Theorizing the Web, an experience

Last week, I attended Theorizing the Web (TtW). I can say without hesitation that it was one of the most challenging, enlightening, and useful conference experiences I’ve ever had.  I’d like to provide a summary account of my experience, and maybe offer some (early, I’m still processing) personal takeaways that might be relevant to you, especially if you are involved professionally in building the software and technology that is part of what is theorized at TtW.

The first thing you need to know is that TtW is not a technology conference. Before I characterize it positively though, it’s worth considering the conference’s own statement:

Theorizing the Web is an inter- and non-disciplinary annual conference that brings together scholars, journalists, artists, activists, and commentators to ask big questions about the interrelationships between the Web and society.

While there were a few technologists in attendance, even fewer were presenting.  As it said on the tin, TtW was fundamentally about the social, media, art, legal, and political aspects and impacts of the internet and related technologies.

Before I enumerate some of my highlights of TtW, I want to offer some context of my own, a thread that mostly winds around:

Why did I go?

As a guy that creates software professionally, I have historically been fundamentally unconcerned with how what I build interacts with and is informed by the non-technical, those obfuscated social and political and higher-order economic forces and undercurrents that define how we interact and relate to each other.  In the typical engineer (and business owner) role, I have generally sought to optimize strictly for utility.  It’s not that what I’ve built has necessarily been to the social, political, or economic detriment of others; it’s that I’ve very rarely thought of how what I build defines and is defined by those forces.

In hindsight, that I developed this blind spot is surprising to me.  I received a fundamentally non-technical education at very liberal liberal arts college in New England, and so was aware of these topics to some degree in an academic setting and very personally, having come from a working-class family of little means compared to my peers. (I vividly recall being gobsmacked by the casual just-so way in which some other students talked about the Benz and Beamers their parents sent them off to school with.)  Further, I have always been politically active and consider myself to be socially and culturally aware (though, don’t we all?).

Nevertheless, that academic background clearly did not insulate me from the inuring socialization in a engineering culture. Part of the process of being “professionalized” within the software business and engineering practice was being trained in the often explicit denial of the political and social nature of our work. The manifestations of this are seen everyday online and in in-person dialogue, including adopting a live-and-let-live stance with regard to blatantly exploitative internet businesses and technology; minimizing the impact and importance of non-technical collaborators whom we rely upon or non-technical work we do ourselves in order to succeed; and dismissing by default any technical decision that is not made on strictly technical grounds.

To summarize, I’ve recently had two (related) realizations:

  • I find myself working within a community whose collective discourse is one where technical optimality is paramount and prioritized, even when non-technical concerns are known.
  • I personally have historically not given due consideration to how what I build is affected by its (and my) social, political, and economic context, or how what I build in turn affects others.

These things dawned on me over an extended period of time as I contemplated the full scope of Quilt (my current project).  While it is a software project with a technical footprint — it will manifest as code and libraries and tools and services — my objectives are fundamentally non-technical, and rooted in non-technical impacts of existing software and technology.  Considering that prior to this realization, I thought Quilt was a purely technical response to set of purely technical problems, this was a cognitive break on the order of nothing else I’d experienced before.  The obvious conclusion was that, to be successful, I must purposefully locate Quilt with respect to those powerful undercurrents that dictate the human condition. What I wanted to do was defined in large part by exigent sociological, economic, political, and legal forces, and the product of that work would hopefully have an impact on them in turn.

Once internalized, it was clear that my context and professional history guaranteed that I was not yet properly equipped to thoughtfully approach these questions.  So, just as I’ve been pushing myself to bone up on certain scholarly corners of technical domains, I started seeking out ways to become more aware of and attuned to the non-technical influences on and impacts of my work.

Attending Theorizing the Web was just the latest chapter in that effort: here was a gathering of mostly non-technical academics, educators, activists, and other commentators talking about how people are using, benefiting from, coping with, and being victimized by internet technologies and their applications. I wanted to gain their perspectives for exactly the reasons why I suspect many of my peers might discount them.

With that out of the way, on to some highlights and related thoughts.  There was much, much more to take in at TtW than I can or will make mention of here. Residuals of the streaming process are available for viewing now; it looks like each session is going to eventually be published on the TtW YouTube channel.

