Another Whirlwind Tour

The Bank booked my tickets for me (yay no financial overhead!.. but–) with an 11-hour layover at LHR. So I popped on the Heathrow Express to Paddington. I’m sitting in a Starbucks, of all places. They’re playing Morrisey. It’s pretty awful, but it’s also a holiday and everything else around here was closed. I was meant to have been back in Boston for the past week, after a long stint of travel, but things got extended by a continent, so here I am.

Cascadia.JS

I gave a keynote at Cascadia.JS, and the event and its people were absolutely wonderful. Even played some pinball with Case (oh, PS, we’re throwing a CyborgCamp at MIT in October and you should come). I was soooo stressed when I gave this talk. Not from the talk itself – this community is lovely! I even wrote about it on the Civic blog – but because of the things surrounding this entry. When I watched the video later, it’s actually pretty alright. They gave me a full 30 minutes, and I wish I had padded it with more information. C’est la vie. Huge huge hugs to Ben and Tracy and the rest of the crew. You made a rough time easier through your care.

The drawings I did for other people’s talks are all here.

Wikimania

This was my first Wikimania, and it was stunning. So so much fun. Many things to think about, frustrations in new light, conversations over cider, and even more stick figures. And! Some lovely person taught me how to upload my drawings to the commons, and so now I’ll be hosting from there instead of from Flickr. Got to spend too-short time with Laurie (who I’ll see more of in Boston! Yay!), AND found out about Yaneer’s work on networked individuals and complex systems which rings closer to true in my intuition than most anything else I’ve run across recently.

Getting to know a neighborhood in London that I actually like, with art in the alleys and a bike repair and tailoring shop with a pub and wifi while you wait that is totally hipster gentrification and I so don’t care. And a strange moment in a Bombay-style restaurant of a half-recognized face, that ends up being the brother of the heart-based Seattle ex-Partner. We hug fiercely (as is the way of his family, and mine), until his manager gets angry. We laugh and promise to catch up.

Thence to Future Perfect, through the too-early fog of morning, and a panic attack, and dear Sam handling the accompanying compulsive need to stick to The Plan, even if it did not make the most sense, with the sort of calm curiosity and fondness which is exactly what is needed in those moments, and jogging through far away airports to finally arrive at our not-even-yet-boarding gate.

Future Perfect

A short flight (slept through) and a longer ferry ride (also slept through) through the archipeligos of Sweden, and Sam and I are on the island of Grinda for Future Perfect. We’re here at the behest of one Dougald Hine, long-time mirror-world not-quite-yet-cohort, to be Temporary Faculty at the festival, and to “difficultate.” It’s a strange thing, to be encouraged to ask the hard questions, and Ella and I are a bit adrift in the new legitimacy of our usual subversive action. “Ella, I think we’ve just been made legible.” “Shit. Quick, act polite!” But there’s an awfully strong thread of Libertarianism and Profiteering From The Future, so it’s not a difficult thing to ask stir-up questions. I sit on a panel called When Women Run the World, and mock the title, and question the assumption of binary sex, and point out matrixes of power. I draw as people talk, and post the print-outs to a large board for all to see, a strange combination of digital and analogue. Another panel I’m pulled onto I advocate for inclusion and codesign on the basis of values – not everyone bites. So then, pulling from Yaneer’s work, I point out that hierarchies fail at the capacity of any individual, whereas examined networks can scale in complexity. They nod. I grit teeth.

We also meet Bembo and Troja Scenkonst and Billy Bottle and Anna and the Prince of the Festival Lucas, and see old friends Ben and Christopher and Smari. We walk through the cow and sheep pasture as a shortcut from breakfast to festival, avoiding dirty boots and communicating via body language to over protective rams. I jump into the half-salt water of the archipelagos after a long sauna stint, and we drink sweet Swedish cider, and we sing Flanders and Swann across our joined repertoires. Ed gives me access to his audio book library, and I’m high on dopamine and scifi for hours to come. Our tiny temporary faculty crew sleeps in adjacent cabins, keeping the floors swept and porches clean.

