Meredith Whittaker: Thank you guys so much for being here. I want to start out by just ask­ing you guys to intro­duce your­self, and you all do so much but, how is your work relat­ed to themes of agency, pow­er dynam­ics, and the deter­mi­na­tion of whether tech­nol­o­gy real­ly works for you or not? I’ll start with you, Kate.

Kate Crawford: I just want to start by say­ing a huge thank you to Meredith, to every­one here at Pioneer Works, and for all you guys for com­ing out. This is a huge turnout. It’s amaz­ing and incred­i­bly exciting.

So how does my work relate? I’m a pro­fes­sor and a writer, and my work very much focus­es on pow­er asym­me­tries in large-scale data col­lec­tion. I look at that at dif­fer­ent lay­ers, I look at essen­tial­ly empir­i­cal research around bio data. Also how data is col­lect­ed in cities, how it’s col­lect­ed in work­places, and then final­ly how it’s col­lect­ed by the state.

I sort of sit in a weird place in that I both have aca­d­e­m­ic affil­i­a­tions at MIT and NYU, but I’m also based in an indus­tri­al research lab at MSR. So I have the priv­i­lege of sit­ting down next to the com­put­er sci­en­tists who in many cas­es are build­ing some of the Big Data sys­tems that are both fas­ci­nat­ing to me but in many cas­es very con­cern­ing as well.

Whittaker: Thank you. Allison.

Allison Burtch: Hi. My name is Allison Burtch. I’m a tech­nol­o­gist and a writer, and I have made work that has involved jam­ming, in cer­tain sit­u­a­tions. I made a Log Jammer, which is cre­at­ing a safe space in nature away from tech­nol­o­gy. I’ve also done oth­er polit­i­cal work. I orga­nized a con­fer­ence after PRISM at Eyebeam Art & Technology Center, and also with Occupy Wall Street.

Whittaker: Lauren, how does your work relate to the themes of agency and the abil­i­ty to push back against or form technology.

Lauren McCarthy: Hi. I’m Lauren McCarthy and I guess I’m most inter­est­ed in the sys­tems and rules involved with being a per­son and inter­act­ing with oth­er peo­ple in today’s tech­no­log­i­cal real­i­ty, or just today. So what does that mean? I guess a cou­ple of examples. 

A cou­ple of years ago I went on a bunch of dates and I tried to crowd-source my dat­ing life because I just wasn’t real­ly cut­ting it on my own. So I streamed the dates to the Web with my phone and then I paid Mechanical Turk work­ers to watch the date and to decide what I should say and do, and I would get these mes­sages and do them.

One oth­er quick exam­ple. Just recent­ly I fin­ished a project with Kyle McDonald where we made an app that paired with a smart­watch so it could mea­sure your bio­log­i­cal sig­nals and fig­ure out how peo­ple and how your friends made you feel, so you don’t have to. Cuz who has time? Then it would auto­mat­i­cal­ly sched­ule them into your life or delete or block them, accordingly.

The point with all of these is to ask the ques­tion of, could a com­put­er or could an algo­rithm actu­al­ly make bet­ter social deci­sions than we could our­selves? And if so, how do we feel about that and what do we do? And what does it mean, bet­ter?” What is improve­ment? And how are these ideas embed­ded into the sys­tems that we use and the sys­tems that we build?

Whittaker: Whoa. So one of the ques­tions that I’m actu­al­ly sort of strug­gling with in putting this togeth­er and think­ing through this theme is where do we have a choice now? And I see your work as exper­i­ment­ing a lot with those dynam­ics, and I would love your take. Like, where do we have a say in what we do and do not accept? Where is agency a part of our rela­tion­ship to technology?

McCarthy: I think that there’s always an oppor­tu­ni­ty to try to find the loop­holes, to mis­use or to reap­pro­pri­ate the tech­nolo­gies that we have. We see this a lot. We see these lit­tle glitch­es where we get into a part of a sys­tem or we use a tool or tech­nol­o­gy or an app in a way that wasn’t intend­ed and we receive a kind of fun­ny result. And I think this reveals some­thing about the expec­ta­tions of the peo­ple that made the sys­tem. No tech­nol­o­gy is neu­tral. There’s always these embed­ded assump­tions, expec­ta­tions, and biases.

