police?

Raven Rakia wrapped up the session with a critique of the anti-police movement’s dependency on visual images. As activists have been bringing attention to police killings of people of colour, there has been a focus on images of police in riot gear, police killings, and police brutality. These images are powerful, but they implicitly rewrite history, and support a politics of respectability. Photographs of riot police with armoured vehicles suggest that the US police have become militarised, hiding the fact that police have always been militarised, and from the beginning played a role in enforcing racist structures of control (including slavery and lynchings). These images also build a politics of respectability: they rely on an opposition between violent police and pacifist protesters, on telling us that victims of violence were going to college or parents (which implies that those who aren’t ‘respectable’ are suitable targets for violence). These images also focus our attention on visible forms of violence while other structures are hidden, including the prison and legal system that disproportionately affects black lives. Some of these structures are also taking new forms online: for example, if children talk to each other about trying to organise resistance to police or violence experienced from others, they can be charged under ‘gang laws’ and given much harsher sentences. Rakia argues that instead of focusing on images of police violence, we need to work to abolish the police and dismantle systems of incarceration and control.


The second keynote of TtW15, Algorithms as Social Control, brought together Zeynep Tufekci, Kate Crawford, Gilad Lotan, Amy O’Leary, and Frank Pasquale. I won’t try to summarise all of the discussion on this panel, but you can catch the Twitter feed here. There were some important points raised about the ways in which algorithms can act as architectures of control, and potentially also work in liberatory ways. There were also questions raised about appropriate points of focus: should we be examining algorithms, or are they just tools (“just like the process you use for tying your shoelaces”, as two data scientists told Amy O’Leary)? If we are interrogating algorithms, how do we actually do this using the tools and data available to us?

I enjoyed Kate Crawford’s discussion about what the history of the deodand can tell us about algorithms: this legal structure was a way of dealing with death or injury caused by animals or inanimate objects, and was finally replaced by negligence laws in large part due to the political power of the railway industry. Looking at that history reminds us that we have a long history to draw on in working out responsibility in complex systems, and that we can make creative solutions, but but also that the forces of capital shape the ways in which we develop structures for accountability and responsibility.


“Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination,” by Alondra Nelson

Tweets about the final keynote, In Sickness and in Health: Technologies and Pathologies, can be found at the #TtW15 #k3 hashtags, with participants Jason Wilsonmerritt kopas, Ayesha Siddiqi, Gabriella Coleman, and Alondra Nelson. Nelson’s overview of her work on the Black Panther’s grassroots genetic screening program was amazing, and laid out a six-point theory of health and technology for the social media age which set up the frame for the panel well:

  1. Information does not want to be free, but demand it is because your life might depend on it. We need access to advanced medical and technical information.
  2. DIY is self-care.
  3. Technology needs to be for and by the people.
  4. Bringing attention to neglected or rare diseases requires an activated network. The Black Panthers had two types of network: one based on homophily (sameness), and another with well-connected nodes that could bring in celebrity (around the campaign on sickle cell anaemia).
  5. Access to and strategic use of tech must be coupled with vigilance about its excesses. For example, the Black Panthers actively challenged racist assumptions about genetic difference and built a multifaceted understanding of the politics of genetics and race.
  6. Disruptive innovation can move the state: one outcome of the Black Panther’s campaign was increased funding for sickle cell anaemia.


‘Videogames for humans’, edited by merritt kopas

merritt kopas followed this with a discussion of games as a site for exploring complex ideas around interiority, mental health, gender, and sexuality. Online games can be produced and distributed easily, and the format allows for non-linear narratives. Games like Depression Quest that explore these issues are getting more attention, and much of this work done is being done by women, and especially trans women. Previously, trans people have mainly been allowed to occupy the literary space of the memoir (specifically around transition), which makes trans lives consumable for cis audiences. New games formats allow space for trans women to explore and share their experiences in ways that are more challenging, and frequently are made for other trans people rather than for a broader cis audience. This is important, particularly when being trans online means hearing about suicides (but being told not to talk about them in case you spread suicide), hearing about the murder of trans people (and realising that most of society doesn’t care), being purposefully and continually misgendered, and harassed and doxxed. Even when in queer or feminist spaces, trans people cannot assume they are safe. merritt also notes that while gg has received a lot of attention, this attention usually centres on the experience of cis white women. However, trans people (and especially trans women) have been experiencing these forms of harassment by trans-exclusionary radical feminists for years.