And another early flight, stomach dropping as the pre-booked taxi service couldn’t find us and didn’t speak English (and Sam doesn’t hold Swedish in his repository of languages), no Ubers showing up on the app as they had the previous night, and finally finding a taxi app that would generate our location and sent a lovely driver for us. Getting to the airport, again, in time, with an uncertainty of how to part ways from this other human-shaped being who moves at high velocities, having been caught up in each other’s orbits for a short period of time, still texting threads and punctuation past gates.

Dar

And then I went back to Dar. And I realize in writing this how worn down my travel-muscle is, exhausted to the core. Less able to appreciate the beauty of a second wrecked ship on a calm sandy beach, unable to see the trying and hurt at the core of some of the people we hear speak. I am frustrated that the workshop I have been flown here to participate in has people reading verbatim from slides, that at the core of this workshop are not the people who are the most marginalized. I am brief, and I am blunt, and I do not show the same care that I expect to be shown to everyone. I become even more blunt with those who are unkind to others, a sort of brute force function into civility, and I and others know it will not work.

But some of the workshop has us figuring out hairy problems like reducing the 16-digit identifier for water points to locally useful and uniquely identifiable phrases for the database lookup table. I listen while the People Who Decide These Things think their servers won’t have the troubles other servers have. And some sections have people talking about appropriate technology and inclusion. It is productive, though differently than I’m used to.

I exchange a quiet conversation in the front of a taxi that waited for us at a restaurant, a practice which I hate, on the long journey home. The driver having not said more than a word or two at a time at first, now sharing anger about high taxes and now visible payout. The roads are paid for by other countries, the buildings, the power grid… where are his tax dollars going? We talk about schools, and his sister, and about how he has no way to speak.

We work with the Dar Taarifa team, who are unfolding and learning to push back, hours into github and strange google searches and odd places to encourage and odder places to encourage disagreement. We pause for translations, and I try to bow out so they’ll operate at full speed in Swahili, rather than moving slower so that I might understand.

Oh, also:

One of my drawings ended up all over the place:


Morgan’s research is pretty boss, and Barton did a great job writing.

It looks like I’m going to be in Kenya in parts of October and November playing games around climate change.
This post is apparently in the memory of LJ.

Paths to Better Futures

We’ve started telling people how they are expected to act. That’s a phenomenal start. We’ve started making it clear that there are paths to justice, in the case that those expectations are not met. Also great. But I don’t feel like it’s enough. Often, issues are forced into a boolean framing, with only a boolean response. Either something is dismissible, or scorched earth. And so many things go unaddressed, and the few things that aren’t are either viewed as “how did we wait so long?!” or “that seems like overkill.” The former continues to vilify the perpetrator, and the later vilifies the person(s) on the receiving end.

If we simply kick out anyone who messes up, we end up with empty communities, and that’s not a new future.

If we don’t hold people accountable for being abusive, we end up with rooms filled only with those who love their pre-existing power, and that’s not a new future.

League of Legends is the best example I know of how to deal with this properly, or at least better than usual. If you are an asshole to someone, you go to Tribunal. They do this because there are rarely “problem players,” but most incidents are “players having a bad day.” And if you got rid of all those players, you wouldn’t have anyone left. If you put a bad mark on “problem players” or some other permanent thing, people simply recreate accounts, and are pissed off while they play in the beginner brackets, and then you have a toxic environment for the newcomers, only the toxic stick around, and then the whole place sucks.

Let’s bring this to issues of gender and sexual advances specific to our geek communities. It cannot be fun for most of the people who are causing these problems. Just think – you try to make a pass, it either isn’t well received or seems to be but then later it turns out wasn’t, and no one is telling you what is actually expected. Except sometimes that you’ve done something wrong. Of course yes to consent! Yes to enthusiastic consent! But women especially are also socialized to give what is seemed to be desired. For safety. For society. Etc. And so consent is the first essential step along a path, but is not the end-all-be-all.

