Johanna Hedva: One of the things that was not includ­ed in my bio was that I did my under­grad­u­ate degree in this depart­ment, the Design Media Arts Department, many years ago. And I have to just start this con­ver­sa­tion by say­ing I am so moved that this con­ver­sa­tion’s even hap­pen­ing in this space, in this depart­ment. It was not at all hap­pen­ing when I was a stu­dent here, and I’m real­ly just so thrilled, like real­ly emo­tion­al about it that we are hav­ing polit­i­cal con­ver­sa­tions around our work as graph­ic design­ers, media artists, artists, cul­tur­al pro­duc­ers, in the 21st cen­tu­ry in a dig­i­tal world.

One of the things that just imme­di­ate­ly struck me about all three pre­sen­ta­tions is the role of design and just visu­al semi­otics of these things. For exam­ple, Safiya talk­ing about these web sites that Dylan Roof would go to and they looked like, they spoke the visu­al lan­guage of a neu­tral news site or a rep­utable jour­nal­ism site, some­thing like this. That’s a graph­ic design issue, right, media design. And the visu­al­i­ty thread is seen in all of these, how rep­re­sen­ta­tion just [at] a very basic for­mal lev­el is work­ing here. 

So one of the things that it makes me think about was, in my expe­ri­ence as an under­grad­u­ate, my men­tor was Willem Henri Lucas, who is a very polit­i­cal design­er, and we would often talk about what the pol­i­tics were that were embed­ded in cer­tain choic­es we were mak­ing as design­ers. For exam­ple typog­ra­phy choice is a polit­i­cal one. Who made it? Did you have to pay for it? Is it a cor­po­rate font? Is it used by cor­po­ra­tions, so that it looks cor­po­rate? Are there fonts that you use in jour­nal­ism sites that bring you a sense of legit­i­ma­cy as a news site? 

And I think that our gen­er­a­tion is so well-equipped to be able to make media and make our own images on the Web. And I think that we can be very savvy about how those get deployed. And in the case of the Council for Conservative Citizens, they prob­a­bly had a good sense of what kind of graph­ic design deci­sions they need­ed to make in order to seem neutral.

So I was won­der­ing if maybe we could start by talk­ing about how this ques­tion of struc­tures of oppres­sion and dom­i­na­tion that are in place in the real world get­ting repli­cat­ed online often hap­pens visu­al­ly. And through just very basic visu­al cues. Fonts, like if it’s in bold, that sig­nals some­thing dif­fer­ent than if it’s blink­ing yellow.

So maybe we could talk about the visu­al lit­er­a­cy, media lit­er­a­cy, that’s inher­ent in dig­i­tal prac­tices, espe­cial­ly the 21st cen­tu­ry, espe­cial­ly for Millenials, the gen­er­a­tion that grew up being very com­fort­able mak­ing media online.

Safiya Noble: I’m hap­py to jump in on that. I think it’s a great prompt. One of the things that I like to talk about as well in this kind of issue, par­tic­u­lar­ly with the exam­ple of Google, is that what we have is kind of an aes­thet­ic of a white page, a blank white slate with an emp­ty box that com­mu­ni­cates sim­plic­i­ty. It’s sim­ple to put in a query, and it’s sim­ple to get back an answer. And yet the kinds of ques­tions that often get put into a search engine are high­ly com­pli­cat­ed, nuanced, con­test­ed kinds of ideas or con­cepts; that sim­plic­i­ty is actu­al­ly not the right approach.

So we have a social­iza­tion, and I cer­tain­ly see this myself now in this role teach­ing, kind of an expec­ta­tion of a sim­ple and imme­di­ate answer. An instan­ta­neous put in, get out” kind of aes­thet­ic, and that that trans­lates to how knowl­edge is pro­duced. And of course we know that is not how knowl­edge is pro­duced. People go to war over knowl­edge, right? So I think there’s some­thing that we have to be incred­i­bly care­ful about. I talk in my work about what would it mean, for exam­ple, to make knowl­edge trans­par­ent and to see all of the com­plex­i­ties of it, and then have to make choic­es with­in that com­plex­i­ty rather than an aes­thet­ic of white­space and noth­ing­ness that com­mu­ni­cates some­thing. And it’s a falsehood. 