Ayesha Siddiqi talked about the ways in which marginalised people are building narratives of self care. Posts and tweets sharing tips for self care, or even telling others that they deserve self care, can be seen as a way of sharing amateur mental health resources. We need to be asking why people are turning to these to try to survive: what is it about our communities that create this need for self care, and why do are people forced to look after themselves (rather than being looked after by those around them)?


Finally, Biella Coleman talked about a question that’s come out of her previous project on Anonymous: how did those, and do those, who are deemed ‘crazy’, gain a voice when the very category of being ‘mad’ makes you ‘irrational’? She notes that disability marks the past and present of hacking in dramatic ways. While this has many negative impacts, it also creates spaces where people with disabilities (or people who identify with different neurodiversities) are able to find a place where they are accepted (although I would argue that this space is far more welcoming for some people than others).


The discussion that followed emphasised the ways in which ‘madness’ is socially-constructed: Siddiqi pointed out that traits that would mark others as ‘crazy’…are sentimentalized when they occur in white bodies, Coleman argued that in order to resist categorisations of madness you need strong communities of mutual aid, and Nelson noted that the Black Panthers knew you can’t be healthy in a pathological society, and there’s been a pathologization of anyone who poses a threat to the state and the market.


I’ll do one more post about Theorizing the Web, but I want to end this one with Alondra Nelson’s words (or as close as I could get to them while typing frantically):

I don’t feel optimistic at all, but people make do and keep going. But we can find a glimmer of hope in spaces and moments, not fully autonomous, of community, and of gathering.

Theorizing the Web, Day 1: cache flow & code queering & racial standpoints & magic & music & concrete dust

April 18, 2015 § 1 Comment

'The concrete is great here' - @craigdesson

‘The concrete is great here’ – @craigdesson

Theorizing the Web has been fascinating, but a bit of a shock to the system after AdaCamp. TtW is gloriously DIY, which has a lot of benefits: it’s particularly great to see an academic(ish) conference that’s open to activists and artists, and not hideously expensive to attend. I did miss the efforts AdaCamp went to in building a safe and inclusive space (including having a clear photo policy, pronouns on badges, and marked walkways for accessibility) – TtW has an anti-harassment policy, which is a great start, but I’d love to see a few more active steps around publicising and extending this policy.

As usual with events like this, I’ve tried to summarise a few of my notes for those who couldn’t make it (and Future Me), but I strongly suggest you check out the program, tweets, and livestream for the conference: there were so many great sessions I couldn’t go to, and of course my notes have been edited down (and tend to get shorter and shorter as the conference progresses).

The first session I went to, Cache Flow, kicked off with Zac Zimmer’s historical perspective on Bitcoin, linking the economic, environmental, and social impacts of sixteenth-century silver mining in the South American region of Potosí with Bitcoin. Zimmer pointed out that the ideology behind Bitcoin reveals a very particular (and circular) understanding of currency: Bitcoin is modelled on gold (and therefore scarce, and increasingly difficult to mine) because gold is seen as an archetypical currency, and gold is seen as an archetypical currency because it is scarce and increasingly difficult to mine. At the same time, this model demonstrates a lack of awareness of the environmental and social externalities involved in mining, which was horrifically destructive in Potosí.

Tardigrades: remarkably well-adapted to capitalism, unlike humans.

Trebor Scholz lightened the mood briefly by opening his talk, “Okay, tardigrades”, and pointing out that these microscopic animals are much more well-suited to the rigours of capitalism than us unsteady, exhausted humans. Scholz outlined some of the ways in which digital technologies are allowing for increasing surveillance and atomisation of workers, from Amazon warehouse workers fired for spending a few minutes standing ‘inactive’ to the Mechanical Turk. Online platforms become digital bottlenecks for insecure and precarious workers. Scholz ended by outlining some of the ways in which we might “rip out the algorithmic model” at the heart of the ‘sharing economy’ and make something different, taking the corporate mediation out of the picture and using apps or other digital technologies to build worker-run and/or unionised alternatives. Examples to check out include: Turkopticon and the Transunion car service in NYC.

Next up, Andrea Hunter talked about crowdfunding, Crackstarter, and changing journalistic norms. She argued that while many journalists are trying out crowdfunding, this isn’t a sustainable alternative to funding problems in the long term. Crowdfunding requires negotiating new ways of engaging with funders/audiences, and new ways of trying to preserve autonomy while building this engagement. Many journalists currently using crowdfunding are hoping to use it as a step towards setting up new arrangements with advertisers (based on crowdfunding as evidence of a substantial audience).