What I’m proposing is this: if someone violates a safe space agreement, or continually makes people in the community feel squicked, or whatever else… we need to have a path laid for them to get better. And if they’re not willing to take that path, we know they’re doing it because they’re an asshole, and not because they’re socially awkward. Awkwardness can be because of a commitment to consent, and is no excuse for many of these issues. Just ask someone I’ve dated. I am not smooth.

So what are those paths? Restorative justice seems to be a useful alternative for urban communities with generations disappearing into the legal system, but which has been co-opted by the privileged to avoid accountability. I’ve asked around about programs for people who are abusive to “get better,” with little luck. Are there paths already out there? Do we need to create them? Please do comment here, let’s have a discussion.

Expressions and Understanding


We have such an investment in the written word in our world right now. And it’s beautiful. Uses different parts of the brain at the same time, allows for storage of thought to be passed down and through and re-examined and loved through time. I love the written word.

But I am also dyslexic. I love books, but I hate reading – I feel like an idiot. I have to read each sentence twice (at least), at the same pace that I’d read aloud. I still don’t always understand what I’m reading – not the concept, mind you, simply the written words which are used to express it. I know the deep knowledge represented on each page, and yet I dredge through it like a 7 year old, frustrated by the time it takes to get through the simplest components. Still. At 30.

Listen – I ingest information best audibly, loving stories read aloud, going through most of my online reading through text-to-speech (thanks, Quinn), and learning best from the lecture, not the readings. Because of this, my writing cadence matches my speaking cadence nearly exactly – mainly because there were years where I would record myself speaking, and then transcribe it. It wasn’t writing. I don’t know how to write. I know how to speak. But that dyslexia isn’t just in reading, it’s in general language processing, and that includes the spoken word. Which means I miss chunks sometimes – able to hear beyond the normal audio range, but the content simply doesn’t land at times.

When I started drawing, 4 years ago, it helped me link together what I was hearing, with what I knew, in a way I could see how it all connected. No more missing gaps. There was something new that was coming out in this way of understanding and expressing the ideas that were already being expressed verbally or textually. It seemed that I like to ingest information audibly, but process and re-state visually. And try this out – I can make a proportional sculpture, because it feels right, while my stick figures are disproportional in order to indicate movement, and because I can’t get two dimensions to be technically correct. Each method lossy in its own way.

At Wikimania, I’ve been surrounded by incredible, intelligent people… all of whom place a huge value in cataloging, expressing, and defending through the written word. They use copyright to protect copy. It’s been like visiting an alien world I know I can never emigrate to, where my methods of expression are valued but not import-able. Something you’d see in a museum, but never purchase a gift for your loved one as you exit through the shop.

Understand this: When Tricia gave her talk at Berkman, she had visual cues, she delivered verbally, on a subject she had written about, and I expressed that visually. Each of these is a different expression of the same idea. It is not the same expression re-done verbatim (ha!) in another format. I don’t want to listen to a re-reading of the transcript of the audio. I want to listen to the writing on the subject she did. These are different aspects of the same knowledge set.

Another example: when the always fantastic RadioLab did a particularly stunning episode on color, there was a bit on the visual capabilities of the Mantis Shrimp. While a diagram of the eye’s capability can be drawn and compared (see diagram), and what happens with that extra perception vectors can be described in text, it was the choral rendition of complexity of vision that made what was actually going on readily understandable to we who have 3 vectors in our eyes.

Coding and software, and more recently the opening up of fabrication technologies, are about more people being able to express themselves in a way that is best for them, and that also means people who ingest information in those formats have a better chance to understand more of the world. The more vectors we have of expressing, the more vectors we have of understanding. And isn’t that what being human is about?

If that’s not enough, consider this: one of the things about code is that it has opened the doors for some to income and prestige that otherwise would have been closed. It broke down entrances to what “legitimate expression” is. When we stick to only the knowledge expressions and storage we understand, those who are best able to use those (i.e., those who have already been in long practice) will continue to benefit. And now, so many other things are possible to digitize, to pass on and posterityze. Why remain so hyper-focused on the written word?