So danah boyd for exam­ple did stud­ies on teenagers who moved from MySpace to Facebook. And what she found in her study [PDF] is that high school stu­dents who were still on MySpace were typ­i­cal­ly mar­gin­al­ized stu­dents. They weren’t jocks, they weren’t cheer­lead­ers, they were kind of alter­na­tive, what­ev­er that means, and also peo­ple of col­or I guess were alter­na­tive. (Aren’t we?) And part of the kinds of things that stu­dents report­ed, espe­cial­ly in a 21st cen­tu­ry era of col­or­blind ide­ol­o­gy [was] stu­dents want to name in an explic­it way how they felt about their peers. They would say things like, Well, Facebook is clean­er. It has clean­er design. It’s not so messy.” And these were code words that she found that reflect­ed the incred­i­ble hyper­indi­vid­u­al­i­ty that you can express on MySpace—you got the march­ing ants or what­ev­er code in there—those were sig­ni­fiers of dif­fer­ence. That in a space like Facebook that was made as an Ivy League social net­work­ing plat­form, where you have a high degree of homo­gene­ity in that kind of uni­ver­si­ty envi­ron­ment, that the aes­thet­ic of clean lines, of not point­ing to dif­fer­ence and indi­vid­u­al­ism, was actu­al­ly val­ued. But it also was loaded with these kind of class and racial markers.

So I think these are the things that— Go read her work, because it’s real­ly pow­er­ful. And what hap­pened as stu­dents left MySpace and went to Facebook, we lost a whole gen­er­a­tion of espe­cial­ly girls who were learn­ing how to code. They could do basic HTML kind of work by per­son­al­iz­ing their MySpace pages. You guys prob­a­bly weren’t even born when every­body was on MySpace. So what did we lose, also, in these kinds of design choic­es and moves, and the dis­course and rhetorics that we used around them. So I think these are absolute­ly design ques­tions and issues, and they’re explic­it­ly polit­i­cal and loaded with these racial, class, gen­der dynamics.

Hedva: I just want to offer rejoin­der before you all jump in, but I think always about—in arts, which is the world that I end­ed up mov­ing in more than the design world, there’s this word that gets tossed around a lot which is very fun­ny to me, which is site-specific.” Like as though there is a thing that’s not that, right? Like this idea of space (and artists talk a lot about space) as though it’s this neu­tral, emp­ty, ahis­toric loca­tion. Like what about place? Place implies there’s a cost of rent, there were neigh­bors, there’s rules, there’s cracks in the walls, there’s street noise. There’s all of these things that are part of that location.

And I think in dig­i­tal space,” which we often talk about, those assump­tions are car­ried over again. Like this idea that the clean­est dig­i­tal design solu­tion is the best is an implic­it val­ue. There are always these redesigns of social media plat­forms that are done, accord­ing to the com­pa­ny, to make things clean­er, which I just think is so fun­ny, that that’s the implic­it val­ue that we all now in this world want. Like, oh I need to clean up my Facebook feed, I need to clean up my Twitter feed. This kind of cleanliness…very strange to me.

Casey Reas: Before MySpace came to the world, every­body was not every­body at all. The few peo­ple who had a pres­ence online were doing every­thing entire­ly from scratch. Learning from oth­er peo­ple by look­ing at what they had done, but every­body was able to have an entire­ly unique—the sys­tem allowed for an entire­ly unique pres­ence. MySpace was some­where in between there and what Facebook is now. Twitter has large­ly pro­lif­er­at­ed because it’s so easy to do, but we’re all with­in the strait­jack­et of that char­ac­ter count, and it seems like we’re increas­ing­ly putting our­selves into these nar­row con­tain­ers through which we can express our­selves. Facebook is chang­ing a lit­tle bit now, but the only affect you can apply to some­thing is you Like it. You have no oth­er option. I find that just to be very interesting.

Noble: I don’t want to dom­i­nate. I going to just say real­ly quick­ly that I think you’re right. What has hap­pened for those of us who remem­ber pre-digital, pre-Internet, and kind of came of age (which would be my gen­er­a­tion) on the Web, there was cer­tain­ly… The com­mer­cial Web envi­ron­ment was kind of late to the game. It took a while. I remem­ber when every­body was like, you know some teenag­er owned AT&T dot com. Then they’re like, Oh my god, we got­ta get that domain!” So that was hap­pen­ing all over cor­po­rate America. Everybody owned some­thing and was sub­vert­ing it. So you’re right. I mean, what’s now total­ly nor­mal­ized is that we func­tion with­in these cor­po­rate con­tain­ers, with very lit­tle recog­ni­tion of, for exam­ple, our dig­i­tal labor, that just our­selves as an audi­ence is the com­mod­i­ty, right? (So Dallas Smythe and the audi­ence com­mod­i­ty.) We have to under­stand that these con­tain­ers in many ways shape our behav­ior and social­ize a par­tic­u­lar­ly kind of nor­mal­cy. And it’s incred­i­bly dif­fi­cult to inter­vene upon it.

