Theorizing the Web, Day 1: cache flow & code queering & racial standpoints & magic & music & concrete dust
April 18, 2015 § 2 Comments
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.