This is my TEDx talk from February, when I visited Bend, Oregon. I sound kinda nervous at the start but by the end I’m rocking Jesse Shera quotes with the best of them.
1. In the late summer of 2013, I attend a workshop at the Center for Urban Science and Progress. As a qualitative researcher and a woman, I’m underrepresented in the room. As an activist and Marxist feminist, I am all but inscrutable. But then again, so are some of the statements that are made in the course of explaining the different data gathering projects being conceptualized for a partnership between CUSP and a development project called Hudson Yards. I realize I am watching big data happen. Men in suits talk about the things they will measure with sensors: “We can monitor foot traffic and energy use! Trash consumption! Smoking! Sleep!” When I voice concerns of privacy, of alternate methods, of doubts that any of these things will in fact add up to the alleged goal of understanding whether people are happy, I am told, “our goal is not to have to talk to people face to face” and then, “you cannot improve what you cannot measure.”
(joeshlabotnik via Flickr)
2. I’m on a G train in Brooklyn, the year is 2011. On one side of the train, I see advertisements for Google’s Good to Know initiative, which informs users on issues of privacy, security and netiquette. More than anything, the ads remind me of seemingly well-intentioned and yet always-already obvious PSAs. I turn my head and see on the other side of the train, promotions from the Metropolitan Transit Authority simultaneously documenting and advertising progress on various station, line and service improvements. It occurs so me that these ads are doing the same thing, which is to say presenting institutions as infrastructure. These ads want to reassure us that these companies are continuing to work for our benefit, safety and convenience, but less, perhaps, as consumers than as constituents of a particular kind of public. They are also invested in presenting themselves as integral to our daily lives of travel, online and off. This conflation is all the more disconcerting when we think about flows of information and data that are gathered by institutions as if they are infrastructure.
3. It’s the summer of 2004 and I have just moved to New York. On my first night in the city that will be my home for the next decade, I go with my new roommate to the Metropolitan. It is only when I read a Sleater Kinney lyric scrawled on a bathroom stall door, that I realize two things: 1. I’m in a lesbian bar and 2. I can make a home out of this city. Writing this now, I realize that this is my first memory of reading New York. In her book Metropolitan Lovers, Julie Abraham unpacks the history of this kind of reading, writing that “anxieties about the legibility of buildings and streetscapes, about being able to interpret the cities and versions of cities that we see … are also an extension of the anxiety about legibility … It is a [modern] anxiety about the ‘facades’ of individuals rather than of buildings, about the artifice of urban life undermining the legibility of persons in the city. Post modern anxieties about the reading of urban structures echo the anxieties of the denizens of great cities about the readings of persons.” It is worth returning to these anxieties (as my colleague Kate Crawford has done) in concerns of big data and legibility. Big data will help us sense beneath the facades, it could even help us measure and improve human happiness, or so the promise goes. And yet, legibility can function both top down and bottom up. Queer women make themselves and their spaces legible to each other and create a sense of home, even as we simultaneously become legible to those who would do us harm. Legibility has been a rallying cry of historically marginalized groups for a long time; I am cognizant of the need to honor those efforts, even as they come with new concerns when relationships to data are centered first on prediction and never on interpersonal contact or context.
(kindofindie via Flickr)
4. Just two months shy of my nine year anniversary, I leave New York for Boston. The same week of my departure, the city installs CitiBikes, its bike share program. I feel an unexpected sense of relief that I do not have to see (or bike through) the city this way. One of my favorite things about urban biking is the feeling that I am no longer bound by subway lines and bus routes, that I have a far more expansive set of spatial possibilities. Basically, that the city can feel like play. Citbikes, which incidentally represent quite neatly the collapse of institution and infrastructure, are bound temporally (to 30 minute rides) and spatially (no bikes for Queens, the Bronx or Staten Island). They are also binding cyclists in datasets that become public but not transparent. Big data is tied to cities in that density is necessary for analysis; outliers and patterns only become visible with adequate normality of surrounding datapoints. In this way, legibility of data is not only (and in fact, not at all) individual, it is collective. These layers of legibility – between institution and infrastructure, between legibility and enclosure, between individual and collective, are what make it increasingly difficult to retain a sense of play in one’s daily movements through city space.
