Abstract: This article examines Greek activists’ use of a range of communication technologies, including social media, blogs, citizen journalism sites, Web radio, and anonymous networks. Drawing on Anna Tsing’s theoretical model, the article examines key frictions around digital technologies that emerged within a case study of the antifascist movement in Athens, focusing on the period around the 2013 shutdown of Athens Indymedia. Drawing on interviews with activists and analysis of online communications, including issue networks and social media activity, we find that the antifascist movement itself is created and recreated through a process of productive friction, as different groups and individuals with varying ideologies and experiences work together.
At the first AdaCamp, I noticed that quite a few participants were talking about a politics of openness, drawing on their experiences of ‘open stuff’ (primarily free and open source software politics), but without necessarily having the background to connect this to other political threads that might be relevant.
This is understandable: not only are a lot of people attending AdaCamp coming from a technical (rather than humanities) background, but even my post-graduate degree in political science frankly did little to connect me to political traditions that felt useful to me, and I’m trying to learn for myself now. People are looking for these traditions, though, and so we need to help each other find them.
Anticapitalist approaches to feminism are vitally important. Capitalism is inherently exploitative. It relies on workers making a profit for others within workplaces in which they often have little control over what they produce or the conditions under which it’s producedand on the unpaid or vastly-underpaid labour of marginalised groups (particularly women, and most especially women of colour). It’s also an economic system which relies on constant and hugely-damaging expansion, which we cannot sustain environmentally.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that we should condemn everyone working within the capitalist system: there is no ‘outside’ to capitalism. But we should be thinking carefully about the tactics and strategies that we employ in our feminisms. It’s easy to fall for the rhetoric of leaning in: to push for more women CEOs and other highly-valued positions, and individualistic solutions which require women to work alone to push back against sexism in their workplaces.
Instead, we need to be thinking about how to change or build alternatives to existing structures where we can. Co-ops and other worker-run organisations are one approach. We can also think carefully about payscales (what’s the ratio between the pay of the highest and lowest paid worker at your workplace? and what is it if you include work that’s contracted out?), and about building solidarity between people in different roles within an industry. We should recognise the importance of caring work and other forms of unpaid labour, and build structures which distribute this labour more evenly.
We also need to more consciously build the skills that allow us to organise and cooperate. I’ve been seeing ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness‘ by Jo Freeman mentioned quite often, sometimes with the unspoken assumption that the problems Freeman discusses (which are significant) mean horizontal organising is inevitably doomed. But as Freeman says herself in the closing section of her essay, there are specific steps we can take to ensure that horizontally-organised spaces aren’t structureless.
This requires learning new skills, and often building new cultures. One aspect of John Restakis’ work that I found interesting was his discussion of the difference between places with a culture of cooperative work (like Emilia Romagna in Italy and Mondragon in the Basque region of Spain) and places which have rapidly collectivised in response to crisis (he discusses Argentina in particular). It takes time to learn to be patient with long meetings and to interact with others in good faith to build collaboration rather than competition.
We also need to do more, I think, to recognise and help develop the emotional skills necessary for effective organising, which requires active reflection on the invisible work in our spaces: including people’s efforts to smooth conflict and help others feel valued. Anarchism (and specifically anarchafeminism) is one framework for this that I find useful, because it focuses heavily on processes (rather than end goals). It also offers an alternative to the libertarian* approach with its focus entirely on individual freedom, instead understanding individual autonomy as always being embedded within community.
Anarchist feminists have also been dealing with some of the same issues that have affected women in open stuff: how to deal with harassment or abuse in a supposedly-decentralised, supposedly-liberatory community; how to develop processes of self-governance that don’t reinforce existing oppressions; how to build change within (frequently) male-dominated communities. Drawing on these experiences, and the praxis that has come out of them, can help enrich our approaches.
Hopefully that’s provided a useful 101 for people who wanted a little more information after the AdaCamp Montreal session on this. There are a lot of directions for additional reading and discussion, and I’ve linked to a few of them here: feel free to leave helpful links in the comments also. I also highly recommend checking out the report (and more detailed notes) from the Femhack gathering on autonomous feminist infrastructures, which was on just before AdaCamp.
