Johanna Hedva: I think now we’ll open it up for questions, but I just want to say that before started the panel I had this general question that I wanted to ask everybody, which was, “So what are we going to do?” But I think that I want to address that to this room, because you all here are the ones that are going to help us do that. You’re the makers and the thinkers and the producers and the consumers that I think have a lot of power in how these questions get answered. So with that I’d like to open it up, and we have a microphone that needs to be passed around, so wait for it.
Audience 1: I just wanted to get your thoughts on the shift to mobile platforms, because as a design solution it kind of has caused this shift away from what Safiya mentioned earlier, like this…people grew who up with the Internet had the ability to sort of access the backdoor…what An mentioned, like accessing the code. But now with the shift to mobile platforms, a lot of that is more opaque. And then places like in less-developed nations where the mobile platform is the less expensive option to access the Web, it creates this sort of inaccessibility of the code or the backdoor has been really important to this…fighting the Web, sort of, like for hacking and stuff like that. So I just wanted to get your thoughts on that shift.
Safiya Noble: Yeah, you’re nailing it in that the hardware is a constraint. It’s another one of the constraints. So often, I talk about if I collected searches and the display was the size of the Empire State Building, there’d be a lot more to talk about, a lot more available. And conversely, when you do the search on a mobile phone, now you’re getting a third or less. (I got the big phone, you know what I’m saying, but if you’ve got a little one…because I can’t read, I’m blind.) So this is a constraint, and I don’t think that it’s these kinds of conversations, I mean… I feel like I could make a pretty good bet that these kinds of conversations are not going down in hardware manufacturing design, where we go, “Hey, what would happen if people only got the first five hits, or they couldn’t edit code from their mobile device?” In fact, we talk about these in a scholarly way as “digital enclosures.” And the normalization of these digital enclosures, mobile being a really important one, is something that is very difficult for us to intervene upon. We have more black-boxing, so to speak, of the technology than ever. And it is harder to hack, and even the idea of hacking it over the course of twenty-five years has become more pejorative in kind of a legalistic way. Certainly criminalized in many ways.
So you’re nailing the right questions, and I think we have to figure it out. Maybe that means you’ll help us, lead us to these other alternate platforms where we can try to do something different. And people are trying to intervene with different kinds of mobile technologies. You might’ve seen that block phone that’s all components, where instead of throwing the whole phone out when one thing fails, you just take out the component part. So it’s like a sustainability… Well, it didn’t used to be a Google project. I guess they took it over because like two years ago it wasn’t. But they buy everything. So anything good, you guys are going to be millionaires when you come up with these good ideas. Is that the intervention? I don’t know. We’ll have to figure out at a certain point, will Google get broken up like AT&T was? I don’t know. Do you know what I’m saying? But I think it’s an important question. It’s more constraining, probably, than many other devices we’re dealing with.
Marika Cifor: And if we think about ideas of a digital divide, if that’s a useful framework to even use, is having access to the Internet on a mobile phone the same as having access via laptop? Or even if you think more within the realm of computer access to the Internet, is having broadband access at home the same, or as having it at your school the same as having actual empowered Internet access in a kind of complete way?
Noble: Yeah, this is about consumption. Being an audience, a 24⁄7 always-on consumptive audience. It’s not really for producing in the same way, otherwise everybody would be trying to design on this, and they’re not.
Audience 2: This is for Professor Noble, or it’s about something Professor Noble said but it’s open to the panel. About the implementation of how we regulate a search engine like Google or any other entity online that’s responsible for disseminating information at request. The Forbes article seemed to think that there’s definitely a legal and maybe a moral responsibility of doing that, and how do you go about that when responses that people could probably get from Google are that “our motivators are not only profit but usability,” and they’ll argue it from a very technical side of the equation. And also, specifically with Google, as I think everyone can agree it’s a major one to target, that company in particular at their outset (you’re probably aware of it) their main philosophy was literally the phrase “Don’t be evil” when they founded Google.
Hedva: It’s still the WiFi password on their shuttles.
Audience 2: That’s…amazing.
Hedva: I was just there.
Audience 2: So, how do you implement that kind of change or convince legislators of that kind of regulation when legislators are probably going to see things from that side, at least now in the development of these ideas? And how do you actually not just convince people, but are there other ways of getting it regulated? And can you do it non-cooperatively? Are there ways to get the same effects without actually getting Google to change their algorithms or their policies?
Noble: It’s an excellent question. So, when the Federal Trade Commission started investigating Google a few years ago, about four years ago or so, into its monopoly practices, ultimately the FTC decided that Google was not a monopoly and had a right to perform its business duties any way it felt necessary. So part of what we’re dealing with is, as you all know, of course you can’t leave design school without knowing what neoliberalism is. So, in the neoliberal kind of economic policy environment, where in the United States since the 1980s we’ve really stepped up our game around privatization and corporate control of many aspects of what we previously might’ve thought of as a public domain or public institutions that might provide a resource…now we’re in an era where it seems wholly logical to most people that corporations would provide those resources to us.