Marika Cifor: There’s now inter­est­ing activism that comes specif­i­cal­ly from those con­straints. There’s an exam­ple of an activist get­ting get­ting Nike to cus­tomize his sneak­ers with the word sweat­shop” on it, which they did­n’t want to do. So kind of using the con­straints as a way to speak back to that cor­po­rate sys­tem in inter­est­ing ways.

An Xiao Mina: I think what’s inter­est­ing also is how these spaces and with­in these con­straints peo­ple are find­ing ways to cri­tique oth­er forms of media. So two spe­cif­ic exam­ples that I can real­ly think of recent­ly is that hash­tag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, where young men of col­or, espe­cial­ly black men, were using Instagram or oth­er forms of social media to show side by side how they choose to depict them­selves ver­sus how main­stream media might depict them if they were gunned down. And I thought that was very pow­er­ful and provoca­tive, because it was a cri­tique of broad­cast media. 

And then you see this in a place like China, where you’ll see pro­pa­gan­da memes. People will take clas­si­cal Chinese pro­pa­gan­da and then remix that and chal­lenge the tra­di­tion­al broad­cast media that pre­vi­ous­ly most peo­ple had to just inher­it and could remix maybe on a small-scale local­ly with posters. But the abil­i­ty to dis­trib­ute that through these net­works becomes very pow­er­ful. And it seems like there’s this oppor­tu­ni­ty to make more pub­lic this crit­i­cal dis­course in media, and that crit­i­cal dis­course needs to go back onto the media itself that peo­ple are using. That in using and find­ing so much pow­er through Instagram and Twitter to cri­tique broad­cast media we’re for­get­ting that those plat­forms are them­selves media, they are them­selves a form of medi­a­tion, and that they them­selves have their own bias­es that need to be crit­i­cal­ly exam­ined. And it’d be interesting—I’m kind of think­ing of this snake eat­ing its tail—but that kind of crit­i­cal cri­tique of the very plat­form on which you’re doing your cri­tique, what that might look like and how we can shape a pub­lic dis­course around that.

Hedva: An, one of the things I was think­ing when you were talk­ing was sort of how impe­ri­al­ism has now begun to func­tion with­in lan­guages on the Internet and how we can see— Well, you know that first map where the lan­guage just redraw geopo­lit­i­cal lines. I’m won­der­ing if you can talk a lit­tle bit about…there’s a lot of dis­course in post­colo­nial, decolo­nial thought around how the col­o­niz­ers’ theft of the indige­nous lan­guage is a func­tion of impe­ri­al­ism. All of this lit­er­a­ture that I’ve read about it is pre-Internet so far. And I feel like this is the first time I’ve start­ed to think about how lan­guages are still in that process, but now in a dig­i­tal way. So I’m won­der­ing if you could talk a lit­tle bit about the rela­tion­ship between imperial/colonial his­to­ries and meth­ods with language.

Mina: Sure. That’s a great ques­tion. I think the his­to­ry of eras­ing lan­guages is very much a colo­nial arti­fact. And it’s often invis­i­ble to the next gen­er­a­tion, I think espe­cial­ly in the United States. My fam­i­ly’s Filipino-Chinese. I grew up speak­ing only English. It just takes one gen­er­a­tion for access to one’s native tongue to just van­ish and dis­ap­pear. And cer­tain­ly this has a very long his­to­ry. And it’s inter­est­ing because the very plat­forms that are dis­sem­i­nat­ing across the world are large­ly being designed and devel­oped in one part of the world, which hap­pens to be where I live. And that inher­ent bias that that one region of the world, which is just one space per­spec­tive, then places pres­sures on oth­er peo­ple to have to learn that language. 

And I think about these lan­guage bias­es as being a full stack prob­lem. In tech­nol­o­gy design we talk about the full stack. All the way down from the very code in which there’s so much talk about the open source soft­ware move­ment and the abil­i­ty to cre­ate and shape your soft­ware and your media envi­ron­ment. That code, the human-facing part of that, is in English. And it’s sim­ple phras­es. Yes, you can learn those phras­es, but imag­ine try­ing to relearn code in a lan­guage that you don’t speak, and sud­den­ly you’re hav­ing to learn two lan­guages: the pro­gram­ming lan­guage and then the lan­guage in which the pro­gram­ming lan­guage is expressed. 

And then it moves up to the typog­ra­phy pres­sures. The abil­i­ty to input Arabic on a mobile phone up until recent­ly was severe­ly lim­it­ed, and Arabic speak­ers lit­er­al­ly had to use Roman numer­ics to express their lan­guage online. Which was incred­i­bly cre­ative. There’s these cre­ative workarounds for the lan­guage, but as a result had to use Latin script and basi­cal­ly erase their script from the Internet until input sys­tems improved.