So there’s ways like that, as an indi­vid­ual, to push back, or maybe as a com­mu­ni­ty. But I think beyond that, some­times the tech­nol­o­gy reveals our bias­es in our­selves, our expec­ta­tions about each oth­er. So I think one ques­tion we have to be ask­ing while we’re look­ing for the place we can push back against tech­nol­o­gy and it’s expec­ta­tions… Where can we push back against our own bias­es and expec­ta­tions…? Can we cre­ate an envi­ron­ment where peo­ple actu­al­ly feel sup­port­ed and able to define their own iden­ti­ty? It’s not just the tech­nol­o­gy that’s lim­it­ing peo­ple. We make these technologies.

Whittaker: Kate, I want to direct the same ques­tion to you. You deal with sort of the under­cur­rent of a lot of the techno-consumerism. Where do we have places to push back? What are the inflec­tion points?

Crawford: It’s inter­est­ing because I wor­ry that this debate about agency is basi­cal­ly the big lie. And I think the big lie is that we think we can con­trol what we do, and yeah it’s fan­tas­tic that there are encrypt­ed apps that we can use, and they’re real­ly impor­tant, but what wor­ries me is the first thing is that we’re mak­ing this an indi­vid­ual prob­lem. We’re try­ing to say it’s on you, it’s your respon­si­bil­i­ty, fig­ure this out, down­load this, under­stand end-to-end encryp­tion, when it’s a shared prob­lem and it’s a com­mu­nal prob­lem. And ulti­mate­ly, we are val­ued as data points, col­lec­tive­ly, far more than as indi­vid­u­als. This is a shared problem.

So how do we think beyond that very indi­vid­u­al­is­tic frame into some­thing that’s more com­mu­nal? I think that’s the first big prob­lem and why I want to get past this kind of fig­ure it out your­self, kids per­spec­tive that comes out in these debates.

I think the oth­er thing that’s real­ly inter­est­ing about agency here, too, is that we think about this his­tor­i­cal­ly as some­thing that we can fix now. But this has got a real­ly long tra­jec­to­ry, both behind it (I was real­ly glad to hear Sarah talk about what was hap­pen­ing in the 40s and 50s) but we can also think twen­ty, thir­ty years out from now, where the data that we’ve already released con­tin­ues to be used in par­tic­u­lar ways. So we have this much big­ger tra­jec­to­ry to start think­ing about in terms of agency. 

But if you want me to say some­thing pos­i­tive, and I can kin­da tell that you do, I think one of the more excit­ing projects that I did recent­ly was with my col­league Luke Stark at NYU. We inter­viewed just under forty artists from the US, from Europe, and from the Middle East. Also includ­ed in this project are of course Allison and Lauren, because they do kick-ass work in this space. And we specif­i­cal­ly talked to artists about what kinds of provoca­tive inter­ven­tions are they mak­ing by using com­pu­ta­tion­al plat­forms. But we also asked them, What wouldn’t you do? Where is the line where you say this is not okay, this is not an eth­i­cal use of oth­er people’s data?”

And what I loved about doing this study, and we are just about to fin­ish it so I’ll share it with you soon, is the real­iza­tion that artists are think­ing about this stuff in some ways in much more sophis­ti­cat­ed frame­works than the com­put­er sci­en­tists who so often get the stage to talk about data and ethics. And I real­ly want to basi­cal­ly high­light this com­mu­ni­ty, who are think­ing about these kinds of prob­lems in ways that just don’t get heard enough.

Whittaker: Yes. Thank you. 

So I’m just riff­ing on this. We have a nar­ra­tive of con­sumer choice, like you can take it or leave it, like where the invis­i­ble hand, the free mar­ket, we are agents, we are indi­vid­u­als. I would like to direct this to you, Allison. Where does that stop and start, and what would, in your view, actu­al abil­i­ty to say no or to open­ly embrace tech­nol­o­gy look like?