“I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.”
Stephen Jay Gould, The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History

I care less about “accessibility” as “bringing ‘disabled’ people into a world as ‘able’ people experience it,” and more into “everyone having the best opportunity to express themselves, and to be understood.”

Lovingly Dealing with Abuse

I’ve told you all before about my past abusive relationship. I’ve also been doing a lot of work in how to be more accepting of people. It’s a strange and new thing for me – to stand up for myself, to know my Self well enough to NOT be trampled on, not in a way that requires blustering or forcing respect.

I had wanted to tell you a story. But that’s not something that’s allowed in these situations. Our social and legal systems prevent me from talking about what, specifically, happened1. I don’t believe in unexamined support, and so asking people to express solidarity when I can’t express all the details (nor do I particularly want to, in the interest of the other person maybe… changing… one day?) is pretty weird. So let’s say this: I had to cut someone off recently for abusive behavior. Not one of my wonderful partners2. And while the situation is being handled, I wanted to talk a bit around what the experience has been like, socially, and how I think it can be handled responsibly.

Of those people I can talk to about it (for legal and social reasons), their responses are aiming for protective, seeking understanding, and solidarity. But these can easily end up instead falling into one of the following buckets: infantalizing, dismissive/justification, and overkill. While in this situation, it’s more difficult for me to do affective labor (cognitive and emotional processing) for other people. I need them instead to help me with mine. So here’s a general breakdown, in the hope that it helps me out, as well as others (if it fits with them/you as well).

  • I want to help you deal with this” / “You shouldn’t have to deal with this any more than you already have” can quickly shut out the person from the process of their own restoration. A big part of what sucks about abusive/bullying/harassing situations is being disempowered. Further removing someone from the process of recovery and justice does not help. The person on the receiving end very well might end up wanting to not have to deal with it… but it needs to be by explicit choice.
  • How long has this been going on?” can come across as questioning or justifying rather than for understanding. Maybe it’s not real, or as bad as you think, etc. Coming forward about these things is HARD, and not a pleasant experience at all. Even if the individual asking these questions is doing so to better understand and assist, much of our culture is based upon being dismissive of the person coming forward. Many times the affected person will explain the context in a story format as a way of processing. If they don’t offer details or a story, ask yourself how important it is that you know details not readily offered.
  • I will destroy everything that person has ever held holy” is honestly my knee-jerk reaction as well, but now having been on the other side, feels like having to manage even more people. Will this person I’m talking to take actions which later make dealing with everything less effective? Expressing upset is one thing – expressing a desire to act in anger can be disempowering for the affected person. And so much anger has often already been managed in unhealthy relationships.

To me, what it takes to be a good ally in these situations is to simply say “I am sorry” / “that sucks” + “What do you need right now?” That gives space to decide what is needed, in relationship to the person asking. Often the same places are gotten to, but together. And remember, listen to the person who is affected. Just like codesign. Just like anything else in life. The person living it is likely the expert in their experience.

So far as the person I cut off, I went through these steps, which I find important: expression of care, re-statement of disregarded boundaries (and how those had been crossed), new boundaries (ie, “don’t talk to me, on any platform”), consequences for crossing those new boundaries (legal action), and recourse (“until/unless you’ve completed an abuser program”). This leaves no ambiguity in the situation, and I’ve also laid a path to action for myself that I can read and stick to when/if things get complicated.

  1. Although support from some will be contingent upon my explaining myself, the other, etc
  2. See, even here I can see how I want to caveat and manage. How to express things in a way that doesn’t seed distrust, but still encourages people to consider the people they spend time with, and their responsibility to not take part in bystander effect.

