August 13, 2013 § Leave a comment
Open technology and open culture is important to me. Free and open source software is vital to my research work, and as a researcher and an educator, I do what I can to support open access to important materials. Open culture and technology help support a more equal society, making key tools and information available to those who would not otherwise be able to access them.
But the culture around ‘open’ is, in important senses, still not that equal or that open. Recent discussions about aggression within the Linux development community have highlighted the ways in which particular kinds of language and interactions can work to exclude women and other people who are not brought up to interact aggressively, or who tend to be penalised for ‘assertive behaviour’ (including black men). Issues such as this are, perhaps, one of the reasons that women are underrepresented in most (but not all!) free and open source software communities. Women are also underrepresented in the supposedly open and meritocratic field of academia, at least in more secure positions: women are more likely to work in insecure, poorly-paid sessional positions (which contributes to their lack of time for publishing). On Wikipedia, women’s contributions to the world tend to receive relatively limited coverage, and women are underrepresented as contributors (happily there are efforts underway to change that).
I donated to The Ada Initiative, as well as volunteering on the advisory board, because I want to see more women in open technology and open culture. More than that, though: I want to see the culture around ‘openness’ change. I want to go to conferences with clear codes of conduct and diverse speaker lineups (which means more than a better gender balance). I want to go to more events like AdaCamp, which connect women with different perspectives and life experiences. I want technology that meets the needs of people other than the privileged (and I’m not sure that’s best done through any kind of ‘business model’). I want to help build ‘open’ spaces that actively engage with questions about how gender, class, sexuality, disability and race affect open culture and technology.
The Ada Initiative is making important contributions to this, including by modelling good practices for accessible events; supporting diverse participation at AdaCamp through the selection process and with travel grants; and providing a space for allies. If you can afford to donate, you’d help The Ada Initiative to run more AdaCamps, build resources for event coordinators, do important research on diversity in open technology and culture, and support gender diversity initiatives.
Want to read why others donated?
- Sarah Sharp donated in part because AdaCamp helped her to recognise her own ‘impostor syndrome’.
- Selena Deckelmann writes about how the networks formed at AdaCamp are reshaping her work.
- Liz Henry supports the ways in which The Ada Initiative makes women in different open tech and culture communities visible to each other.
- Connie Berardi says that AdaCamp can have lifechanging effects, as can other work supporting women in open technology and culture.
August 7, 2013 § 1 Comment
I’m kicking myself for missing Observe. Hack. Make. – it sounds like it was an amazing event that brought together geek and activist communities in a really interesting and valuable way. Coverage coming through on Twitter also suggested that #OHM2013 hosted political discussions that were informed by a more complex political analysis than the ones I often see surrounding issues about digital security and civil rights. There was a lot of excitement around Eleanor Saitta’s talk in particular, Ethics and Power in the Long War. I encourage you to read the full transcript, but there were a few stand-out points that are worth emphasising.
- Saitta talked about the need for those involved in developing digital security to stop harassing each other and have “a polite technical conversation like professionals do in the real world. (Sarah Sharp’s recent calls for civility on the Linux mailing list give good insight into some of the culture surrounding this.) This is especially important to me because poor communication and unwelcoming discussion are one of the barriers between better inter-community engagement I’ve noticed coming up over and over in my research and activism. Aggressive communication styles within a community are not only unproductive and tiring for those involved, they also makes it harder for those outside the community to consider joining, or coming in and saying, “hey, we need some help with this tool” or “can we link up on this issue”.
- She also argued that “the user model is the thing that needs to come first”. There are some really useful security tools out there that people I know would benefit from, but they’re not using them because they require investing too much time and energy to learn, and the benefits aren’t clear.
- Linked to this is her injunction to value the “incredibly complex and very powerful pattern matching CPU hooked-up to your system that you are not using … the user”. Many activists on the ground don’t have the skills (or the interest) to work through complicated tools that aren’t user-friendly, but they do have other important skills and knowledge, including an awareness of their own needs and an informed political analysis.