Burtch: I think what Kate said about indi­vid­ual choice is real­ly impor­tant in this because when you say we’re fram­ing this as a no” to some­thing, and I’m more inter­est­ed what is the yes,” what is the oth­er thing? Because when we look at our lives as a dis­con­nec­tion from, then we’re always dis­con­nect­ing. And that’s actu­al­ly not a sta­ble place. So a lot of the pri­va­cy dis­cus­sion, again, is about indi­vid­ual choice but we live in pub­lic and we need to do polit­i­cal work in pub­lic. So it’s not all about this neolib­er­al I can hide in my room and buy drugs on the dark­net and that’s good for me,” which is like, what­ev­er, fine. But Anwar al Awlaki’s son got drone-bombed. What’s his pri­va­cy choice? We’re mak­ing these tech­nolo­gies that when we talk about pri­va­cy it’s this super American, bour­geois, I can have all these things and down­load all these apps.” But what we’re fac­ing is a much big­ger, col­lec­tive, polit­i­cal issue. If that was clear at all.

Whittaker: I have writ­ten down here It takes a vil­lage to make a social net­work social.” So just jump­ing to the theme of inter­de­pen­dence and com­mu­ni­ty and our sort pri­mate social­i­ty, you know, inter­sub­jec­tive beings, I would love you to con­tin­ue talk­ing on that theme.

Burtch: Sure. Okay. Sort of riff­ing on that, and this is some­thing that I’ve been think­ing about a lot. We all talk about the end of the world a lot. Like the Anthropocene, we’re all total­ly fucked, and so what I’m won­der­ing about is, so with the mind­set that we’re total­ly fucked, all we have is a sur­vival strat­e­gy. So all we have is, how can we pro­tect our­selves from not being total­ly fucked? Whereas, what if that wasn’t true? Hypothetically. What’s actu­al­ly the com­mon hori­zon that we can build togeth­er that we want? And so that’s what I’ve been think­ing about. Survival strat­e­gy ver­sus com­mon hori­zon, how do we pro­tect our­selves indi­vid­u­al­ly ver­sus what are we work­ing towards togeth­er, and the sort of mind­set that goes into that.

Whittaker: And Kate, I would love your view on that ques­tion as well, [as] some­one who works with humans as sta­tis­tics, the aggre­gate num­bers, data as val­ue. How does that inter­sect with the idea of inter­sub­jec­tive humans?

Crawford: Small ques­tion. Tiny ques­tion. This is real­ly inter­est­ing, because obvi­ous­ly you could take a real­ly big pic­ture here and say that sub­jec­tiv­i­ty itself is shift­ing in real­ly inter­est­ing ways. We can look at our own his­to­ries with this kind of gran­u­lar­i­ty and capac­i­ty that we didn’t have as recent­ly as fif­teen years ago. How does that change our under­stand­ing of our­selves? There are tools that will help you think about that. 

What we’re less good at, I think, is using that capac­i­ty to say, What’s changed in our polit­i­cal land­scape? What’s changed in our abil­i­ty to join a union, go to a protest, express an unpop­u­lar opin­ion?” These activ­i­ties that used to be seen as so core to demo­c­ra­t­ic func­tion­ing have a very dif­fer­ent valen­cy if you’re being record­ed every time you do into the street. If your email is in the clear and let’s face it, it’s pret­ty easy for any state agency to actu­al­ly look at that, giv­en cer­tain sort of pol­i­cy restrictions.

So I feel like there’s some very big ques­tions that we need to think through around what is the polit­i­cal now? And how is that shaped with­out those spaces of at least semi-anonymity that became so much a part of how we under­stood the polit­i­cal process in say, the 20th century?

Whittaker: Yes. I want to know the answer to that ques­tion. Lauren, I want to turn it to you for a sec­ond. A lot of your work deals with actu­al­ly build­ing com­mu­ni­ties and iso­lat­ed expe­ri­ences of tech­nol­o­gy. Can you speak to the sort of dichotomies that like, what are the awk­ward­ness­es, the sort of ten­sions of try­ing to involve more than one per­son in those experiences?

McCarthy: We’re in a space now where there’s so much more trans­paren­cy, so much more con­nec­tion, so much more is pub­lic. And I think there are some things that are good about this. We’ve seen the poten­tial for there to be real social change because of some impor­tant issue that ris­es to the sur­face. And I think that’s good, and what we need to be doing is try­ing to lis­ten to peo­ple that are dif­fer­ent than you, and to let that happen.