* I use ‘libertarian’ here in the sense it’s used in the US, and particularly in tech communities, to mean an ideology that’s focused on individual freedoms without challenging the market as the main way of organising distribution of resources. In Europe, ‘libertarian’ (and especially ‘libertarian socialist’) often means something different and more in line with anarchism.
It’s been a long time since AdaCamp Melbourne, so I was looking forward to seeing how AdaCamp has changed since 2012. AdaCamp Montreal was lovely! It still had the supportive community feel that I’d enjoyed about AdaCamp Melbourne, but running over two days instead of one felt more relaxed, and it’s clear that the experience of running previous AdaCamps is being reflected in the organisational details.
The event started with an induction that laid out diversity and inclusivity policies, including appropriate language and content, accessibility around the space, all genders bathrooms, and name badges with preferred pronouns and colour-and-stripe codes for photography guides. It was also reassuring to see these policies followed up with reminders where necessary. (I’m on the advisory board for the Ada Initiative, but I’m not directly involved in the running of AdaCamps or discussion around them, so all of this was a pleasant discovery.)
AdaCamp is an unconference, which means that the sessions that are going to run aren’t fixed ahead of time. I liked the structure for setting up sessions: people proposed talks, briefly explained them, and then organisers put them into the available slots based on how loud the audience response was, consolidating sessions in a few places. Each session also came with role cards (facilitator, gatekeeper, timekeeper, notekeeper) to help them run more smoothly.
On the first day I started off in a session on zines and independent publishing. Participants came from very different backgrounds: some weren’t sure what a zine was, others had been making and swapping zines in high school, and there were also a few people with experience publishing on other independent platforms. I liked the exploration of the history of zines (apparently in the UK zines were not just a punk/queer/feminist thing but also a really big part of the football fanclub scene?), and discussion of zine-like digital stuff (zines that used to come on diskettes, online zines, zines on USB sticks, podcasts). Recommendations to check out:
reveal.js as a tool for creating nifty bundles of digital content,
Twine to create and share text-based choose-your-own-adventure-ish games.
I also went to a session on the gender gap on Wikipedia. One speaker* noted that a lot of the claims made about women (and other marginalised groups, but there’s little data available beyond gender) online are demonstrably not true of online fan communities. For example, claims that, “women don’t have time to participate in Wikipedia”, “women aren’t interested in producing content for the Web”, or even “women think Wikipedia is too trivial and focus on more serious pursuits” are all undermined by the huge participation of women in fan communities. So what’s the difference between fandom and Wikipedia that leads to that reversal? Part of it is that the culture around fandom is so much more encouraging: when you contribute, you usually get a lot of positive feedback and only get negative feedback if you solicit it. So how can we make Wikipedia (or spaces outside of Wikipedia, but contributing to it) more like that?
After lunch, and lightning talks (which I coordinated slightly clumsily, it being my first effort at it), I helped facilitate a shared session on anarchist approaches to feminism, and working collectively/cooperatively in tech (and other ‘open stuff’). There’s a longer, separate post on this for people chasing up further resources, and I’m hoping my co-presenter will also post something about her experience working in a tech workers’ co-op.
On the second day, I started by going to a talk on fundraising by Mary Gardiner, one of the Ada Initiative co-founders. It’s generally useful to me to know more about how the Ada Initiative approaches fundraising, but I’m also curious about different approaches to sustaining our lives and work. Fundraising has its limits, but so does everything else. There was a lot of good advice from Mary and other participants, but the strongest recurring piece of advice seemed to be: don’t ever do t-shirts. Really, no t-shirts.
The final session I went to was on editing Wikipedia and the Geek Feminism wiki. There were a lot of good ideas for where to start: for Wikipedia, finding stubs can help expand on topics that are already considered ‘notable’ but clearly need work. Countering the bias in Wikipedia can also be done by paying attention to the sources you draw on: where possible, it’s helpful to cite academic (or otherwise reputable sources) by women, people of colour, and people from marginalised groups discussed in articles (for example, an article on trans issues should cite trans authors).
The Geek Feminism wiki also has plenty of stubs, and a handy community portal to help people start contributing. The editorial guidelines are quite different from Wikipedia’s: the site is actively feminism in its perspective and approach (in contrast to the ‘neutral’ point of view Wikipedia attempts to build), and as such allows primary research and anecdotal evidence.