Then it goes up from there into con­tent and how if you want to know what’s going on in the world, if you want to have access to… Here I used the Wikipedia exam­ple, but anoth­er exam­ple would be Stack Overflow. Again, such an impor­tant place for peo­ple to learn how to build the soft­ware around them, if that knowl­edge is only avail­able in English and Portuguese right now, the pres­sure to have to learn those lan­guages increas­es substantially. 

And then all the way to the typog­ra­phy. We’re talk­ing about the polit­i­cal deci­sions around typog­ra­phy. In lan­guages that use Latin let­ters, you have a wide vari­ety of typog­ra­phy and fonts that you can use, and if you have that kind of crit­i­cal knowl­edge about the impli­ca­tions of all these fonts you can real­ly make impor­tant design deci­sions. But if you have access to only one or two fonts, sud­den­ly the abil­i­ty for you to cre­ate a space around the very con­tent and the sites that you’re try­ing to cre­ate again becomes lim­it­ed and you’re inher­it­ing some­one else’s designs around your typography.

So these bias­es and these pres­sures exist across the board. And the very pres­sure to join a major net­work like Facebook or Twitter then pres­sures you to have to learn the lan­guages in which they oper­ate. So these kind of colo­nial pres­sures on lan­guage are very much reproduced.

Hedva: It’s like code-switching but for cul­tur­al things. I was just hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with my friend who’s Polish the oth­er day and he was say­ing because of glob­al­iza­tion and impe­ri­al­ism he can talk to me about The Simpsons or some­thing, but I won’t have any idea about the Polish TV shows that he grew up watch­ing. And I think that this way of cul­tur­al, per­ni­cious, per­va­sive­ness from English con­sid­ered to be the uni­ver­sal lan­guage now…this is real­ly get­ting repli­cat­ed expo­nen­tial­ly in the dig­i­tal space.

Mina: And even with­in English-speaking cul­tures, the gen­er­al val­u­a­tion of whose English is more impor­tant and cer­tain­ly when we’re talk­ing about the English-speaking Internet those peo­ple are think­ing United States, Canada, United Kingdom, and maybe Australia. But many oth­er coun­tries, peo­ple do speak English and even then their voic­es and their per­spec­tives are often deval­ued and under­served. So in addi­tion to build­ing voice I think we need a cul­ture of also build­ing bet­ter tools for lis­ten­ing and these kind of pipelines for val­u­a­tion of these new voic­es online. Because you can shout all you want and have new voice, but if there’s not enough lis­ten­ing those con­nec­tions aren’t made.

Noble: I want to add too that I think there’s this eco­nom­ic dimen­sion, espe­cial­ly in Silicon Valley, San Francisco, where tru­ly it’s a closed com­mu­ni­ty of most­ly men and well-documented racism and sex­ism and exclu­sion that hap­pens, par­tic­u­lar­ly in ven­ture cap­i­tal fund­ing. So that the par­a­digm around design hap­pens in the con­text of com­mod­i­ty. So what can be com­mod­i­fied and sold, pack­aged, make prof­it, that’s a dri­ving par­a­digm, a design par­a­digm I would argue in Silicon Valley that real­ly affects every­one else. If you don’t have mil­lions of dol­lars, you actu­al­ly can’t imple­ment a lot of these kinds of projects that we might offer up [as] cri­tiques or sub­ver­sions or some oth­er kind of alternative.

So the opt­ing out and going to oth­er things, like, what oth­er things? How can those things be cre­at­ed when they’re hap­pen­ing in the con­text of real­ly hyper-capitalism in Silicon Valley. And of course the bias that we don’t see is the incred­i­ble prof­it mar­gins that hap­pen around plat­forms and tech­nol­o­gy designs com­ing out of the Valley are in direct rela­tion­ship to our eco­nom­ic poli­cies of glob­al­iza­tion. So the man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs are off­shored to the places where chil­dren can make those tech­nolo­gies or peo­ple can live in dorms. We’ve read the kind of Foxconn sto­ries where, for exam­ple, in the Congo where peo­ple who are doing the min­ing for coltan are liv­ing in the most extreme sex­u­al vio­lence, rape, assault con­di­tions in the world accord­ing to the United Nations. So those things get out­sourced. So what gets out­sourced in the design of our projects is real­ly impor­tant as a human­i­tar­i­an issue. 