- Saitta argued that we need new tools to be informed by a theory of change, an understanding of the larger battles and overall landscape in which tools will be deployed. Although her example focused on the brittleness of security systems (once stuff breaks, it really breaks), I’d argue that we also need to think about this in terms of a political theory of change. The theory of change for a lot of digital rights activism at the moment is, ‘more information will necessarily change politics’. More information helps, but we also need to understand that the system is sustained by powerful interests, not just ignorance, and our theory of change needs to be informed by that. (Which I think is happening, increasingly.)
- She also calls out the tech community’s claims to being apolitical: “we don’t get to be apolitical anymore. Because If you’re doing security work, if you’re doing development work and you are apolitical, then you are aiding the existing centralizing structure. If you’re doing security work and you are apolitical, you are almost certainly working for an organization that exists in a great part to prop up existing companies and existing power structures.”
In response to this, Saitta lays out her own politics, noting that the increased surveillance we’re seeing these days is an inherent function of the state as it exists today:
if we want to have something that resembles democracy, given that the tactics of power and the tactics of the rich and the technology and the typological structures that we exist within, have made that impossible, then we have to deal with this centralizing function. As with the Internet, so the world. We have to take it all apart. We have to replace these structures. And this isn’t going to happen overnight, this is decades long project. We need to go build something else. We need to go build collective structures for discussion and decision making and governance, which don’t rely on centralized power anymore. If we want to have democracy, and I am not even talking about digital democracy, if we want to have democratic states that are actually meaningfully democratic, that is simply a requirement now.
Conversations which make this their starting point are incredibly important right now. It’s necessary, but not sufficient, to talk about decentralising political power. We need to also be talking about what that means in practice, how it will work, what kinds of tools and systems will support it.
July 25, 2013 § Leave a comment
My review of Ecofeminism and rhetoric: Critical perspectives on sex, technology and discourse is now available on Anthropological Forum. Unfortunately I forgot to check whether the journal was open access before agreeing to do the review, but I’ve made a pre-publication copy available for download here.
Ecofeminism and Rhetoric is helpful as an introductory text on ecofeminism for undergraduates, as well as for researchers open to incorporating an ecofeminist outlook into their work. Glynis Carr provides an effective positioning of ecofeminist theory and practice in the foreword, writing that ‘Ecofeminists recognize the connections—theoretical and practical, discursive and material—between the oppression of nature and the oppression of women. Ecofeminists act to realize a world free of sexist oppression that is also environmentally and sustainable and sound’ (ix). Carr also gives a brief introduction to the significance and uses of rhetoric, outlining its importance as a tool for analysis and activism. Jeffrey Bile’s ‘The rhetorics of critical ecofeminism’ builds on this by providing a good, if dense, discussion of different theoretical tendencies within ecofeminism. The chapter revolves around critiques of three dualisms, spiritual/natural; public/private; and self/other, which will serve as a useful overview for newcomers to the field. Murphy’s afterword draws out common themes from the chapters and suggests further reading, including fiction, which may help those new to the area to explore further.
At the same time, Ecofeminism and Rhetoric is a valuable resource for those already familiar with ecofeminism. Bile’s chapter offers a categorisation of ecofeminism which may be helpful for those working in the field, as well as highlighting areas of disagreement which may benefit from further attention. The case study chapters are, on the whole, useful contributions both to ecofeminist analysis as an academic discipline and to the specific areas which they address. Karla Armbruster’s examination of humans’ role in shaping the reproductive lives of pet dogs elaborates on Donna Haraway’s ideas while also raising important ethical questions about our relationship with companion species. Stacey K. Sowards also builds on Haraway’s work, emphasising the ongoing relevance of her writings on primatology and applying them to popular narratives surrounding orangutans. Merle Kindred and Julia E. Romberger invite us to consider how an ecofeminist critique could transform architecture: Kindred discusses the use of a more open, inclusive, rhetorical practice in her attempts to transform energy use in the residential built environment, and Romberger looks at the ways in which an ecofeminist perspective might help us to rethink the architecture of popular word processing tools. Each of these chapters demonstrates ways in which an ecofeminist perspective might challenge our existing view of the world.
