Parameters of Social Interaction

What does equality look like? How do we know if we are getting there?

This is the question I asked to open my talk at SHA 2017. It is also the question carried with me as I walked into CtK.Campfire. Both aimed to look at how to mitigate the polarization of human interaction in a digital age. The talk looked at the infrastructure of human interaction, and the retreat embodied some of the best ideals towards action. I’ve written two blog posts – one about each event – but they occurred temporally and intellectually adjacent. You can find the post about CtK.Campfire here.

The talk at SHA2017 (the Dutch hacker camp) was called “Weaponized Social.” WeapSoc is a project in which Meredith and I invested heavily through 2014 and 2015. She has gone on to write for Status451 on an extension of the topic area. I’ve continued to frame bits of my work in this context but have generally not kept up. It’s some of the most intellectually stimulating and emotionally draining work I’ve ever done, and that includes disaster response in the field.

A background assumption for this talk is that the effects of violence become less and less apparent to an observer of a single instance as we push the edges of “acceptable behavior” into being more aligned with human rights.

Violence is defined by the World Health Organization as “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, which either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation”, although the group acknowledges that the inclusion of “the use of power” in its definition expands on the conventional understanding of the word.

Example: seeing one person hit a non-consenting person is (pretty) easily defined as violence. Seeing one person say “your a dumb bitch” online to another non-consenting person isn’t as easily defined as violence (it’s often instead categorized as “conflict“). We have to zoom out to see that the receiver isn’t able to be online any longer due to thousands of similar messages in order to see it as the violence (in the form of depravation to opportunity or psychological harm) it is. Here’s just one example:

I don’t want to limit what this person says, but I also have a right not to experience him saying it, if it detracts from my ability to be online. As the quote says, “your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.” How can we bridge this sort of contention at scale?

To zoom out like this, and to take action at a systemic level, we luckily have Lessig’s four forces for social change. As the infosec crew which was the audience at SHA is largely skeptical of law (excepting the EFF), of social norms (“don’t tell me how to act”), and that I’m skeptical of markets being able to solve problems of inequality, we are left with architecture/code.

In the talk, I asked this question:

“Do we want to take a scientific approach to equality, where we tweak our infrastructure in explicit ways to see if it changes how people are interacting?”

We, as the creators and maintainers of online spaces have a responsibility to strive towards equality in the ways available to us. How can we do this without surveillance and control of speech? We change the architecture of the spaces. The crew of Weaponized Social (namely, TQ at the SF event in May 2015) started to lay out what the different parameters of social interaction are. Such as, how many people can one account be connected to, how far a message can travel (through timeouts or limits to re-broadcasts), of if an element of serendipity is introduced. These are toggles which can be changed, sliders which can be moved.

If we change these things, we can see how/if architecture changes the way we interact. The social sciences point to us being deeply (tho not solely) affected by our environments. By changing the architecture of online spaces, we could see how it changes how we interact. Who feels safe to speak by taking part in the act of speaking. We can then make better choices about our individual instances and realities based on those results. We now have one more set of tools by which to examine if we are progressing towards equality, without impinging on the individual right to speak. I hope you make use of these tools.

Forbidden Research liveblog: Sexual deviance: can technology protect our children?

liveblog by Alexis, Sam Klein, Natalie, and myself

Ethan Zuckerman, Director, MIT Center for Civic Media moderates.

Conducting research on adults who have sex with children is virtually impossible due to ethical and legal restrictions. The advancement of technologies like robots and virtual reality has opened the door to exploring questions that were previously not possible. But while a U.S. court case has held that virtual child pornography is legal, the law in this area is controversial and emotionally charged. Legal uncertainties and vast stigma make actual research difficult. At the same time, a better understanding of this deviant behavior has the potential to significantly change lives.

Lead to paraphilia. We’re not showing explicit imagery. It may be triggering. Going to try to deal with this very difficult topic. Lots of real world ramification. 1300 people are serving time for sex crimes just in MA. X are in indefinite civil confinement – finished sentence, but not released into the general public because of fear of recidivism. Research on the statistics. 10% to 50% which suggests that there isn’t a ton of research. We know very little indeed. Most people who are afflicted with pedophilia are actively trying to fight these urges. When talking with therapists, they’re trying very hard not to act on these urges they’re suffering from. There are some existing efforts to develop support programs. Whether there are ways of treating with VR, intimate robotics, etc.. It’s a challenging topic with a lovely set of folk willing to take it on.