Finally, Reubenn Binns explored the idea of selling our own data as the answer to our privacy concerns. This talk raised some thought-provoking ideas about how we respond to and resist the incredible levels of data-gathering taking place today, often with the goal of more effectively marketing at us. He argued that while selling our data ourselves can be tempting, doing so undermines our autonomy (as it gives marketers tools with which to more effectively manipulate our desires). However, in doing so he referred to a set of goods and services which it is ‘inherently morally problematic’ to exchange, citing sex work along with voting, indentured labour, selling organs, and other examples – this reference to sex work as inherently problematic (and particularly the reference to sex work as ‘prostitution’) wasn’t necessary for the argument, and has many fierce critics.

The second session, Code Queering, open with Dorian Adams and Steven Losco‘s discussion of ‘Viral Martyrs: Gender Identity, Race, and the Digital Construction of Victimhood’. They argued that allies and media brought attention to the 2014 suicide of 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn while violence against so many trans people of colour is largely ignored in part because she was white, young, middle-class, and from the suburbs, and her parents could afford conversion therapy. This mean coverage and support for Alcorn “did not require acknowledging existing networks of domination beyond a bounded notion of transphobia”. In contrast, despite the fact that trans people of colour (and particularly Black women) make up 70% of LGBT-related murders in the US, public attention to these victims limited, with media coverage frequently misgendered them, and either implying or explicitly referring to a real or imagined history of sex work.

Max Thorntorn continued the discussion of trans issues, beginning by noting that Leelah Alcorn’s suicide note talked about being isolated from her online communities by her parents’ confiscation of her devices. The Web, Thornton argues, can become a prosthesis for trans people, not just in the sense of extending or supplementing the self, but also in a more transformative way. Social media accounts and online communities can offer trans people who are not able to safely come out a space in which they can explore their identity, and be recognised by others. The web doesn’t just extend the borders of the self, it dissipates them (we are all cyborgs now). This encourages us to divest ourselves of the fallacy of the discrete, atomised, individual self. Thornton argues that this isn’t just theoretical: we need to take trans people’s gender identities seriously, which means recognising that a laptop and wifi can keep people alive.

Next, Chelsea Summers (standing in for Fuck Theory) talked about gay cruising apps. She/they argued that while common understandings of cruising apps tend to create a binary between cruising online and cruising in person, the actual shift is from a mode of cruising in specific times and places to constantly and ever-presently cruising.

Hatsune Miku, who appears in an Oculus Rift game as a live-in girlfriend.

Hatsune Miku, who appears as a live-in girlfriend experience using Oculus Rift.

Finally, Dorothy Howard talked about gynoids and geminoid: falling in love with machines. She asked why, when we think about robots and AI, we’re usually asking questions about whether we’ll lose our humanity, rather than about the new forms of intimacy we might be creating? How do algorithms change love? And how, when we think about loving machines, might we explore issue of intimacy, social function, and alienation. (For those interested in these issues, I also recommend my colleague Eleanor Sandry’s Robots and Communication.)

The Racial Standpoints panel was in one of the upper rooms with pretty poor acoustics, so please excuse brevity/errors in my notes. Kyra Gaunt opened by dedicating her work on ‘The Bottomlines Project: YouTube, Segregation and Black Girls’ to Jaime Adedro Moore, who was involved in one of the original YouTube twerk teams and was murdered in 2014. Gaunt and her students have found and watched over 800 hours of twerking videos by black girls on YouTube. She notes that as twerking (which comes out of a number of different African-American and African dance traditions) has become more popular, there are more white girls sharing twerking videos online. Videos by white girls tend to get more views, and more supportive comments, than those by black girls. Perhaps most worryingly, videos by black girls are often posted by older white male users, and/or might share identifying information or receive comments from men trying to make contact with the dancers. Gaunt notes that there are some important ethical issues with this research, including how to present it without revealing information about the girls themselves.

In the next presentation Julia Michiko Hori discussed the ways in which TripAdvisor reveals (or conceals) the relationship between tourism and traumatic histories. Reviews on the site unmask both an anxiety about, and the banality of, systemic historical erasure. Even those who are engaging in ‘cultural heritage tourism’ often post about their experiences within a colonialist framework, in which they are explorers overcoming the challenges of mosquito bites, uncovered food, and overpriced gift shops. These reviews reveal a desire for all places to be welcoming to (Western) tourists, no matter how historically hunted they are.