But at the same time I think a lot of these tech­nolo­gies that are all about con­nec­tion or shar­ing or social or what­ev­er are actu­al­ly a lit­tle bit more iso­lat­ing than con­nect­ing. They bring out this feel­ing of com­pe­ti­tion. I think there’s some­thing a lit­tle dan­ger­ous when­ev­er there’s an inter­face between peo­ple, because you for­get a lit­tle bit that they’re a per­son when you can’t see them or feel them in front of you. So I won­der if we could build sys­tems that aren’t focused on fos­ter­ing ego, but instead on fos­ter­ing under­stand­ing, on fos­ter­ing empathy.

Whittaker: I’m going to put this to all of you as sort of a clos­er. Where should peo­ple who want to do that engage? Where do you see the oppor­tu­ni­ties or the wedges or the spaces in these sys­tems to engage in a way that would allow that kind of rela­tion­al­i­ty, to allow that kind of choice?

Burtch: That’s… [long pause]

Crawford: That’s my answer, too.

Burtch: That’s not on the thing. I’m just try­ing to have fun. I’m just try­ing to live a fun life, because… I don’t know. Everything gets so ter­ri­ble, and like what’s the point if everything’s just mis­er­able all the time? We need to actu­al­ly build com­mu­ni­ties and rela­tion­ships and inti­ma­cy and beau­ty and joy and fig­ure out how to build stuff— Because you can’t fight alone. The lone wolf is over. You need to fight togeth­er. And impe­ri­al­ism and cap­i­tal­ism and colo­nial­ism have done a num­ber on us psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly. So we… I don’t real­ly know where I’m going with that. But you asked me where I find the wedges, and I’m just right now try­ing to do jiu-jitsu, basi­cal­ly. That’s what I’m doing.

Whittaker: Amen. That was heart­felt. Lauren, you got a take?

McCarthy: I don’t know if I can fol­low that, but I’ll just pick it up from Allison. I liked when you said, What is your yes?” When we’re think­ing about issues of sur­veil­lance and pri­va­cy, there’s so much fear a lot of times. And I get we need to think about these things, but just flat out rejec­tion of a tech­nol­o­gy or I don’t like that” isn’t real­ly going to cut it, because it’s here and we’re mov­ing for­ward. So how could we move for­ward in a more pro­duc­tive way, and how can we kind of dig through this gray area instead of just say­ing, It’s all black, I’m not going to deal with it?” And I guess for me, I start with lit­tle per­son­al exper­i­ments, lit­tle tests. Then some­day you might do some­thing and you real­ize oh I didn’t real­ize that wasn’t a wall there, I could actu­al­ly go into that space. And then it gets big­ger. So maybe I could do that. How could I bring oth­er peo­ple with me, or how could we do this as a community?

Crawford: Alright, well I’ll give you a real­ly per­son­al answer and then I’ll give you a slight­ly big­ger pic­ture answer.

The per­son­al answer of the thing that I do that gives me hope in this is, right now, Deep Lab, which I’m very thrilled to say has two mem­bers on stage here with Harlo and Allison, which is a group of fem­i­nist artists and researchers who are try­ing to think about par­tic­u­lar kinds of inter­ven­tions we could make togeth­er because we’re stronger to have more of us than just work­ing alone. And that’s been real­ly fantastic.

At a big­ger pic­ture lev­el, I think what can we do? Yes, it’s real­ly impor­tant that we do devel­op stronger com­mu­ni­ties, that we do devel­op stronger tools, and that we sup­port those com­mu­ni­ties doing encryp­tion tool devel­op­ment. But I don’t want us to feel like we have to retreat and that we have to hide. I also want us to make a lot of noise. I want us to think about what are the most pub­lic state­ments we can make col­lec­tive­ly? What are the pres­sure points in terms of what’s hap­pen­ing around pub­lic pol­i­cy, around the com­mu­ni­ties that are real­ly fight­ing these issues? And many of those com­mu­ni­ties are vul­ner­a­ble and mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties. How do we help them?

So for me these are the ways that I real­ly want to fig­ure out what are those pres­sure points? What’s the jiu-jitsu? And how do we fig­ure that out together?

Whittaker: Yes. Thank you.

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