One thing that we don’t talk about that I’m start­ing to take up in my own work is the sus­tain­abil­i­ty of these tech­nolo­gies as well. We have a seri­ous design cri­sis around information/communication tech­nolo­gies and their con­tri­bu­tion to glob­al warm­ing. We just saw the lat­est reports com­ing out now post the Paris bomb­ing and just pri­or to that cli­mate change issues are direct­ly impli­cat­ed in the desta­bi­liza­tion of many nations where we are start­ing to see tremen­dous con­se­quence as a result of that desta­bi­liza­tion. And we’re impli­cat­ed, again, in these while we’re fetishiz­ing Google and Facebook. So I think that we need a rad­i­cal design change. And I might ask if I were teach­ing an HCI class or design class with you, I would say, How are you going to design this so that not one life is lost?” What if that were the design imper­a­tive rather than what’s your IPO going to be?

So it’s the par­a­digms with­in which we’re design­ing which that are real­ly impor­tant, too.

Reas: Safiya, I have two follow-ups with that. One is the state­ment that you made that peo­ple seem to trust search engines. So my ques­tion is why do you think peo­ple trust search engines. But that leads to the next ques­tion, which is this idea of pro­pri­etary and cor­po­rate data ver­sus open sys­tems, pub­lic sys­tems, and why do you think that all of our data is with­in these pro­pri­etary algo­rithms and ways of stor­ing rather than in things that are more open, more public.

Noble: These are great ques­tions. Part of the rea­son we trust search engines is because if we need to find out what time Starbucks clos­es, it gives us the answer, right? So that’s cru­cial infor­ma­tion that some peo­ple need. If you need to know what time does my class start, I’ve got to go online and get the sched­ule because it’s the first week of class, the room or the map…there are kinds of banal types of infor­ma­tion that search are excel­lent at index­ing and then pro­vid­ing for us. And that rein­forces our trust in them. 

When we start to put com­plex ideas into these envi­ron­ments, oth­er things hap­pen and that’s where we lose our sense of mak­ing sense of what’s appro­pri­ate to put in and what’s not. And of course any of us up here who teach (this is a tip for any­body here who’s an under­grad), your pro­fes­sors see it when you’re papers come in and you’re cit­ing things that make no sense to a fac­ul­ty mem­ber as a legit­i­mate cita­tion. There are cer­tain things that, you must have Googled that because there’s noth­ing schol­ar­ly about that and that’s a no. You can’t go on that. But you don’t know, right? Because you can trust it for all these oth­er types of infor­ma­tion search­es. So that’s part of the challenge.

I think in our field, we might say that librar­i­ans and infor­ma­tion pro­fes­sion­als, we’ve real­ly been focused on schol­ar­ly infor­ma­tion and schol­ar­ly knowl­edge, a dif­fer­ent type of curat­ed and vet­ted infor­ma­tion. And we have not put a lot of our atten­tion as a field, as a prac­tice, on the broad­er index­ing of the web and curat­ing the web. I’m cer­tain­ly try­ing to implore peo­ple who do that type of work to con­sid­er that that might be an alter­na­tive way for us to think about. What if we had a search engine, I often say, that was curat­ed by all the research uni­ver­si­ties in the world? Not just in the United States, but in the world.

There are so many forms of knowl­edge, for exam­ple, that we don’t even have access to because of the lan­guage. Brilliant think­ing that’s hap­pen­ing from oth­er parts of the world that’s real­ly high­ly inac­ces­si­ble. And these are the kinds of chal­lenges that I think we’re fac­ing in the Library and Information Science, Information Studies fields, access to knowl­edge has always been a key dri­ver for mil­len­nia for peo­ple who keep the record and knowl­edge. But in the com­mer­cial spaces, which is where the major­i­ty of peo­ple live on the web, that has not been in the bulls­eye. And I think that’s part of the bar­ri­er that we have to work through.

Maybe some of you will come do grad­u­ate work in Information Studies and will help us think through these, because they are design issues, too.

Hedva: Marika, do you want to jump in?

Cifor: I think that it’s also that they’re not a thing we’re taught to read crit­i­cal­ly. They seem very neu­tral and objec­tive, and even the way in which the lan­guage there is used, right? It’s the things that pop up with the high­est rel­e­van­cy, to the top of your Google search, for exam­ple. And we pick on Google a lot, but that’s because Google is more than 70% of the mar­ket share for search­es in the United States, so it mat­ters. It is a tar­get for a par­tic­u­lar rea­son. But the design itself is intend­ed of course, to come back to that, to look neu­tral and unless peo­ple are taught to read that crit­i­cal­ly the way in which they’re taught to read oth­er infor­ma­tion crit­i­cal­ly, why would you?