People are dying online

Though I was enthusiastic about TtW in principle, there’s always a degree of apprehension upon stepping into a new conference.  Thankfully, the very first session I attended put any unease I had to rest. “Small Data: Big Trends in the Little Ns” was a collection of four talks by investigators who decided that the best way to usefully study their subjects was by direct interview, observation, or analysis of data from very small cohorts.  The point here is not to gather statistically significant findings; rather, my read of the methodologies discussed by the speakers were aimed to allow for the development of a narrative around the particular social experiences being studied.

(I personally draw a connection between these sorts of inquiry and the use of inductive or intuitional reasoning of issues in mathematics or programming vs. the use of mathematical formalisms. Social narratives and inductive methods — at least in my experience — yield personal understanding, whereas statistical social inquiry and formal proofs often do not.)

Anyway: two of the presentations were particularly impactful for me, and both of them were centered on death and how expressions of grief manifest in online fora.  Molly Kalan focused on Facebook memorials (including pages of the deceased themselves, maintained and retained online as one might maintain a grave or shrine), while Timothy Recuber presented a curation of suicide “notes” left online.

The most intellectually fascinating part of Molly’s presentation for me was her discovery that there was an implicit social hierarchy that affected how people expressed their grief online.  That is, if someone “closer” to the deceased publishes a long, heartfelt eulogy, people that are less close (say, a work acquaintance vs. a close friend, or a cousin vs. the deceased’s mother) will try to calibrate their expressions of grief online to be shorter, less forceful, and essentially deferential to the closer party.  Even more interesting, when this hierarchy is violated (e.g. when a cousin publishes a more intense eulogy or memorial than a widow), both parties involved as well as third-party observers reported discomfort with the transgression.

Now, totally aside from the intellectual stimulation, the raw stuff of Molly’s presentation were examples of memorials from Facebook as well as individual stories of grief.  This was sobering and emotional, but that simply set the stage for Timothy’s study of online suicide “notes”.

Of course, once people were able to write things online and have them viewed by others, it was inevitable that such capabilities would be used by some to leave suicide notes rather than “classic” notepad, typewriter, and other printed methods.  But, I was unprepared for one of the centerpiece cases in Timothy’s study, that of Martin Manley’s suicide note.  Martin, an accomplished sportswriter and statistician, killed himself with a handgun on his 60th birthday. But, before doing so, he published his suicide “note”: a dedicated website containing dozens of pages of autobiographical detail, apologies and farewells to loved ones, extensive discourse on his rationale for suicide, and various social and political commentary.  Timothy’s presentation of Martin’s “note” took me totally by surprise; combined with the previous discussion about memorials, I had a very hard time keeping it together. At least I wasn’t the only one in the room that was so affected!

There’s a Mitch Albom quote on one page in Martin’s “note” that I think appropriately sums up the presentations on death and online memorializations:

Death ends a life, not a relationship.

While memorials have traditionally been fundamentally token reminders of loved ones lost, newer mediums make it possible for memorials to be ongoing, continuing relationships with the departed, in dynamic (and thus, sometimes uncanny and disturbing) ways. As such media are likely to become more and more sophisticated, it seems that the above quote will become less and less metaphorical as time passes.

I managed to snag Molly for a couple of minutes to ask her if the subjects in her interviews seemed aware of the potentially (inevitably) ephemeral nature of the memorials they were creating, given that Facebook is the steward of the data underlying those precious eulogies and memories. Her answer was that while some people did want to retain a personal copy of parts of loved ones’ memorials, basically none of her subjects appreciated the fact that those cherished artifacts were retained at Facebook’s discretion (and therefore, at the discretion of its investors, the market’s, etc).  To them, Facebook provides permanence.

This is particularly ironic given that Martin Manley’s note — the publishing of which he arranged through one of Yahoo’s services andpre-paid for for five years, in contrast to the free, advertising-supported model of Facebook — was taken down by Yahoo as violating their terms of service. I find this to be a unconscionable action coming from a company that, via its Tumblr unit, happily serves up hardcore porn, images and narratives of self-abuse, and virulent hate speech to all comers without restriction. Thankfully, Martin’s site’s content was captured by a number of different groups, and lives on at various mirrors, to which I have linked previously.