(Linh Nguyen via Flickr)
And perhaps this is my main point – I want the city to be a place where play is still possible, even fostered, and it’s going to take more than censors or providing a zip file of our own datapoints. As researchers and technologists, we must commit ourselves to making these processes of data gathering more visible, to articulating consent clearly and honestly rather than wearily surrendering to the highest-common denominator of legal language, to supporting complex and even contradictory desires for mobility as well as stasis, different political arrangements of the right to work as well as play.
Back in September, I asked Mark Hansen about sponsoring a workshop for people who work on queerness and online technologies. Mark directs the Brown Institute for Media Innovation, which awarded me and my collaborator Adam Golub a grant to study social media use in Brooklyn’s Drag Community, and in addition to being deeply supportive of that project, he was immediately enthusiastic about the idea of workshop. Six months and many emails later, the workshop came into being (today!) with the (deeply, deeply appreciated) support of Brown, JustPublics@365 and Microsoft Research, not to mention the efforts of my co-organizer, the indefatigable Jack Gieseking.
We started off the day with a group of activists, artists, thinkers and makers who shared how they see the politics of technologies playing out in their work with queer organizations and institutes. Hadassah Damien spoke about her work with the Interference Archive, and in addition to explaining all the awesome things they do, she opened up discussions of how archives and activists construct the concept of public(s), access and visibility. Kalle Westerling came back to this topic when talking about CLAGS, and thinking about both the institutional affiliation of CLAGS and questions of how best to manage outreach. Rachel Corbman's talk on the Lesbian Herstory Archives used the Wayback Machine to illustrate technological change. Highlights for me (everyone, really) included getting to see pictures of Gayle Rubin in chaps and a 1982 photo of Judith Butler sporting a t-shirt, tie, shorts and Chuck Taylors.
I was struck (and concerned) by the shared precarity of these institutions, all of which are at risk of losing their funding. During our Q&A, Irene Javors raised a really terrific point about consequences of increasing acceptance of queer subjectivities in mainstream society, which requires re-thinking how we tell our stories, conduct outreach and conceptualize queer identities.
The afternoon starting with Jack leading a really fun and really productive map-making project. After grouping us by the decades people came out, we started mapping queer New York, which opened up some really fascinating conversations of where our queer experiences, interactions and travels have taken place.
Our second set of speakers was focused on different experiences with and ideas about queer technologies. Merrie Cherry got us started by talking about how social media technologies have intervened in her life as a drag performer, and I loved her openness about issues of policing speech as well as bodies. Jacob Gaboury shared some of his work on queer technologies, and encouraged us to think about queer failures, as well as how to tell histories of marginalization that simultaneously do justice to alterity while not reifying those groups as always-already in a position of victimization. Bryce Renninger talked about politics of race and sexuality in the context of online dating technologies, bringing together some really compelling questions of intersections of race, sexualities and technologies. Maggie Galvan made the case for thinking about feminist and lesbian history in the 1980s, arguing that it’s an era that’s simultaneously understudied and theoretically rich. Drawing on her research on the technological practices and fluencies of queer homeless youth in New York, Jessie Daniels made me think about the stereotypes we (tend to) carry about who uses technologies and how. David Phillips closed out the panel by talking about queer surveillance, the pleasures of marginalization and possibilities for contesting big data. Summarizing these talks in one sentence is a series of brutal condensation, but the panel provoked a really generative set of discussions that I hope will lead to some really wonderful projects, collaborations and interventions.
I’m so grateful to the amazing line-up of folks who came to share their work, to Jack Gieseking for his brilliance, patience and sunshine-y warmth, and to the organizations that backed us. Special shout outs to Mark Hansen, Michael Krisch and Kate Crawford for their support - I am so, so thankful for the different ways you made today possible.