Noble: Also, Google, or search engines, they’re a rank­ing for­mat. So the already always way of think­ing about rank­ing, espe­cial­ly in the con­text of the West or the United States is what? We’re #1,” right? If it’s first, it’s the best. If it’s on page ten thou­sand what­ev­er, we don’t even care. Because the par­a­digm of rank­ing is actu­al­ly the design dri­ver. So that has an incred­i­ble impact on why we believe, because it must be right. 

Why porn…up until I wrote that Bitch mag­a­zine arti­cle, about six months after I wrote that arti­cle they changed the algo­rithm and black girls don’t get porni­fied as bad­ly any­more. (I can’t say it’s the arti­cle, but I can’t say it’s not.) All I’m say­ing is that who has the most polit­i­cal cap­i­tal an eco­nom­ic cap­i­tal is the porn indus­try on the Web. Are you kid­ding? It’s like, we would­n’t have cred­it card pro­cess­ing and video and audio if the porn indus­try had­n’t put a ton of mon­ey behind that so that they could sell their prod­ucts. So again, we don’t real­ly think about these oth­er eco­nom­ic and design dri­vers that are pro­vid­ing the con­text for how we receive.

Mina: It’s got me think­ing in terms of design and design provo­ca­tions as, there’s this fetishiza­tion around intu­itive design and sim­ple design, and how those can be extreme­ly dan­ger­ous, that intu­itions are found­ed on assump­tions. And if you are design­ing to make things as sim­ple and as click­able as pos­si­ble with­out forc­ing peo­ple to have to think through what click­ing means, what search­ing means, and that this whole ethos of not mak­ing the user think is a great way to hide the implic­it bases and explic­it bias­es that these sys­tems con­tain. So it would be inter­est­ing I think to think about, rethink, a fric­tion of design that would show what is hap­pen­ing behind this sim­ple lit­tle box. What is this algo­rithm doing? How is it float­ing up things that are rel­e­vant? And how is your search his­to­ry and your loca­tion impact­ing these results? You can imag­ine a Google that makes it dif­fi­cult for you. Instead of I’m feel­ing lucky,” it’s, I have to work for it” or some­thing. And what could that look like? I don’t know, but it’s inter­est­ing to think about a kind of con­train­tu­itive design that can raise these ques­tions in inter­est­ing ways.

Reas: I’ll ask An a quick ques­tion relat­ed to what you were dis­cussing. What if we assume that text is no longer the stan­dard. I mean text was nec­es­sary at one time because of how slow bits would trav­el, but now we can work with dif­fer­ent kinds of media. So yes­ter­day we were talk­ing a lit­tle bit about lan­guages that aren’t character-based or don’t real­ly have a writ­ten form and how work­ing with audio direct­ly can enable dif­fer­ent kinds of con­ver­sa­tions. So I was won­der­ing, what is the state of the art of that, or where do you imag­ine that going, to allow oth­er voic­es to come into play?

Mina: I think the most inter­est­ing to me is the WeChat exam­ple, which I showed and you saw in that pic­ture of Leo Messi. I did­n’t get to talk about it; I was rush­ing through, but that inter­ac­tion of him hold­ing the phone like this [holds phone up to mouth] is him press­ing a but­ton and speak­ing into WeChat, which is a Chinese social net­work that start­ed out a lit­tle like WhatsApp but is a lot more robust now. And he’s speak­ing into the mic and then releas­es the but­ton, and that sends an audio mes­sage to the recip­i­ent. It’s not a tran­scribed audio mes­sage, it is just the audio mes­sage. WeChat was sort of a pio­neer in that inter­ac­tion. We now have that with iMessage and WhatsApp. 

Part of the rea­son that this became very pop­u­lar is that again the dif­fi­cul­ty of inputting Chinese into a mobile phone. And Chinese being a non-alphabetic lan­guage, there are many forms of input, and it’s inter­est­ing that the key­board kind of stepped away. This sim­ple of idea of even using the key­board to input your lan­guage moved into just press­ing a but­ton to actu­al­ly speak it. And that I think is one great exam­ple of how audio can change an inter­ac­tion both for input and then also for listening.

Then you see this with e‑reader apps, Instapaper or Kindle. And we were talk­ing about this yes­ter­day, that this is not just an issue of lan­guage, it’s also about acces­si­bil­i­ty and also lit­er­a­cy. That the abil­i­ty to just press a but­ton and lis­ten to what’s there, to lis­ten to the text or sim­ply bypass text alto­geth­er and lis­ten to a pod­cast. The rise of pod­casts is an inter­est­ing exam­ple again of mov­ing away from text as the pri­ma­ry mode of inter­ac­tion with the Web and mov­ing into audio and poten­tial­ly video.