You don’t have to be “real” to have an impact

Later on the first day, I really enjoyed Molly Sauters‘ deconstruction of the saga of Amina Arraf, the purported author of the Gay Girl in Damascus blog, which rose to some acclaim and awareness as civil unrest in Syria accelerated in early 2011.  This, despite the fact that Amina was fictional; the author of the persona the blog was a male American student at the University of Edinburgh, who was found out only after writing on the blog (using a second fabricated persona) that Amina had been abducted by Syrian security personnel.  This prompted waves of online activism and a U.S. State Department investigation (because Amina was ostensibly a U.S. citizen living in Damascus).

Aside from the bizarre tale — and without going into the absurdities of straight white Western guys impersonating lesbian women living in the Middle East — Molly presented a fascinating characterization of the Amina persona as a digital “bridge figure”, a media presentation of “the other” (in this case, someone that is both gay and of Arab descent) that can establish a rapport with people in another context.  In particular, the claim is that Amina was perfectly positioned to appeal to Western, politically conscious liberals, which is borne out by the uproar among mainstream and social media calling for her release.

Of course, identity is a fluid and fragile thing, especially online, and hoaxes are not new. However, the story of Amina is notable as an example of “civic fiction” (a new term coined by Molly, apparently) in that, rather than actually being a bridge figure, she was really just a mirror.  Because she was fabricated by someone from the same context that she was created to appeal to, her story could only reflect the expectations, misgivings, and aspirations of her audience, i.e. those of an educated fundamentally Western woman struggling for democracy in a repressive regime.  This shared context is what ended up making the Amina story so appealing to Western journalists and media outlets, as her author was effectively trained by saturation in the media environment they constructed, and thus able to produce a narrative using the same tropes and patterns.

One of the last things Molly claimed was that even though Amina was a fabricated persona, she did “political work”.  I suspect that this term has particular semantics in political science or theory, but I interpreted it to mean that, despite the abhorrence of the impersonation (especially of someone in an “at-risk” or disenfranchised demographic), the fiction of Amina served its audience’s purpose in providing a bridge figure (despite her actually being a mirror), and was a genuine political actor (manifested in many ways, including by contributing to the narrative of the Syrian uprising and the coalescing of various activist communities when efforts to locate her after her arrest began).  The irony is that the power to do that work was granted by a media apparatus that blindly passed the Amina story along to the same audience from whence her creator came, instead of doing its purported job of mediating sources and identifying the fact (or, deception in this case) of the figure in question.

While reading further on this story, I came across a related, very pointed quote from Louise Carolin that I think is relevant in other social advocacy contexts:

[the first rule of being an ally is] don’t try to speak for the people you’re trying to support

The fungibility of identity was a recurring theme throughout the conference, and has been something I’ve bumped up against personally and professionally over and over. I still remember pining to play Alter Ego on my Commodore-64 (a game that offered the ability to simulate living another life, with different circumstances and decisions than your own), the impact that _why had (and still has) on friends of mine, and so on. I likewise remain fascinated by the Amina case study, how her persona was constructed, how the rest of the world largely accepted it until forced to do otherwise, and what all of this implies for identity on smaller stages and in different types of social spaces.

Stacks as States

On Saturday, Jay Springett gave a presentation that was framed with a question: why can Mark Zuckerberg call Barack Obama on the phone?  The punchline was that various “stacks” (i.e. sets of infrastructure that are housed within particular centrally-controlled, cross-national organizational silos, e.g. Facebook, Google, Twitter) are themselves sovereign, via exactly the same mechanisms true nation-states are.  While nations generally are defined by the lands and other natural resources they control, the network and computational sorts of “stacks” have equivalent corollaries in data, information architecture, computational infrastructure, citizenry in the form of dependent users, and effective international recognition on this basis as states themselves.  If you buy into this characterization, then it’s very clear why the executives of major centralized data and computation silos effectively have diplomatic relationships with heads of state: Obama doesn’t see Zuckerberg et al. as citizens of the United States, or even of the controlling parties of large corporations. They are peers.

Taken this way, revelations around the activities of the NSA and other Five Eyes agencies are even more plausible and “understandable” than they were before: these agencies also view these centralized silos as states (or, at the very least, as state-like actors), and thus the same signals intelligence activities that any spy agency might deploy against another nation is perfectly well applicable to any of the large “stacks”. That these silos happen to be incorporated and domiciled within U.S. borders may imply certain legal technicalities, but such things don’t change the fundamental ways in which these organizations are viewed and related to by “real” nations, and thus the calculus used by intelligence agency personnel when making operational decisions.