The Facebook Demon, @lpromeranthro

The Facebook Demon, @lpromeranthro

Louis Philippe Römer‘s Caribbean Visions of Digital Dystopia looked at Facebook demons and trickster prostitutes. He opened by reviewing the history of the Caribbean as the ground-zero of european colonisation, and talking about the ways in which this has shaped ICT infrastructures in the Caribbean today: telegraph networks integral to colonial trade have been replaced by internet cable networks. This
has enabled rapid adoption of internet and other ICTs in the Caribbean. However, at the same time there’s often little support for, or recognition of, a local manifestation of Web communities: Facebook, for example, doesn’t even recognise Curaçao as a location.

Mikhel Proulx closed the session talking about ‘Digital Natives: Indigenous Cultures on the Early Web’. He opened with an acknowledgement of the Native history of Manhattan (the only acknowledgement of country I’ve heard at a North American conference, as far as I can remember). Proulx spoke both about the colonialism embedded in many Internet spaces (such as the resonances in browsers ‘Explorer’ and ‘Navigator’), and of early attempts by Native artists in particular to make room for indigenous perspectives online, including on CyberPowWow and the Zapatista’s Internet presence.

"five golden seals engraved with astrology charts for spy agencies, if you are into that" - @lifewinning

“five golden seals engraved with astrology charts for spy agencies, if you are into that” – @lifewinning

I was quite curious to see what Magic, Machines, and Metaphors would be about, and it turned out to be a fascinating exploration of the overlaps and disjunctures between how we think about (and practice?) magic and technology. I really can’t do justice to the beautiful, rambling, conversation here, and I recommend checking out the tweets from the session. Participants Ingrid Burrington, Melissa Gira Grant, Karen Gregory, Damien Williams, and Deb Chachra invoked magic as a metaphor for structures of power, but also for resistance. Williams spoke of both magic and technology as systems that are unknown to us, unworkable to us, unless we take the time to become initiated, and Chachra pointed out that for technology, that process of initiation is often made pointlessly difficult in ways that exclude many people.

Chachra has no interest in making technology seem like magic, making it more arcane and inaccessible than it already is. Burrington talked about how this technology-as-magic frame is simultaneously criticised by the crypto community (“crypto’s not magic, why don’t people use it properly?”) at the same time as many people imply that they’re wizards in the area. She also did a cool project looking at the NSA and the occult after seeing an astrology magazine doing star charts for Snowden and the NSA as a lens to talk about surveillance. “What does it mean to make a star chart for an institution? You have to give it a birthday for a start.” That might seem ridiculous, she says, but at the same time it makes about as much sense as killing people based on metadata.

I also liked the efforts to think through relationships between magic and capitalism. Karen Gregory’s work on Tarot practitioners tracked ways in which this was often a response to being pushed out of a precarious economy, with Tarot becoming a means of survival. Magic as a means of survival and resistance can take many forms – Burrington’s mention of bots as a way of conjuring familiars made me think of this recent anti-troll campaign, or heartbot. At the same time, we can’t forget that capital is always seeking expansion and enclosure, so talking about magic (or otherwise exposing our spaces of resistance) is always risking their commodification.

This linked in with discussions about anglocentrism and appropriation: what does it mean that many of the magical traditions that we draw on are so Western? What does it mean that when tech culture draws on other spiritual traditions, it often does it in ways that are appropriative, or about turning them into tools for productivity?

The keynote to wrap day one focused on Music and the Web. I admit I was a little exhausted at this stage and so I’m not going to try to draw on my rather-incoherent notes too much: again, I highly recommend checking out tweets from the session. Participants Sasha Geffen, Gavin Mueller, Robin James, Reggie Ugwu, and Naomi Zeichner brought up some great points about the changing nature of celebrity and fan labour, and about how social media is shifting practices around not just the sharing of music, but also how it’s composed and produced.

A panelist's view of Theorizing The Web - @mollycrabapple

A panelist’s view of Theorizing The Web – @mollycrabapple

If you’re just tuning in, don’t forget that you can follow Theorizing the Web on twitter, and the  livestream. There’s a bunch more cool stuff in the program, too!

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