These notes are missing a lot: the detailed discussion in sessions, conversations I had over lunch, new things I’m thinking and planning, processes that worked well and that I’ll end up re-using. There were so many interesting and important sessions I didn’t get a chance to check out, including the Cryptoparty and the session on dealing with online harassment. I’m sure there’ll be plenty more notes and blog posts (and perhaps a section on the Geek Feminism wiki) around the place over coming days, happily.
For those looking for more information, check out the #AdaCamp hashtag on Twitter. There’ll also be a report coming out from the Ada Initiative in a while.
This isn’t intended to be a comprehensive list: the goal is just to provide a few starting points for reading, most of which can be found online.
For explanations of anarchism and anarchafeminism:
Emma Goldman’s Anarchism: what it really stands for in her collection of essays provides a good overview. Goldman’s writing style is not for everyone, being quite passionate (which I think was a political choice for her), but I enjoy it.
The opening chapters of Sam Mbah and I. E. Igariwey’s African Anarchism give a concise and readable overview of anarchism and its relationship to socialism.
bell hooks’ work is not explicitly anarchist or about anarchism as a theory, but her work is an excellent perspective on anarchafeminist ideas. I’d recommend Feminism is for everybody and Feminist theory: from margins to centre as useful starting-points. The first of these, and much of her other work, can be found online.
As I explained in the workshop, much of my learning and thinking about anarchism hasn’t come through political theory, but rather through fiction. Marge Piercy’s Woman at the Edge of Time was quite influential for me (which makes me all the more disappointed to read that she signed on to a 2013 transphobic open letter), and when I was younger I read a lot of Kim Stanley Robinson’s work as explorations of how we might end up with an anarchist society, especially the Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars trilogy (although he can be quite technocratic at times and frankly he doesn’t offer much in terms of rethinking gender). Lately I’ve read Ursula le Guin’s The Dispossessed and been a little horrified that it took me so long to find it. Reading the lives of anarchist women is also interesting and useful. Emma Goldman’s Living my Lifeis a fascinating read, and hopefully provides an antidote to putting Goldman on a pedestal.
Other places to look:
Project Gutenberg has quite a few works on anarchism which might be interesting, particularly for those who want to get a more historical perspective.
The Anarchist Library has a section on feminism, as well as a broad selection of other writings.
Libcom has a lot of posts and articles on feminism, including quite a few from non-Western perspectives. Be warned that your mileage may vary here, as some of the discussion posts are anti-feminist.
These are, of course, just a starting-point, and limited by my own experiences. I’m trying to do more to explore perspectives that are more marginalised and hopefully will have continue to develop this list over time.
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.
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 misogynyand 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 whoconnecttheirstruggleswiththoseofothers, 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).
Joseph Reagle’s recent paper on sexism within the free and open source software (FOSS) movement, ‘Free as in sexist?’: Free culture and the gender gap, makes an important contribution to our understanding of FOSS, and particularly to those who want to build a movement which is more diverse and welcoming. However, I do feel that at least one aspect of his argument needs further development. Reagle sees the movement’s ‘anarchist-libertarian ethic’ as playing a significant role in sustaining a hostile environment, outlining this ethic as follows:
This personal-freedom ethic is not only intact in the free culture movement, the movement is now its most vital and popular manifestation. For example, Richard Stallman, geek exemplar, has “campaigned for freedom since 1983” (Stallman, 2010). Eric Raymond, famous for a number of technical and cultural contributions (e.g., fetchmail and as a progenitor of “open source”), is a self–described anarchist and libertarian (Raymond, 2003; 1999). Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism, which lauds the autonomy of self–interested behavior and laissez–faire capitalism, had a significant influence on American libertarianism and early Internet culture. At Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales is reported to have named his daughter after a character in one of Rand’s fictions; Larry Sanger, too, was fond of Rand’s The Fountainhead and is a self–described libertarian (Deutschman, 2007; Schneider and Sanger, 2011). Mark Shuttleworth (millionaire entrepreneur, self–funded astronaut, and Ubuntu founder) was a “fan of Adam Smith’s invisible hand, and great admirer of Ayn Rand’s vision” though he now identifies as a more tempered “fan of regulated capitalism” (Shuttleworth, 2008). In short, while there are significant differences in the political philosophies of these men — and each would be adept articulating their differences — they are creatures of the Internet’s ethos of freedom.