Jay provided a very compelling presentation as to the plausibility of this sort of characterization of the geopolitical nature of the centralized sources of information and computation that we rely upon today.  Additional resources he cites as good ways to further understand the political nature of infrastructure include Roads to Power and Seeing like a State.

I was personally very glad to have stumbled across Jay’s presentation, as it provided a set of starting points — and most importantly, a related vocabulary — towards a developing a deeper set of questions around the controlling structures around these stacks of infrastructure, and what individuals and communities can do to assert their own agency with regard to their own infrastructure.  Jay’s own #stacktivism concept (an activism-focused term and set of resources for starting to understand the social implications of infrastructure) is one of these.

In closing

A number of thought-bombs were lobbed in the closing “keynote” panel on “Race and Social Media”.  One of the first came early from Lisa Nakamura:

While social content spaces are often intended as socially agnostic, they never are in practice.

I believe this is a specialization of the distinction I drew above between technical and non-technical concerns.  When we build communications software, tools, and platforms, many of the features we consider and implement aren’t simply “cool” and useful, equally accessible and positive for all of the parties that are affected by them: they often define the shape of conversations and interactions, in ways big and small, obvious and subtextual. Easy examples include things like the ability to publicly tag others in photos, and even the simple option to declare one’s relationship status (chosen from a predefined set of possible types of relationships).

The most powerful shared moment of the entire conference in my opinion (despite my tearing up earlier the prior day) was at the end of the keynote, when Latoya Peterson gave a very compelling summation of the grounding roles of empathy and tolerance in a connected global culture:

It is a very very large world, and we need to exist in it together. What matters is that you love and trust people enough to want to be in the same space with them.  I don’t know shit about trans history or trans rights, but I love Mattie Bryce and I love Naomi Clark and I love all the fabulous trans game designers that I have met through being a gamer, and I want a world with them in it.  That is it, I don’t need to know anything else.  I need to understand what they need to be happy and what they need to be free, and then we work towards that together.

This got a thundering standing ovation from the audience, and rightly so.  Carrying that basic sentiment/intuition through each of our interactions and relationships with people with whom we have little shared context would surely make for a better world.

Fin

There’s so much more at TtW that fascinated, inspired, and touched me; I could go on and on, but the morning grows brighter, and work beckons.

So far, I have a couple of “takeaways” from TtW that are directly relevant to my own work and context.  These are not so much things that I learned directly, but perhaps some suspicions and half-thoughts that the conference either confirmed (which worries me re: bias, now looking for contrary indicators!) or helped me to conjugate more fully:

  • Likely as a convenient shorthand, people often talk about the extremes of particular aspects of system design: centralized and decentralized; ad-supported and user-paid; point-to-point and aggregated; tolerant and intolerant; anonymity and authenticated identity.  I am more and more convinced that these are extremes within a multidimensional space that must be large and complex enough to encompass all of human endeavour.
  • A common thread through many presentations was an acknowledgement of the power that things like Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, etc. have in terms of shaping how people work with information and construct or choose the cultures of which they are a part.  More generally, ideology and technology inform and define each other; to remix Lisa Nakamura’s assertion regarding social content spaces, technology is often intended to be ideologically agnostic, but never is in practice.
  • Despite this awareness, there was an implicit (and sometimes very explicit) fatalism at TtW regarding the centralization of that power, that the economics and politics behind the current generation of networked social services are so powerful that the models they’ve developed are not only the only ones that will ever be considered viable, but that perhaps we have passed a point where opting out of such models will be considered socially, economically, or even legally unacceptable.  As someone that is very interested in building things that enable the disaggregation of computing systems and communication platforms (again, see the Quilt Project), I found this fatalism somewhat disheartening (though perhaps not without merit, esp. given the case compellingly made by Jay Springett that I mentioned earlier).Ironically, it may be exactly that fatalism among those that have thought most deeply about the issues around the centralization of power and infrastructure that may make addressing their root causes more difficult.
  • While thinking about these sorts of things while walking around Brooklyn in between sessions, I tweeted this:williamsburg-tweet-1
    Screenshot from 2014-04-29 10:38:59

I hope you enjoyed my write-up of Theorizing the Web, 2014. Maybe I’ll see some of you there, next year.

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