Theorizing the Web Day 2: here comes every body + h8 + lockscreen + algorithms + technologies and pathologies
April 19, 2015 § 1 Comment
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).
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.
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.
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.
Tweets about the final keynote, In Sickness and in Health: Technologies and Pathologies, can be found at the #TtW15 #k3 hashtags, with participants Jason Wilson, merritt 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:
- 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.
- DIY is self-care.
- Technology needs to be for and by the people.
- 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).
- 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.
- Disruptive innovation can move the state: one outcome of the Black Panther’s campaign was increased funding for sickle cell anaemia.
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.