Thursday, June 27, 2013

Reportback from AMC and ALA, and some thoughts on technology libraries and tools for liberation

Last weekend I headed to Detroit for the 15th Allied Media Conference, an amazing event that draws together hundreds of activists, artists, organizers, educators, and people who combine all of that and more. It's pretty seriously grassroots, with community folk and collectives dominating over academics and other large organizations. It's also majority people of color, majority queer, I think pretty solidly majority women. Conference events are more likely to be workshops, skillshares or report-backs but often a lot more hands-on and interactive than your usual conference. Alongside cool things like childcare collectives, radical health, and the "Octavia's Brood" project for afrofuturist science fiction, there is the disco-tech lab, open for hacking and learning (shout out to Black Girls Code, May First and the other cool groups there), a healing room, a radio station, all kinds of amazing spaces to get things done and connect. It takes place on Wayne State Campus (although some flack arose due to Wayne State's troubled relationship to the rest of Detroit and that's a conversation worth having, it is at least still in Detroit). It's basically in all ways better than any other conference I attend.

I and two fantastic artist-activist-scholars Blackamazon and So-Treu, co-ran a workshop called "Web-Writing, Ownership Ethics and Power" about which see more at the end of this post.

The same day, due to near-superhuman efforts by AZUCAR crew La Joteria (whom Ushka and I wrote about here), there was a party benefiting the Brown Boi Project. It took place at Bob's Classic Kicks, a cool local sneaker store that has a monthly hip-hop event. Shoutout to the nice guy who loaned the sound system, whose name I forget. I played a 4 hour set for the bois and friends - it was a lovely crowd and everyone, simply everyone danced. There were people there who repped almost every genre I played, so I dropped classic and new ballroom(esque) sounds and watched the runway appear, I dropped some New Orleans Bounce and suddenly the NoLa crew were on the floor, I dropped Azonto and people did the Azonto, Soca and there was wining, the Wobble dragged all the people in who were trying to leave, we headed to the Bay Area for some hyphy sounds, I played dancehall and things got dutttttty... And I had to end it with this classic. Big love to everyone for helping make the party fantastic!

To go back to the workshop. Here was our description:

"Writing online, you're on a knife-edge: you can reach likeminded people and fellow fighters, save a life, educate, represent. Or you may see your words and ideas repeated without your name (or community) attached, enhancing others' careers while erasing your presence. Online media platforms make easier both the act of authorship and its erasure, praise as well as harassment, support as well as stalking. In this strategy session, we will break down the ethics of writing and reblogging, and generate guidelines for ourselves and for designers of blogging platforms so they can prevent exploitation and erasure."

you can search the twitter hashtag #whoshares (although it's now somewhat clogged with other stuff), to see some discussion, I will storify that later today if I can. It was an amazing discussion.


He's me facilitating near the end, in my new hat (There were many other great pictures but I'm not going to post them until I've checked with people about their images going a-wandering). Also, I'm not going to summarize it here until I've talked with my co-presenters about how we are moving forward, but I will say that I was absolutely thrilled and honored to have this conversation with the communities that most need to be centered in the discussion: activists, people from marginalized communities, people of color, queer and trans folk, women.. all folk who were not influential in the design of basic web protocols and online protocols.

One thing that was especially important was the ways that people both emphasized the pleasures and values of being online, but also the kinds of vulnerabilities that are not well addressed in current blogging platforms. Many people raised things that are usually discussed negatively in the self-identified "radical" tech community as "Digital Rights Management."People wanted ways to take down images of themselves that had migrated outside of a safe context. Ways to remove, tag, or manage their words and ideas so that more powerful people or entities couldn't profit or erase them. they talked about terrible, threatening experiences, loss of jobs and safety, debilitating harassment and stalking.

It reveals a real faultline in the tech world, where the concern over government or corporate control of tools sometimes outweighs the real, existing harms to particular communities denied those tools. The liberal individualist framework of freedom appears to allow many tech folks to MANDATE that people be open to harassment and threats that are tiring, stressful, and physically dangerous as well. I want to make sure that techies who are not from these worlds are not willing to just tell, for example, a trans person who literally faces death for being 'outed' in the wrong place: "DRM could be used by the government or big corporations so we won't design a way for you to pull content from the web if you don't feel safe with it being out there." We have to think bigger than this if we want online tools to be valuable for overturning hierarchy, not just propping it up.

I took part of these concerns to my next gig, starting off the Plenary Session of the Rare Books and Manuscripts section of the American Library Association. I spoke about my work and its implications for archivists, and then Katherine Reagan and Ben Ortiz of Cornell University's Hip-Hop Archive spoke about putting some of those same concerns into practice to make sure the Archive was actually useful and relevant to hip-hop communities and the historic roots of hip-hop especially in New York. We talked about the obligations that people who make and collect recordings have to the people who are being recorded - and to the communities, collectively, whose experiences and struggles create the culture. Beyond that, there are obligations to principles of justice, and to do our best to not support or rely on systems of exploitation, cultural erasure and disrespect.

We can figure out how to do that through examining the specific harms to specific people and communities that are not well represented online, in archives, or in mainstream media...  and as in the AMC workshop I tried to articulate them since they are not well served by values like "copyright law" "preservation" or "freedom of speech." I will take some of these concerns forward to my talks while on tour, one in Berlin on July 6th, and one in Croatia.

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