Accepting Religions

I went to Catholic school for 9 years – my atheist parents sent me as it was the best education available in my hometown of 20,000 people. My best friends and extended peer group, the same 15 other kids in my class for those 9 years, thought that I was, at my core, wrong. We found other things to talk about. As the only atheist in the class, I was constantly and consistently told I was going to Hell by other students, instructors, and priests. In response, I vindictively aced “religion” (not really “religion” but rather “teachings of Catholicism”) class – I knew what answer was wanted, and it drove them nuts that I would answer what they were looking for, rather than what I believed. On bad days I would get in arguments with teachers about conflicting parts of the bible. The day I found the passage on questioning faith as the best way to strengthen it was particularly rough. Occasionally it would escalate to tears – rarely mine. And the whole time, they didn’t kick me out because my parents didn’t belong to the parish, and so they were providing income sorely needed for the school. Talk about weird privilege.

From this, I learned to stand up for what I saw in science, even when every. single. person around me (peer and authority) thought I was drastically wrong. I learned how to have long-term, deep relationships with people with whom I had conflicting core views. I also learned to have an immediate and visceral reaction to people who expressed strong religious views. There were a few years where I envied people who were religious, seeing it as an easy comfort I was fighting so hard to gain. After resolving to learn more about this thing that had such a strong hold over me, I took one of my minors in Religion, specifically around the Old Testament. I learned that others had celebrated, and continue to celebrate, the questioning of those texts. I learned to think about religion in a sociological context, and became more fascinated than envious. But still a visceral reaction, even if more subtle.

When I moved to Camberville, my new set of friends meant that I was invited to a few Judaic holiday gatherings. I heard stories, drank wine, and asked questions; comfortable with friends I already knew and respected. Their joy at sharing upon request, without expectation, was a different interaction than I had experienced in the past. Far enough from the Catholic structures of my youth, curiosity bloomed in a way that was safe for all of us. More of my generally-directed anger faded. I learned to think about religion as a way of describing the world, rather than as a mandate of being.

After begin in Camberville for about a year, an academic cohort I thoroughly enjoy working with, who does incredible things around gay rights and gender equality, “came out” to me about being Evangelical. I got my still-present visceral response in check, and we talked. They experience incredible ostracization in both of their main groups – from those with whom they has a spiritual home because of the work focus, and with their academic crew because of their beliefs. This caused a lot of mixed feelings in me. This is someone I care about, who is in turmoil, and who I had no way of helping.

At a dinner gathering a few days after this conversation, I was still mulling it over, and brought it up while keeping the person anonymous – I could only assume people would be dismissive of my friend in the same way of my now tamped-down knee-jerk reaction. But instead, these friends told me about their similar experience – bringing equal access to their churches in the South. Using sermons to teach about inequality and to support those most in need. Their being ostracized by those who would otherwise have been their friends in social and academic circles. This also made me sad. Unable to provide these amazing people the solidarity they needed, I put them in touch with each other. They’re now all meeting regularly, along with other people in similar sets though different faiths.

From all this, I’ve started noticing how dismissive and demeaning the attitudes around religion are in my social groups. It reminds me of when I started understanding the language of feminism, understanding how it relates to me, and being hyper-sensitive to the smallest turns of phrase and utterly oblivious to some of the worst bits. I’ve started looking for signals that friends are closeted in their faith, trying to make safe space for discussion. One amazing, long-time friend ends up to be Mormon. And I realize how many times I’ve made off-handed comments which must have cut to the bone. But that’s just a part of his everyday existence.

I still don’t know what to do with all this. I love my friends, and I want them to be safe and welcome for who they are. I also believe in critiquing flaws in systems, and that religion (on the whole) allows and encourages flaws, as well as detracting from the encouragement to examine and act. But, just like everything, it can be more nuanced than that. In their religion, some of these folk are finding language to discuss experience and intuition that otherwise doesn’t have definition nor words. They’ve found a way to express care and intent in the world, both of which tend to be sorely lacking. But now, instead of being jealous, I’m deeply grateful they’re willing to share that, without expectation that I’ll carry it in the same way. We’re seeing each other as individuals, not as the systems of which we are a part.