And I think this is going to be an urgent need as this next bil­lion peo­ple who are com­ing from lan­guages that have no writ­ten form, the abil­i­ty to inter­act with infor­ma­tion, and share that infor­ma­tion with com­mu­ni­ties, I think—again these bias­es. Forcing oral lan­guage com­mu­ni­ties to have to write down their lan­guage. The major­i­ty of lan­guages in the world have no writ­ten form, the major­i­ty of lan­guages in the world are oral. And so rethink­ing the very inter­ac­tions and focus­ing on audio, poten­tial­ly video, again as tech­nolo­gies allow for this I think can be quite pow­er­ful and also just nec­es­sary, I think. Just an impor­tant way of pre­serv­ing cul­ture and not con­tin­u­ing this cul­tur­al impe­ri­al­ism that tech implic­it­ly continues.

Hedva: I just have to…as the queer per­for­mance artist, from my posi­tion I have to talk about the body. So I want­ed to talk to Marika about how espe­cial­ly this ques­tion of embod­i­ment on the Internet and how I think you called it the Internet inter­ven­tion into the prove­nance of bod­ies and how that func­tions I think can also relat­ed to this idea of mov­ing away from text. Because if we think about differently-abled folks who might inter­act with infor­ma­tion from a dif­fer­ent place from read­ing text, right, I think that… I don’t know. I’m in a very ambiva­lent posi­tion about how the body can exist in a vir­tu­al space and I just rewatched Johnny Mnemonic… See, nobody knows what this movie is.

So this was this cyber­punk vision in the 90s of what vir­tu­al real­i­ty would be. It’s Keanu Reeves and one of the most…the best Keanu Reeves role. And the idea is that he can car­ry data in his brain. He can car­ry forty giga­bytes [laugh­ter] and so he’s on the black mar­ket as a data car­ri­er across inter­na­tion­al polit­i­cal lines, and he has to upload it into his brain. And some­thing went wrong and he now has eighty giga­bytes and so, you know.

But the impli­ca­tion of the body in these ear­li­er cyber­punk films and nov­els, of course, was that the body would some­how kind of dis­in­te­grate into tech­nol­o­gy in a very hor­rif­ic, dystopi­an way. He keeps say­ing, I need to get online,” because he needs to emp­ty his head. Sorry for the detour but it seems pertinent. 

So I’m very inter­est­ed in how the body gets rep­re­sent­ed and archived and repli­cat­ed and erased and all of these things. I’m won­der­ing if you could talk a bit about that in its rela­tion­ship to the Internet, the dig­i­tal, vir­tu­al, space.

Cifor: I think that’s an inter­est­ing and impor­tant ques­tion. And there’s much writ­ten about, espe­cial­ly I think in the ear­ly 2000s about the kind of poten­tial for the Internet as a space where you would­n’t be tied to your body, as a kind of free­ing poten­tial to live in a world where you could evade race and class and gen­der and all of the things that con­strain our phys­i­cal bod­ies, as well as issues of abil­i­ty and oth­er con­straints of the phys­i­cal body.

What’s actu­al­ly hap­pened, of course, is…that has­n’t hap­pened. People’s avatars tend to rep­re­sent things about their own expe­ri­ence. We know that all kinds of things that hap­pen to phys­i­cal bod­ies in the phys­i­cal world hap­pen in the dig­i­tal as well. It per­haps frees up cer­tain kinds of harass­ment to hap­pen in a greater extent if there’s poten­tial of anonymi­ty, and appar­ent­ly when giv­en anonymi­ty we get even more racist and sex­ist and clas­sist than we feel free to be when we actu­al­ly have to look at someone. 

So I think that some of that poten­tial for the body to dis­ap­pear just, we still kind of inter­act with the dig­i­tal world con­strained by the same kind of par­a­digms in which we live. It’s hard to think out­side of the con­straints of race, class, and gen­der even if you’re in a world where maybe you can make your avatar look like what­ev­er you want it to look. We still are con­strained by think­ing in ways that are formed in anoth­er world. And I think that it’s part that temp­ta­tion to draw a line between the phys­i­cal and the dig­i­tal world, as two sep­a­rate worlds when in fact I don’t see them as sep­a­rate worlds. They con­tin­ue their racism, clas­sism… Like sex­ism in the real world, there’s racism, clas­sism, sex­ism in the dig­i­tal world. And that some of that poten­tial for the body to dis­ap­pear has­n’t hap­pened, that of course con­straints of phys­i­cal bod­ies, when we were talk­ing about issues espe­cial­ly of acces­si­bil­i­ty, still apply in a dig­i­tal world; depend­ing on your phys­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions or poten­tials of how Internet is also shaped in that way. So I think a lot of that kind of utopic poten­tial for the body to dis­ap­pear just is not real­is­tic and is per­haps not even a thing we want.