There are a couple of problems with this. Firstly, while key figures within the movement such as Torvalds, Raymond, and RMS certainly do play a role in shaping the movement’s politics, they don’t fully determine them. Neither their politics nor those of participants in the movement more broadly are as simply encapsulated as Reagle makes out here (as I’ve discussed elsewhere). The second problem with this is that ‘anarchism’ and ‘libertarianism’, while sharing a concern with individual freedom, are quite distinct political philosophies, and are associated with very different community ethics. Libertarians tends to privilege an extreme individualism, failing to acknowledge the role of structural oppression in creating inequality, and seeking to diminish (or extinguish) the role of the state in favour of more freedom for the market. Anarchists, on the other hand, tend to place individual freedom within the context of community, acknowledging the role of structural oppression, and critiquing both the state and the market as systems for allocating resources.
Reagle’s conflation of anarchism and libertarianism is more than a minor niggle for political scientists (and anarchists) – it also influences his discussion of potential solutions to the problem. Reagle argues, drawing on Herring’s work, that the alternative to the current open, ‘anarchic’ system is a more structured form of community, including a ‘group leader’:
the anarchic–libertarian ethic requires a significant tolerance for adversariality that may be alienating to some participants. Such participants may actually feel freer to participate under a more structured form of community governance, including community leadership or conduct guidelines. As Herring (2003) writes: “While this result may appear initially puzzling — how can women be ‘freer’ to participate when they are ‘controlled’ by a group leader? — it makes sense if the leader’s role is seen as one of ensuring a civil environment, free from threats of disruption and harassment”. (And a preference for a friendly and civil environment is not limited to women.)
This binary between ‘openness’ and governance is problematic. It’s quite possible for a non-hierarchical community to develop codes of conduct: many anarchist communities do just that, often in the form of safe spaces guidelines. It’s also not necessary for structure to imply hierarchy. Not only is it possible to build non-hierarchical structures, but some form of structure is often necessary in order to sustain non-hierarchical organisation. Anarchist communities, as well as many other communities that oppose hierarchy (including many feminist groups), have long experience with building spaces and organisational forms that are non-hierarchical (or at least, less hierarchical).
This is not to say that these experiences have gone smoothly. There are plenty of critiques of anarchist, feminist, and other supposedly non-hierarchical collectives which end up with invisible hierarchies based on race, gender, class, or even just more dominant personalities. Many groups on the left have acted to marginalise already marginalised groups: women had to (and still have to) push hard for equal inclusion within left-wing communities; women of colour have challenged mainstream white feminism; lesbians have challenged the primacy of gay men within ‘gay and lesbian’ communities.
What this history means, however, is that there’s a wide range of experience and practices to draw on when it comes to building decentralised, relatively-open communities in which there are structures in place to deal with ‘difficult’ people and behaviours, and with existing structural oppression. The problems which Reagle describes are by no means limited to the FOSS community, and in characterising them as such he neglects to draw on some of the solutions already available.
He also passes rather lightly over existing attempts within FOSS to challenge misogyny and other forms of structural oppression. Just as marginalised groups within other communities have pushed for greater inclusion, cultural change, and better processes, people of all genders within the FOSS community are pushing to create a safer and more welcoming environment. LCA 2013 was just one example of a FOSS space which had a code of conduct and a diversity officer, as well as providing childcare and taking other steps to ensure a safe and accessible space. Debian woman was founded in 2005 and was wholeheartedly embraced by the predominately male project. Python has for years an incredible diversity project and list in existence for years, and the CCC, one of the largest hacker groups also has an anti-harassment policy for their events. This is not to say that misogyny doesn’t still exist – it does, just as it does in most communities. But the answer is not more top-down control; initiatives that come out of the community and are lead by those who have previously been marginalised are far more likely to provide sustainable long-term solutions.
[Edits: I’m well aware that historically ‘anarchism’ and ‘libertarianism’ have been used interchangeably, and that people sometimes use terms like ‘socialist libertarian’ to mean more or less the same thing as ‘anarchist’. This is a rather simplified version of a more in-depth discussion which would require more space than a blog post.