So this is one of the reasons why people report high degree of confidence in Google or in search engines, for example. Because it seems normal to have a private company or even a publicly-traded company do that rather than say, the library. And so in a total divestment from public libraries or public institutions that could’ve built these technologies too, but are not resourced at the level. The government also provided a lot of government contracts to Google, but not to other public institutions to do some of the work that it’s done. So Google’s massively funded by the US government.
So part of this is the environment, the neoliberal economic environment that we’re operating in. Now, I would be on the side of giving testimony about regulation if invited to. And I think we’re seeing in the EU, some really hard crackdowns on the role of Google as a commercial, private company so to speak, working solely in its own profit motive paradigm with a different set of end goals than maybe public institutions would provide.
In the US it’s very difficult because we have very strong discourses, now more than ever, about distrusting the state, or distrusting government. In Europe, people have a different sensibility in many different countries about the role of the state. So this is part of why the EU is actually imposing a lot of sanctions on Google around their non-competitive or anti-competitive practices, and blocking out other countries, and their straight up monopoly practices. They’re issuing a lot of pushback.
And researchers are thinking about alternatives, and they’re very well organized, differently than we’re organized here. So I think that we might get some relief, so to speak, or some models that come out of the EU that might help us shift the discourse here in the US.
But I have to say that at the same time, UCLA just outsourced its email to GMail. So, what? I mean, it’s like you can’t win. We have these public institutions all over the country that are just outsourcing to these tech companies and other kinds of companies, and divesting the public dollars from these kinds of projects.
So it’s real difficult but I think it’s worth fighting for, certainly. Because we’re starting to see some of the problematics of the incredible surveillance that’s happening, the loss of control over our digital identities. If you think you have control over it, you don’t. The documenting of your every utterance. Once it goes on the Web, I tell people, it’s written in pen. Maybe it’s tattooed, I don’t know. It’s really hard to get off.
So all the implications of what it means to have all of our lives and all of our information… Jean-François Blanchette talks about the social value of forgetfulness, of forgetting. We’re losing our ability to forget the things that should be forgotten, also. Wait until you try to run for Senate or Congress, some of you in this room, and some pictures or text roll up. I know, people are like, “Don’t bring it up.” So, I think we have yet to see, and maybe it will come about that when these really negative, profoundly negative consequences of what it means for these companies to control everything about what we say and what we do— I mean, even this talk is online right now, probably… Then, maybe we’ll push back. It’s going to take a lot more than just regulation, it’ll take a culture shift, too.
Audience 3: This kind of off piggybacks off of what we’ve been discussing. We’ve been talking about the corporatization of online space, but also online activism at the same time. So I guess my question is what is the dangers of activism happening within a corporate space? And then also thinking about, Tumblr was specifically mentioned, and in my opinion Tumblr is kind of…different from online spaces, and I would just like to talk about why is that.
Hedva: I love Tumblr. I’m not on any social media site except for Tumblr, and it’s great. I feel like I’ve learned more from being on social justice blogs on Tumblr, Black Tumblr during Blackout Day, Trans Day of Visibility, than my entire critical theory degree in graduate school at CalArts, like for real. And I think one of the things about Tumblr that…it’s maybe like a step away from Facebook in that you can be completely anonymous on there. You don’t have to reveal any of your own information. And the information that you choose to reveal is often like, “Yeah, I’m like a 15 year-old genderqueer person living in the middle of nowhere and I can change the CSS and HTML on my Tumblr.” And I think that there’s something about it that’s a little MySpace‑y in that way. I mean, obviously Tumblr is not a Utopia. There are plenty of problems on Tumblr. But I think that there’s something about it that…
This is also a general question that I wanted to ask about anonymity and Anonymous and the hacktivist work of Anonymous. I wonder if anonymity on the Internet is also in service to some kind of political action that can be good. Like I wonder if the reason Tumblr feels different is because you can choose—like, you don’t have to use your real name. So on Facebook this is a problem if you want to use a different name than your given name. Say you’re a trans person who doesn’t want to use your given name. And Facebook has this policy of asking you, or demanding, “Is this your real name?”
So I wonder about that level of anonymity and how that works. What do y’all think about Anonymous?
An Xiao Mina: I think I can speak generally to anonymity. I think it’s both incredibly powerful and incredibly dangerous at the same time, in ways that I’m still grappling with. A friend of mine who’s a researcher, her name’s Tricia Wang, she put forth this idea specifically around Tumblr but I guess any sort of social network that allows for flexible performance of identity, it’s the ability to explore different identities and to benefit from anonymity and not have to be locked into who you are. And she used this phrase “elastic self,” which I just loved.