I’m also real­ly fas­ci­nat­ed by the way in which new iden­ti­ties are formed by the dig­i­tal, and the way in which those iden­ti­ties are high­ly gen­dered. If we think about the cat­e­gories of peo­ple that did­n’t exist, like the bro­gram­mer and the pro­lif­er­a­tion of those images. Those are high­ly gen­dered images of who is cre­at­ing the dig­i­tal world. And it’s not just that. It’s all of those images are high­ly gen­dered. So I don’t think we have escaped the body in any way.

Noble: I want to add to that. I think we could also ask about to what degree does arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence pro­mote an era­sure of our human­i­ty, or we could call it the body, or a human expe­ri­ence. So those of us who study algo­rithms crit­i­cal­ly, we talk about the ways in which human beings now who engage with algo­rithms in every­day life are more like­ly to trust the algo­rithm than to trust pre­vi­ous forms of knowl­edge. Tarleton Gillespie writes about how algo­rithms have become so fun­da­men­tal to the human expe­ri­ence that they’ve start­ed to replace com­mon sense, cre­den­tialed experts, or the sci­en­tif­ic method, and even the word of God. This is what he says. And I think these kinds of ways of see­ing a dis­ap­pear­ance of the body, we could argue, by our increas­ing reliance upon an arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence is some­thing that’s real­ly impor­tant and worth exam­in­ing and think­ing about into the future.

So what would it mean that, and you hear peo­ple already in such com­mon every­day ways, talk about… I heard the provost of a big uni­ver­si­ty once say some­thing, or was report­ed that he said, What do we need the library for when we have Google?” So it’s like you have an inter­est­ing notion of human knowl­edge and its com­plex­i­ties, and that even the process… You know if you’ve had to go to the library to actu­al­ly do research…which I’m not even going to ask for a show of hands because I already know that the num­ber is low. So what does it mean, again, that we trust an algo­rithm to give us a deci­sion or give us knowl­edge or to have already curat­ed or done the hard think­ing for us? And you know, there are peo­ple who are writ­ing in con­tro­ver­sial ways about this like Nicholas Carr, who’s talk­ing about the neu­ro­log­i­cal effects of how our brains are changed by this kind of instant grat­i­fi­ca­tion, instant always, uncritical…our loss of our abil­i­ty to think.

And so I think this could be a very impor­tant aspect of rethink­ing what it means to think about embod­i­ment, that we trust our tech­nolo­gies to embody a lev­el of our human­i­ty that’s bet­ter than our own human­i­ty. And I think that’s incred­i­bly complicated.

Mina: And I think there is this oppor­tu­ni­ty instead of eras­ing the body, to make the body even more vis­i­ble and more nuanced. I was just read­ing an arti­cle about the Tumblr cul­ture of the tags and of talk­ing about gen­der and gen­der iden­ti­ty has helped fos­ter a sig­nif­i­cant­ly more nuanced lan­guage around what gen­der and gen­der iden­ti­ty look like. So mov­ing beyond male/female bina­ries into gen­derqueer iden­ti­ties, LGBTI iden­ti­ties, things like that. 

And then sim­i­lar­ly we could talk about this with race and class and this deci­sion to flat­ten race into these big cat­e­gories. Instead, look at the nuances of what peo­ple’s racial and eth­nic iden­ti­ties look like. It seems like there’s an oppor­tu­ni­ty to make the body more vis­i­ble, and more vis­i­ble in its speci­fici­ty, and that rather than eras­ing the body it’s about bring­ing out our humanity.

Of course there are risks to this, espe­cial­ly if you are high­light­ing a mar­gin­al­ized iden­ti­ty. That can cre­ate a non-safe space for these com­mu­ni­ties. But at the same time, the vis­i­bil­i­ty of one’s body, mak­ing that vis­i­ble, mak­ing that vis­i­ble to oth­er peo­ple, becomes an impor­tant way for espe­cial­ly mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties to find iden­ti­ties that may not be rep­re­sent­ed in main­stream media. And I think par­tic­u­lar­ly the trans and LGBTI com­mu­ni­ties have a lot of great stud­ies on how being vis­i­ble to each oth­er is itself a pow­er­ful act. So I think mak­ing our bod­ies more vis­i­ble seems like a crit­i­cal act of justice.

Further Reference

There was also a href="http://opentranscripts.org/transcript/biased-data-panel-qa/">Q&A session.

Biased Data: A Panel Discussion on Intersectionality and Internet Ethics at the Processing Foundation web site.