At Cascadia.JS in 2014, I picked up a tshirt from the freebie pile. It’s pink. I know — I was also shocked about this, but the quote on the front was so good I had to go for it. “We don’t know what we’re doing either.” On the back is a subtle “&yet” which I learned was an open source consulting company (ish). Neat! — humility, a culture that accepts shirts which are both pink and comfortable, and a nuanced logo. I especially love wearing this shirt in academic and tech-centric situations.
A few months ago, Case asked my consent to be put in touch with someone on the &yet team — they had a conference coming up, and had suggested I speak. Our phone conversation was brief, but it sounded both fun and values-based, so I said yes (a rarer and rarer thing for me these days), and so I spent Wed/Thurs/Fri of last week in Richland, Washington. If interested, here are my drawings of others’ talks, my slide deck, and the paper I referenced.
It is now easily one of my favorite large social experiences. Music, art, and story were woven throughout the conference, all evoking self-reflection on our role in the path the world takes. It was already populated by some of my favorite people in this space (the aforementioned case, plus ben, jden, kawandeep, etc), and the textcapade starting weeks in advance, recieving letters from another character in the story by mail, all playing through these struggles, had me jazzed up long before the event.
The talks were a beautiful mix of art demonstrations, hopeful distribution structures, empathy arcs, and design philosophies. Inclusion was constantly present, and never for its own sake, but rather from a deep understanding that these are the voices that make up the world. The care &yet took of attendees (and encouraged us to take for each other) opened space for some rather heart-wrenching moments. Please, check out the talks when they go up.
While all of this is amazing, I want to talk about the trust and responsibility that &yet placed in the attendees. The storyline was a surprisingly nuanced version of one of my own ongoing internal battles — burn it all down, or patch to save what we can. (The mixed-mode system work is my attempt at making these transitions graceful, by the by). At no point was a clear value judgement imposed upon the story, or implied to the players. The textcapade transitioned into a sort of backchannel for actors in the parts of those sending the messages at points during the conference, and this archetypical internal battle continued to be played out there as well as by stage actors between talks.
We got comfortable with being shuffled around a bit and constantly delighted… a walk along the river to the venue, a soundtrack written specifically for the event, surprise pour-over coffee… so we were enthusiastically on board when we picked up some bag lunches and got on a tour bus. Once on, we were handed some envelopes containing a framing challenge to the “changing the world” rhethoric of much of tech… as well as the letter from Einstein to Roosevelt about turning Fermi’s nuclear fission idea into a bomb. It also included safety guidelines for B Reactor tours. As in, where the plutonium for one of the atomic bombs was refined. As in, where people joyfully pursued science, engineering, and design for its own secret sake until after many of them, horrified by the actualities, apologized for their involvement.
This framing in surrounding story structure and in the handout from &yet was the only self-reflexive provocation of the tour — the guide, video, and signage for B Reactor were all cheerful, upbeat celebrations of engineering, science, and design without any hints to remorse, conflict, or nuance. So much so that I broke out in rageful tears in public for maybe the first time in my life.
Many parts around the Manhattan Project were not ok. Here are just a few.
- The locals of Hanford, WA and the surrounding small towns were displaced, often for less compensation than the value of the crops left in their fields.
- American Natives were no longer allowed to pass through the land, something historically available.
- The contractors didn’t know what they were building, and were fired if they spoke to each other.
- The waste left behind is STILL hugely problematic (and they keep finding surprise buckets).
- Oh, and we killed 129-246k people across two events on August 6th and 9th, the Nagasaki portion of which was with plutonium created at B Reactor. There is still ongoing debate as to whether or not this was “necessary.”
The memorials of Japan and Germany (and perhaps others, but I continue to be in a heightened emotional state and I can’t handle researching more right now) carry with them a deep sense of loss, of responsibility, and even of shame. That the US plant that generated the material and contributed to the methods by which to kill so many doesn’t hint at one iota of remorse causes such deep cognitive dissonance in myself that I literally can’t even. And that on the return trip, the tour guide again pontificated with forceful joy on the engineering components, answering questions about why buildings were placed as far apart as they were, etc, rather than leaving us enough time to sit and think, was just a further indicator of this problem.
Once everyone was back, we took time to reflect together, and I indicated both a deep respect for the &yet team for trusting the attendees to take whatever message we are going to take with us (here are two excellent other take aways from the conf), as well as vesting the drive and connection to enact our responsibilities based on those lessons. More importantly, we heard from Hanford locals as to what it was like to grow up imbued with the rhetoric and history. Good people are proud of the amazing science and collaboration. We heard from those from Japan (and who had visited Japan) about their experiences in the difference of understanding of fault and responsibility. It’s a stunningly difficult space to handle, but we were provided safe space to do so.
I write this now from an airport, as always and forever, wearing a “we decide” shirt and listening to Hamza al Din. I’m reflecting on how beautiful this instigation was, how deep the trust and responsibility. I’m also tempering a phrase like “we decide” with my understanding of where a sense of exceptionalism can lead us afoul (every villain sees themselves as the savior), and do-ocracy as bleeding into fascism. But these nuances and responsibilities are harder yet to impart, and require a sound foundation. This conference has made me consider it possible.
Deep thanks to: the &yet team for the experience, to Jenn for considering accountability with me, to Case for extending and complimentary safeties and support, to Ben for the dice, to Kawandeep for sitting with me on the bus on the way back, to Gar for sharing tears of outrage and love, to Kyle for the flower, to Simeon for continued conversation, to a different Ben for stirring music, to Adam for bearing his soul so we might join him on this journey.
What will you do differently today, because of what you learned yesterday?
— Willow Brugh (@willowbl00) October 9, 2015