In cities, traditionally, the ability to go to a gay bar or to these kind of third spaces where you could explore a different sort of identity or different sort of self with what you would hope is some level of anonymity away from the smaller villages or towns you might come from, we can analogize that with some of these flexible spaces that allow for, if not anonymity then at least pseudonymity, or some sort or a flexible identity. I’m not sure that anonymity on the Internet is truly possible, given the amount of data that’s collected about how we’re using the Web. That could be debated. But the flexible identity seems really important.
But at the same time, and we saw this with the Dylan Roof example, it’s also a way to perform dangerous identities as well, and discover different sides of yourself that you may not have explored and that are actually harmful to society. So it’s an issue I’m still grappling with, and I think there are these incredible benefits for marginalized communities, but marginal viewpoints can also be…you know, misogyny might be considered a marginalized viewpoint in terms of, the ability to express direct misogyny in public discourse in the US is quite limited. And yet on the Internet what we see is extremely direct misogyny. So that ability to be pseudonymous or anonymous can promote both harmful and helpful attitudes. So I think it’s a quite difficult question.
Cifor: I think there’s a lot of things to speak to in both of your questions. But thinking about activism for a second (and we can think of Anonymous as kind of a specific instance of digital activism and its potential), actually this is one of the things we were talking about in my class yesterday. The kind of potential for activism and what can be done well in terms of online activism. Is it the same valuation to Like something, to Like a social justice cause on Facebook, as it is to go to a march or to engage in some kind of more traditional form of protest? And I’m actually really intrigued by the fact that most of my students did not see… They see digital tools as enabling traditional activism, but that the actual purely digital activism doesn’t actually…they don’t see it as having much power for change, which was interesting to me. And that they were very drawn, there were things they still wanted even from activist movements that had come in part out of digital spaces— So, thinking about Black Lives Matter and other kinds of “hashtag activism,” that they still are not convinced that it can make positive social change without having a traditional hierarchy and platform of demands. They were particularly critical… Most of them were on board with Black Lives Matter’s message, but don’t think it [can] actually provoke real change without a more traditional activist platform where say, they’re going to take a legal kind of approach to ending racism in the criminal justice system and things.
So I think there’s lots of interesting questions to ask about what digital spaces can do well and what they don’t do well, and some of that is related to issues that’ve already come up around language. There’s been Ramesh Srinivasan, who’s in our department, writes a lot about the Arab Spring and the use of Twitter there, and where those people who were using Twitter actually are and what was actually done in digital spaces versus in physical spaces as well. So there’s lots of interesting questions to ask there.
And speaking of misogyny in online spaces, Lindy West has a really great story about one of her misogynist Internet trolls actually kind of coming out to her as who he actually is and them having a conversation, which is really fascinating if you’re interested in that as well.
Noble: Yeah. If you look back, pre-digital, to the types of surveillance that activists especially in the US, on the Left in particular, have been under, I think the Internet exacerbates that level of surveillance, the end. It’s just what happens. And so it’s hard for me to get on board with thinking that the Internet is some type of liberatory space because it actually heightens— I mean now, every single person who’s ever tweeted on any cause is identifiable. And trust, for those of us who’ve been trolled on the Internet, we know what the real threat of that kind of trolling is, also.
I think Anonymous, that’s a complicated “organization” in that, early days of Anonymous were all about the kind of bro culture, sexism and trolling and racism, and now they’re doing Operation KKK or Operation Hoods Off, and I’m like, “What? When did that happen?” So Anonymous itself is not really a monolithic thing. It’s a lot of different people with a lot of different agendas that’re happening there. And I think one other thing that’s interesting about what Anonymous has been doing, I’ve been watching them fiercely since the Parish bombing on Twitter, is that they’re doing a lot to talk about like, they’re taking down ISIS, pro-ISIS Twitter accounts. They’re claiming to have taken down more than 6,000 Twitter accounts and ISIS sympathizer accounts in the last week. And they’re issuing guides on how to do hacktivism for everyday people, which is also interesting.
But here’s the thing. Not everybody knows how to open up an IRC channel and how to really get Anonymous. That’s difficult. That’s not an everyday user kind of experience. And also, people who do that level of really trying to conceal their identity or where they’re searching, if they’re using Tor and these kinds of things, those are actually being criminalized. So it’s like, can you do that? To me, people of color, people who are on the margin, using those kinds of technologies are more at risk because of the criminalization of that kind of engagement.
So I guess I feel like it’s layered. I don’t disagree with anything that’s been said here about the identity work that we can do, and making ourselves visible, and the education we can do definitely is happening. At the same time, when we think about where the real power is, how power operates at the level of the state or other types of organizations…law enforcement, Homeland Security, NSA…I think that we’re seeing people lose their jobs over their political activism online. We’re seeing mostly even kind of right-wing extremists in the United States, white supremacists, what we might call our homeland terrorists, not criminalized. But other kinds of activists criminalized.
