Monthly Archives: April 2015

[Conference] Five questions I am left with after #TtW15

The purpose of New York based conference Theorizing the Web, now in its fifth year, is “to ask conceptual questions about the interrelationships between the web and society”. So after an intense two days, here are the five questions that I left NYC with.

1. When finding new languages to theorize the monstrous, mysterious and unfathomable, how do we make them preferentially accessible to people rather than capital?

One strong theme throughout the two days was the increasingly unfathomable and sometimes monstrous nature of the vast technological systems we are now immersed in in our daily lives. From the mysterious black box that is your car or your iPhone, to the arcane algorithms that shape your Facebook feed for maximum happiness (thereby unintentionally suppressing, for instance, news of the Ferguson protests), to the monstrous apparatus of mass surveillance (state, corporate, and even consumer-based), the language of magic may be an increasingly useful way of conceptualising the technologies around us. Of course, magic means different things to different people. This is partly what makes it such a useful and multi-faceted metaphor, but also one of its limitations. It is all too easy to declare complex technologies as magical and surrender the understanding and control of them to a specially trained an increasingly powerful technological priesthood. And so the key questions here are, how do we make that which appears to be magical transparent? How do we instil the values of transparency and democratisation of technology in those who aspire to priesthood? And, when theorizing magic and technology, how do we make these languages and concepts accessible to people rather than opening the doors to capital?

Sessions to check out:

Panelists to follow:

2. How do we decolonise the web?

There is something deeply colonialist about early conceptualisations of the internet as a “new frontier”, and even more recent neologisms such as “digital native”. While, unlike the frontier of old, the web is not built on land already belonging to a people, it is nonetheless a deeply racialised and colonial space. It’s a space where black girls as young as eight and young black women who post twerking videos on YouTube are harassed, propositioned for sex, and called ugly, but white women’s twerking videos get millions of hits and are described as sexy and cute. It’s a space where white American tourists can review their tours of Jamaican plantations on TripAdvisor to complain about the food, thereby reconstructing what is and is not important about the sites of the history of slavery. In the physical layer, the internet is a space where Caribbean islands have ICT infrastructure which vastly outstrips local consumer demand – reflecting their history as a trading hub between Europe, Africa and the Americas, but also the fact that this infrastructure is there for the benefit of white capital, not the local population. Conversely, Native American reservations are some of the most poorly connected places in North America. So how do we decolonise the web? How do we shed racist and colonial structures, in our language, in the physical layer, and in online interactions? And how do indigenous and racialised people and people of colour use the web to dismantle structures power?

Sessions to check out:

  • Racial Standpoints, <a href= #a3

Panelists to follow:

3. What is the cultural intervention necessary to undermine our collective belief in images (and data) as “proof”?

Pics or it didn’t happen! (And incresingly, metadata or it didn’t happen!) Of course the ubiquitous presence of smartphones with built-in cameras has helped, for instance, expose and document anti-black police brutality in the US and provide testimony of human rights abuses around the world. But our belief in and reliance on images and data as evidence is a two-edged sword. Even without the use of Photoshop, the photographer has power to frame an image to present conflicting narratives of the same scene. This is also the case even with what looks like a complete set of surveillance or metadata. An image in the hands of protesters may be a symbol of community, but in the hands of the police it’s evidence that you were there. In a humanitarian context, asking for images as proof is asking for images of another human body’s suffering. Documenting and archiving injustice becomes a form of humanitarian work, and gives the archivist power to adjudicate different suffering. At the same time, focusing on what is visible draws our attention away from that which is concealed. We see police point guns at young black men with their hands raised (which in itself encourages a kind of respectability politics), but we don’t see – and therefore don’t question – the 1.8 million black bodies incarcerated and brutalised by the US criminal justice system. So how do we neutralise or redistribute the power of data and images? How do we refocus attention? And how do we undermine our collective belief in the absolute truthfulness of images and data?

Sessions to check out:

Panelists to follow:


4. How does shifting medium shift the balance of power?

The internet is decreasing our attention span! It’s making us stupid! Yet more often than not, shifting medium – whether from offline to on or vice versa – can open new possibilities and give us new perspectives. If you assume text on the internet behaves like text in a book and compare comprehension rates then you may find the web performs badly. But if you look at text on the web as interactive, as something much closer to an oral, dialogic culture, then you can quickly see how it can improve learning outcomes and allow for new forms of creativity like the almost oral-like and folkloric storytelling you find in some communities on Tumblr. If you try to tell stories of hackers in a comic format, like Alyssa Milano’s “Hacktivist”, you may find that, for better or for worse, they quickly become superheroes. Printing content designed for the web, and searching Twitter for phrases you find on pen test pads in stationery shops can make visible the unique features of each medium, the disjunctures between them, and the inequalities in access and power. And taking Star Trek characters and writing stories about them having sex in a medium with different norms to mainstream culture may give you new infrastructures and languages with which to explore concepts like sexual consent. So how does shifting medium shift the balance of power? And how can we use such shifts to make visible, explore and challenge said power?

Sessions to check out:

Panelists to follow:
@elmyra (yours truly)

5. How do we create more spaces for healing and shut down spaces of harassment?

GamerGate is by far not the first organised hate campaign online, as anyone who’s ever been a member of a marginalised group in a public online space can tell you, but it has raised the visibility of online harassment to the general public. Platforms from Twitter to Wikipedia to popular online game League of Legends have come under fire for allowing or even enabling harassment. They have also, with varying degrees of success, tried to find ways to protect their users and shut down harassment, whether through architectural choices, human intervention or automated solutions based on machine learnings. Different online spaces, on the other hand, have enabled healing and community formation. Indie video games have allowed for the exploration of issues such as depression and the expression and sharing of personal narratives of trans people in a way not reliant on and aimed at the cis gaze. Online spaces like Tumblr and Twitter have allowed marginalised people to come together and develop communities which in turn enable forms of life-hacking, story-sharing and community-based self-care not otherwise available. We can learn a lot from the experiences of the Black Panther Party with genetic screening and healthcare, and from attempts by those classified as insane to gain a credible voice in society. How do we leverage the potential of technology while being vigilant of its excesses? How do we amplify marginalised voices? How do we build and nourish our online communities and ways that help with healing and shut out harassers?

Sessions to check out:

Panelists to follow:

All this is barely a glimpse into the huge variety and excellent quality of talks at #TtW15. Luckily, recordings of most of the sessions are already available online, with the rest hopefully coming soon. You can also check out the #TtW15 hashtag on Twitter, and follow most of the participants.