These chapters also offer strategies for action in answer to the challenges they raise. Armbruster and Sowards suggest alternative ways of relating to other sentient beings. Armbruster argues that although there is no simple way to evade responsibility for the role we play in domestication, we can rethink our relationship with dogs in ways which might allow us to rework our relationship with wildness, and therefore open the door to broader transformations in how we relate to nature. Sowards draws on Richard Rorty’s construction of ironism to suggest that we take a more cautious and tactical approach to the anthropomorphism which shapes many popular primatological narratives, and work instead to build ‘narratives that foster identification and connection but also invite critical interrogation because they are never final narratives or vocabularies’ (86). Kindred’s discussion of her personal experiences with invitational rhetoric outlines both the ways in which this can be useful, and the limitations involved in the approach. Romberger encourages educators to teach students how to question the software which they use, as well as to collaborate in design frameworks which lead to different priorities being embedded into software architectures. These suggestions are valuable contributions to the academic literature while also opening pathways for activists and individuals concerned with creating change in their communities.
There are, however, some misfires in this book. As Murphy notes in the afterword, ecofeminism has been particularly concerned with an intersectional and inclusive analysis (147). Given this, I would have expected to see more inclusion of voices from the Global South and other marginalised perspectives, to complement the brief (and somewhat romanticised and Orientalist) discussion of the Global South in Kindred’s chapter. The decision to frame the case-study chapters, contributed by women, with explanatory chapters in the form of a preface, introduction, afterword, and epilogue written by men, may also raise some eyebrows, as might Jeffrey Lockwood’s epilogue. Lockwood’s aim of guiding ‘the open-minded but discerning academic into the field of ecofeminist analysis by framing the venture in terms of a more familiar topography’ (158) is laudable. However, his assertion that ecofeminism has developed in an ‘academic cradle that has allowed the field to develop in relative tranquility’ (157) and his offer to provide ecofeminists with ‘a guide to the obstacles that are likely to impede a journey into the larger landscape of academia’ (158) demonstrates a lack of understanding of ecofeminists’ struggles within the academy: ecofeminists are likely to already have a highly developed understanding of the obstacles they face, including the difficulty of surviving in poorly-funded departments which are more akin to windswept mountainsides than tranquil cradles. Despite these issues, Ecofeminism and Rhetoric is a worthwhile contribution which will be valuable for undergraduates and researchers both within and outside the academic field of ecofeminism. It has much to recommend it as an introductory text in the area, although it should be complemented by work which provides a more global and diverse perspective.
June 26, 2013 § 2 Comments
This has also been posted to the Geek Feminism blog.
Lately, I’ve seen quite a few claims that hackers are persecuted minority floating through my streams. It’s not hard to believe, when we’ve seen the affects that the aggressive prosecution of Aaron Swartz had, that one of the hackers who helped to bring attention to the Steubenville rape case could end up with more jail time than the rapists, Barrett Brown remains in prison, Matthew Keys was threatened with 25 years in prison for aiding hackers, and more. Weev, one of the hackers currently imprisoned, has written a short essay comparing hackers to other persecuted minorities, including Jewish people in Nazi Germany.
In response to this persecution, weev writes:
Hackers need statehood. For self-preservation against ethnocidal states, for control of our destinies and for the liberties of billions. No nation now protects Internet speech, privacy, and commerce rights. If but a single well-armed nation did, those rights would be a VPN or SSH session away for the whole planet. General computation and the free Internet are as important advents in human rights as the abolition of slavery. Let our electronic freedoms not sway in the shifting whims of dying governments.
I’ve also seen this argument bouncing around Twitter a bit, the idea that hackers need statehood.
