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.

The protections of statehood and hacker armies

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.]

“Take it as a compliment!”: harassment, sexism, and research

April 14, 2013 § Leave a comment

ImageI’ve recently completed a couple of research projects in Tunisia, which was, on the whole a very good experience. Tunisians are currently in the process of trying to change the direction of their country, which is of course a huge task, and I really appreciate the time and energy that people gave to help us and to talk to us about their work. However, the constant harassment that my friend/colleague/collaborator and I faced really wore me down after a while.

The harassment ranges from cars honking as they drive past to men walking behind me and whispering in my ear, “hey, beautiful!” to casual “ca va?”s to shouts of “hey, wanna fuck me?” to very obvious leering to ‘friendly’ attempts to talk us by men who wouldn’t leave when we politely (and then less politely) told them we weren’t interested to cars that slowed and followed us when we were walking down the street at night. And this is constant. In the space of a few metres in a busy area, we might have four or five groups of men shout at us.

I want to be clear here: this is not limited to Tunisia. It happens plenty in Perth, although most of the time when I’m walking or cycling around there I’m wearing headphones so I miss it. I got far more harassment in Tunisia than I get in Australia, partly because I’m obviously foreign. But then, the situation is reversed in Australia: Aboriginal Australians face constant racist harassment in Australia (including from the police), and many others (including Australian citizens who aren’t Anglo-Saxon or who speak a language other than English) face outright racist abuse or more subtle racism. And this is not to mention the sexism that even relatively privileged women in Australia face.

I don’t often write about this aspect of my work, and perhaps I should. As I get more confident as a researcher, I want to write more about the process, to be more present within the final published piece. For now, this is a start. The work is not only the interviews that will make it into the final publication, but also this context that surrounds them: trying different strategies for dealing with the harassment (ignoring it, shouting back, wondering if shouting back will lead to trouble). Not wanting to leave the hotel, some days, because I was just too sick of dealing with it.

And, at the same time, being very aware of my privilege, being aware that I am lucky enough to have access to international travel, and that I have a voice (however small) within the authority of academia. Knowing that however unpleasant I may find street harassment, my work is temporary and soon I will be elsewhere, and trying to present an analysis that will somehow be useful in dealing with all this.

I’m not going anywhere in particular with this. I’m sick, and very tired, and in a new country with new challenges. So it’s best to finish by letting the last words go to introducing awesome Tunisian feminists, who like all Tunisian women deal with this every day and are both in a better position to understand the situation there and to work out what to do about it: check out Feminism Attack!

[If you know of any feminist groups working on street harassment in Tunisia who need a signal boost, feel free to mention them in the comments and I’ll add them in here.]

Free and open source software and ‘the anarchist-libertarian ethic’

February 5, 2013 § 6 Comments

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.

The Really Really Free Market (RRFM) movement is a non-hierarchical collective of individuals who form a temporary market based on an alternative gift economy. The RRFM movement aims to counteract capitalism in a non-reactionary way. It holds as a major goal to build a community based on sharing resources, caring for one another and improving the collective lives of all.

Really really free market, Perth

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.)

A long list outlining safer spaces policy

Safer spaces policy

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.

Joseph Reagle has replied here.]

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