I am at the Central Branch of the Boston Pubic Library and there is a (locked) wireless network called Ranganathan. Is it weird that I find this somehow comforting? Also, for the record, the password is *not* booksareforuse.
Last night I heard Kate Crawford give a terrific and thought-provoking talk about Squeaky Dolphin, Normcore and anxieties of surveillance. I was a furious scribe during the talk, but I thought I’d type out one tiny and maybe not even all that insightful realization, which has to do with texting as a tool of dissent. Kate (whom I consider a friend and mentor, so I’ll continue to use her first name in this post) mentioned a couple instances in which police have, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, notified people that they’re under surveillance. I say surprising because if you’re the police, why tip your hand and let the surveilled know they’re under watch? But this assumption is predicated on the idea that police are using surveillance to gather evidence for a suspected crime. What if, instead, they’re preventing it? This perspective on surveillance in fact epitomizes a rhetorical shift in how sovereign forces engage with data, which Kate might link to the anxiety that even with all of their datasets, the authorities still don’t really know what it is they have, what the data means, what they can do. Given an inability to identify patterns, to offer specific evidence of wrong doing, police are left with prevention. And as Mark Andrejevic has written, big data is predicated on prediction over explanation. So rather than gathering evidence, surveillance becomes a mechanism of chilling participation, and all it takes is a text.
I am not much of a texter, to the point that in nine years as a Verizon customer (I have since switched to T-Mobile, which I love), the only months I ever went over my allotment of 400 texts were in the fall of 2011, because it felt impossible to participate in Occupy without texting. Where are you? Where are the cops? Where is the working group meeting, I don’t see anyone by the Gandhi statue. Who’s doing jail support, do they need cigarettes? Where are the cops? Have you seen Scales? There’s a bike bloc at 9, meet you at the bridge? Where are the cops? We trusted texts in a way that we couldn’t trust publicly accessible web pages, because getting someone’s number typically results from a face to face encounter, although this mechanism of adjudicating membership is by no means full proof. The extent to which texting has been used to organize and evade and rally have been documented across the globe, and in my own experiences at occupy, the two most important technologies I had were my cell phone and my bike. If I had received a message like those received by Ukrainian protesters, I can only imagine it would have chilled me to the core, not because I would have felt that the police had obtained evidence of wrongdoing (at no point of Occupy have I committed a crime more serious than running lights on my bike and being in the street instead of the sidewalk, which is pretty much a daily practice of transportation for me, protest or otherwise) but because I would have felt interpolated as a subject of dissent. We know who you are, the text message is saying. We know where you are, we know what you’re going to do. That the exact origin of the Ukrainian counter-dissent texts is murky only plays into what Daniel Solove would call a Kafka-esque regime of surveillance, where the real threat of state surveillance is not an Orwellian scenario of seeing everything, but rather that the surveilled don’t know what information the surveillors have, the circumstances of its gathering, storage, access or use, which is a paralyzing and, echoing Kate, anxiety-provoking relationship to data.
Kate’s talk was focused on lived experiences of big data, and I pushed her a little on using the future rather than present tense to ask what living with big data will feel like. I agreed with her response, which is that our vocabulary for talking about these technologies are in their infancy, and that phrasing things in terms of an impending future provides a kind of discursive power for possibilities of change. At the same time, I think it’s worth underscoring that the era of big data is already here and we are already living in it. As an ethnographer, I find big data annoying, but as an activist, I find big data chilling, not because I might be identified by some highly complex algorithm in some incredibly sophisticated dataset, but because the ethic of big data leads to rhetorics of prevention, which are concerning in their own right, but moreover stand to foreclose even the most basic technologies of dissent, like sms messages and the simple act of peaceable assembly.
- This weekend I’ll be in NYC as part of my ongoing project at the Brown Institute for Media Innovation.
- At the end of the month, I’m visiting Jack Gieseking at Bowdoin. I hear there’s an LL Bean that’s open 24 hours!
- April 3-6, I’ll be back in the NYC metropolitan area, very excited about pulling off the Queer Internet Studies workshop that’s been in my head for almost a year!
- I’ll be in Tampa from April 8 to the 11th for AAG.
- Back to NYC (you can see why it is that people forget I don’t actually live there any more) April 11 and 12th for the Radical Archives Conference.
- Headed to Chicago April 16-18th for PCA.
- And finally, a non-work-related trip: I’m going to South Africa at the end of April! I’m going with my family to visit family friends, it’ll be my first time on the continent of Africa, so I couldn’t be more excited.
It’s the last day of the iconference and I’m just leaving an awesome, much needed discussion of social justice issues related to library and information science. It’s always affirming to see people in my field who care about social justice exchanging ideas, frustrations, success stories, failure stories and giving advice, here are some brief notes from the discussion. Many of these examples focus on teaching and academic life, but there are ways to reposition them towards other contexts.
+Discomfort is okay. Nicole Cooke pointed out that it’s actually productive and useful to generate moments of discomfort in class - I really appreciate this point as a reminder that as tempting as it is to shy away from moments of social awkwardness that come from identifying gaps in privilege, it can also be an important opportunity to reshape assumptions.
+When it comes to convincing administrators and senior faculty of the importance of diversity and inclusion efforts, we need allies who are higher ups and money talks. The members of the panel were from GSLIS at the ischool at Illinois, and they noted the importance of having champions in their program. Also, having received a grant to work on diversity and inclusion lends a degree of legitimacy to politics of challenging heteronormativity.
+Even if we’re making our classes full of theories of power, students self-select for classes specifically geared towards issues of race class and gender, so how do we get issues of social justice into the curriculum as a whole? Some inventive ideas include course releases for faculty to partner with existing classes to integrate issues of critical theory and social justice into coursework. Also, a clearer articulation of how these efforts fit into the category of service. Another idea is building momentum with interdisciplinary efforts towards feminist ideology, like Laura Portwood-Stacer’s efforts to generate conversations of feminists working on social media at a range of communication and HCI conferences.
+When it comes to the examples that you’re using in class, it’s important to think about the examples that we use. It’s an easy thing to bring up with colleagues as a way of talking about diversity that can be fairly easily integrated into the classroom.