Obviously, what is being talked about here is not citizenship alone: most hackers already have that, unless they are stateless for other reasons. This also seems to move beyond a call for existing states to provide better protections for hackers (or cease their attacks) – this is not an appeal to Iceland or one of the other states which are currently being seen as potential havens for leakers, hackers, torrenters, etc. It’s a call for hackers to get a state of their own, and one with a powerful army.
I want to start by discussing this within the standard narrative around the liberal democratic state, which is based on the assumption that states are the legitimate protectors and upholders of human rights. What would it mean to have a state that was somehow ‘for hackers’ (rather than just be a state that protected human rights generally, including those of hackers)? The liberal democratic state, as an ideal (leaving alone the reality for now), doesn’t allow a whole society to be set up almost entirely to support one class of people. Who will be part of the army that protects hackers’ rights? Who will produce food? And more importantly, how will the political system retain protection hackers’ rights while simultaneously being based on democratic participation by all citizens? Given geek communities’ frequently-poor record on misogyny and racism* (including weev’s harassment of Kathy Sierra, who nevertheless supports attempts to free him), would a ‘hacker state’ really be a beacon of freedom and liberty for all? Israel, unfortunately, gives us a very good idea what a state might look like if it was set up primarily to protect a persecuted group, and how well the rights of those not in that group might be protected.
Even without the problems associated with trying to jam ‘statehood for hackers’ into the model of the ideal liberal democratic state, it’s worth questioning the assumption that the best way to build safe, just, communities is through the state. States are, unfortunately, frequently responsible for precisely the persecution we’re seeing today – as well as for attacks on women’s rights and bodily autonomy, massive rates of incarceration for marginalised communities (including people of colour in the US and Aboriginal people in Australia), and other such issues. In seeking an alternative, community-based attempts to build secure systems may be more useful than calling for a ‘hacker state’ (for more on this, read my post on Anarchism Today, and particularly the references to Rossdale’s work).
Calls for hackers to gain a statehood of their own is only one step up from the libertarian streak which runs through many tech communities. They fail to connect the struggles of hackers with those of other communities, fail to understand that the persecution hackers face is only a microcosm of broader problems, that other communities have suffered this and more for generations. There are, thankfully, people within geek communities who connect their struggles with those of others, who see themselves as embedded within broader systems. A better world for hackers can only come as part of a better world for others, including more marginalised groups.
* I also remember reading other stories about more overt racism in tech communities (not necessarily hacker communities), but I’m having trouble finding them at the moment. Jamelle Boui’s article, linked above, is an excellent summary of some of the more subtle structures that exclude people of colour from tech (and other) communities. If you have recommendations for people writing from an excellent, informed, perspective on race and tech communities, please feel free to share in the links. I also don’t have a very good idea how well geeky communities do on other issues, like ableism and homophobia, so feel free to share links (including positive stories of awesomeness).
[Edit: Joseph Reagle cites this in his post on Sierra's comment.]
May 19, 2013 § Leave a comment
B-Fest, run by the Babylonia media collective, is a three-day event bringing together music and discussions. There are some amazing acts and speakers lined up, and I’m happy to say that I’ve been invited by the Digital Liberation Network to run a discussion about my work. I’ll talk in English, but Greek translation will be provided. It will be on at 19:00 on Friday, 24th May, at Panepistemiopoli in Zougrafou.
I’ll give an overview of some of the important developments in the struggle to control digital technologies, as well as talking a bit about how this is connected to other movements. After that there’ll be time for questions and discussion, including about how this might apply in the context of Greece.