So these things are still explicitly political around the agenda and the tensions we have in the United States. If we look pre-Internet again, at projects like COINTELPRO, the counterintelligence program of the United States government (everybody go watch the COINTELPRO 101 documentary), these practices of surveilling women’s organizations, anti-war protesters, Puerto Rican independence movement, civil rights and black power activists, brown power activists…it’s like who’s left? I don’t know whoever’s left. I mean, what’s left is the Klan, right? Or Nazis, or that right-wing extremism, that’s less surveilled and facing far less consequence.
So these things happened before the Internet, and I think the Internet is actually making people who are trying to do progressive work more visible and are potentially facing greater consequence for that visibility.
Hedva: If anybody has one last question? Short. And then we’ll wrap it up.
Audience 4: Hi. There was a brief section where you guys were talking about how a lot of the information, especially during the AIDS movement, was archived. In this age where there is official commentary about issues, but there’s also a lot of backhanded commentary through the comments or through Twitter or things, where do those play in the ideal archival images, or archival data, and do you think they have potentially power where they stand? Where does that fit in the idea of technology in the digital age?
Cifor: That’s a really good and interesting question. Speaking to the archiving question for a second there, which is I feel my primary area of expertise. There’s lots of arguments about whether we will actually… There is so much information, but whether that information will continue to exist. Web sites…you stop paying for your domain name, they might disappear, right? We have the potential to preserve more data, but we know less about preserving this data. We know a lot about preserving paper. We don’t know a whole lot yet about preserving digital materials of all kinds. And digital materials of course degrade like other materials do, and they’re kind of ephemeral and people don’t maintain them. Or conceptualize with them, necessarily in the same way. So there’s of course the question of whether we will actually have… There’s a potential for the Internet as this kind of endless expansive ocean of an archive. But we may in fact have less information at some point about certain moments and particularly this moment.
So that’s an interesting question. And then with the poster I showed at the end, a lot of what the artists are responding to is this kind of nostalgia for an earlier period of activism, and for a particular kind of activism, and a particular kind of attention to AIDS, and an attention to AIDS in the past as something that is done. Of course AIDS is not done. And they’re critiquing in particular the decontextualization of those images. That is something that happens particularly in a digital space. You can do a Google image search and maybe something from ACT UP will pop up and you can reuse in, well…there’s copyright issues, but you can theoretically use it in any way you want to.
So it’s then kind of divorced from its entire contextual history. You can know little to nothing about the AIDS movement and still recreate those images. And I think that’s where Justin Bieber perhaps comes into that image. Does Justin Bieber know who ACT UP is or was? Does Justin Bieber have an investment in AIDS activism? He’s never, to my knowledge, said anything publicly. Or did Justin Bieber’s stylist just think the ACT UP logo made a cool t‑shirt? We’re not sure. Maybe Justin Bieber is a secret AIDS activist, but (not to critique his politics) the potential for decontextualization of images is huge. So these images of AIDS proliferate, but the actual knowledge about AIDS does not necessarily proliferate, and it only is looking at a particular kind of iconic moment of AIDS so it distracts from having conversations about AIDS now, and AIDS as global pandemic, and AIDS in the United States as something that of course disproportionately impacts women of color and poor people and trans people and people of color more broadly.
And part of what I think my argument will be is that it won’t be documented. AIDS now will not be documented in the way that AIDS was in the 1980s and 1990s, and part of that is of course the reason that things get documented. Archives reflect notions of power. Who has access to power and who thinks they’re important and whose lives we think are important in the archival world. And what activism looks like and what digital looks like, and there are lots of issues if we think about use of proprietary platforms there. It’s technically Facebook owns everything you put on Facebook. So there are serious concerns about whether you’re actually legally able to preserve the activism you do on Facebook, because that data doesn’t technically belong to you, so you cannot donate that data to an archive.
Reas: Yeah. I think it’s time. Hsinyu are we doing a reception in the back? So we’ll have a reception upstairs, right here in the room so we can continue some of the conversations. This has been an extraordinary evening. Thank you so much for joining us and sharing these ideas, many of them horrifying. But incredible to be having this conversation in this room, so deepest thank you for that. Thank you, audience. And then I really want to especially thank the technodiversity team at the voidLab. That’s Hsinyu [Lin], Peter [Lu], Sofia [Staab-Gulbenkian], and Lilyan [Kris].
Hedva: Yes, this is totally student-initiated, this evening. So, thank you so much. It’s really amazing that this is— And Echo [Theohar], way in the back. You guys are amazing. Thank you for having us.
This Q&A session was preceded by a panel discussion period.
Biased Data: A Panel Discussion on Intersectionality and Internet Ethics at the Processing Foundation web site.