From the program:
«Χακευοντας το Μελλον: Το Παγκοσμιο Κινημα για τα Ψηφιακα Δικαιωματα & οι Προοπτικες του» με την Sky Croeser (Curtin University) Διοργάνωση : Δίκτυο για την Ψηφιακή Απελευθέρωση
Έχει ασχοληθεί ερευνητικά για τον ακτιβισμό υπέρ της ανταλλαγής ηλεκτρονικών αρχείων (filesharing), το κίνημα ελεύθερου και ανοιχτού λογισμικού αλλά και με άλλες μορφές αυτού που αντιλαμβάνεται ως παγκοσμιοποίηση από τα κάτω (όπως τα κινήματα ενάντια στις γενετικά τροποποιημένες σοδειές στην Ινδία , ενάντια στις πατέντες και τα πνευματικά δικαιώματα), ερευνώντας τη σχέση όλων αυτών μεταξύ τους.
For more details and to see the full program, check out the Bfest website.
May 3, 2013 § Leave a comment
Recently, professors at a San Jose State refused to use a lecture series by Michael Sandel at their university: it’s well worth reading their explanation of this decision. After a long and somewhat frustrating discussion about this, I think it’s worth teasing out some of the issues surrounding MOOCs. Much of this draws on the conversation which I just had, but mostly because these views are representative of much more widely-held opinions.
There’s the assumption that just because something is ‘open source’, it must be good. This is tied to other assumptions about what openness means, such as the assumption that ‘open source’ necessarily means more participatory and more accessible. While MOOCs certainly have the potential to make interesting, useful, learning material widely available so that students (and others) can enrich their learning, we do need to bear in mind the context in which they’re being developed. Context matters. ‘Open source’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘good’ in all contexts, because other considerations must be taken into account.
In this case, we need to remember that MOOCs are being developed in the context of cuts to university funding around the world, and in the context of university systems which tend to privilege publishing over teaching, with ever-increasing class sizes and workloads for lecturers. We’re seeing a massive casualisation of the workforce as we shift from full-time lecturers doing most of the teaching to the use of underpaid teaching assistants who are usually on short-term, precarious contracts. Funding for students is also limited, making it harder for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to get a university education (in the US far more than in Australia).
What does this mean for our evaluation of MOOCs? Firstly, we need to be aware of the probability that requests (or demands) that lecturers use content from MOOCs hosted at other universities are motivated more by a desire on the part of university management to cut costs than by a concern for quality teaching. Secondly, there is a strong chance that the use of lecture content from MOOCs will be used to justify further casualisation of the academic workforce on the basis that as the backbone of the unit is there, all that’s needed will be teaching assistants/tutors rather than full-time lecturers. Thirdly, this is likely to contribute to and reinforce the existing two-tier system (more so in the US than Australia): some students will have access to lecturers who develop units, have funding for research, and engage in hands-on teaching, while poorer students at under-resourced universities will get content developed elsewhere, taught by tutors who are unlikely to have the resources and support necessary to develop themselves as teachers and as researchers.
There’s also the issue of what we use as the standard. While I’m sure Sandel is an engaging lecturer with many valuable points to make, the outline for the ‘Justice’ unit which the San Jose professors declined to use states that, “principal readings for the course are texts by Aristotle, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, and John Rawls.” In a unit covering “affirmative action, income distribution, same-sex marriage, the role of markets, debates about rights (human rights and property rights), arguments for and against equality, dilemmas of loyalty in public and private life”, it’s worth questioning whether a backbone consisting purely of dead white men is most appropriate.
Universities, and particularly the most prestigious and well-funded US universities, are still disproportionately accessible to privileged groups within society. If unit content is increasingly produced primarily by these universities, and then farmed out to other places, we are likely to hear a more and more narrow range of perspectives. The existing constraints on marginalised voices within academia will be reinforced: women and minority groups will, in all likelihood, be those who are pushed (further) into precarious employment as short-term teaching staff unable to create their own units.
I’m not against the idea of MOOCs. But we need to think about the broader context in which they’re developed, and take active steps to shape them in positive directions. We need to hold open spaces for participatory, accessible learning that values a diversity of voices – including those of both students and teachers. In order to do this, we can’t take the discourse of ‘openness’ associated with MOOCs at face value.