Kate Darling, MIT Media Lab, IP Theory, Policy, and Robot Ethics, Fellow at Harvard Berkman Center is looking at the NOW of robot-human interaction. Leads us off. Human robot interaction, how we behave around robots. People treat them as though they’re alive. We know they’re just machines, but subconsciously when we interact, we treat them as if they’re alive. Not just about people getting used to a new technology but instead something which is biological. Our brains might project intent and life on moving things which seem autonomous. How strongly we respond to the cues these machines give us. Gives us a chance to study human psychology. People who have low empathic concern for others treat robots differently than those who have high empathetic concern —this is part of a research study Kate has been conducting with Palash Nandy, a researcher at the Media Lab in the Personal Robotics group. Those who treat robots like a living thing makes them a potentially great tool for

When child-size robots come to market, will they be used to address desires and protect children, or to normalize it and put more children at risk? There’s no way for us to know. These urges are not a moral failing, they are a psychological issue. Nearly impossible to self-report as you’ll get booked. If we really care about children, we might need to be preemptive about this.

Courts don’t know what to do with these robots, since no child has been harmed in making them.
While high quality sex robots are not coming as quickly as some might think (or like), but they are coming at a pace that’s faster than society is willing to talk about.

Child porn doesn’t exist for at least two reasons: because we think it’s not ok, but also because a child was harmed in its creation. 3D modeling etc would shift that. Do any international courts handle this differently? Need intent as well as harm to have broken a criminal law in the US. In the US in ’96 we had an act forbidding pornographic CGI depicting children. In ’02 the supreme court decided there was a free speech issue that overruled, and struck down parts of that act. Since then, a new act “Protect” has been passed, which prohibits “obscene” cartoons. They’ve shifted the child piece towards obscenity, which is not well defined and depends on community standards. Ex: some media showing young girls performing fellatio was targeted b/c it was aimed at an audience of young girls to teach them improper behavior, not because it included images of young girls.

Back to the question of legal status, but what is exploitative and what is put into legal frameworks because it is uncomfortable?

Ron Arkin, Roboethicist and Professor, School of Interactive Computing, Georgia Tech. Robots and robot ethics. Sex, laws, and violence. Robot deception, killer robots, but today we’re talking about sex.

There’s plenty of money to be made in lethal autonomous weapon systems. The USG doesn’t do? that, but some people do. And I do work in robot deception (how and when robots lie?) but that’s not what we’re discussing today. Outbranch from Genevive Bell. Intimate Robotics. Most concerned with lethal autonomous systems, but also concerned about something else that is happening now. I work with Sony, and the Aibo. we know how to make people fall in love with these things. What if we start crossing from teh social space into the sexual space? the questions we ask are around if human-robot intimacy is acceptable? Do you become a deviant if you have sex with a robot? [What about one indistinguishable from a human?]

Can [sex with a robot] it serve sort of like methadone for [sexual] deviants? These are research questions which need to be explored. Any time past offenders are released back into society, there will be more victims. [as there are already today] We need to be prepared for that.

Thank you for this forum for sharing this discussion with the audience and the public.
Uncanny valley has to do with behavior, temperature, texture, etc. Roxxxy, VR robot. How will the prostetution industry do in light of these dolls etc? Some see it as a way to free prostitutes to do other things (this is a rather paternalistic view). [Examples from non-sex robots, and sex robots, the former already well-funded by governments.]

Article from the Atlantic recently: “Can Child Dolls Keep Pedophiles from Offending?”
VICE: “Canada’s Child Sex Doll Trial Raises Uncomfortable Questions About Pedophilia and the Law” A man ordered one in Canada and gets arrested. Methadone is perscription, maybe we need to do the same here.

Protest: there’s a group called Campaign Against Sex Robots, viewed by the founder as “part of a cultural pattern to legitimate pedophilia more widely”. [This reminds me so much of some of the arguments against prostitutions, not seeing how sex is a basic human need ].

Study from Stanford University — touching a robot’s ‘intimate parts’ makes people uncomfortable. Published in an obscure journal, couldn’t find funding source listed. Study on body comfort zones: differences between Japanese and American adults re: where they normally touched close friends or sexual partners, and where they touched their parents, when they met. Dramatic differences in all cases; which one would take into consideration with any robot designs.

Wanting to establish a research agenda. Will sex robots increase or decrease urges? We have an ethical obligation to do this research.

Christina Couch, Journalist
Written on the question of computer imagery. How our feelings, thoughts, desires shape our our technology is designed.

Working on an article – therapeutic uses of VR : Treating PTSD, depression, phobias, addictions. Patrice Reneaud studying pedophiles right at the point of arousal. Having someone at that point requires a stimuli, which for pedophiles have super valid concerns attached to them.

Dr. Patrice Renaud – “assessing deviant preferences in sexual offenders” using virtual immersion.

Mostly audio, having a hard time getting data. His team published a paper that even when they KNOW a subject is a known pedophile, they couldn’t evoke a response just using audio files. When VR started working, they started building scenarios with [fewer] concerns. The differences are in motor and eye movement. The data we have on recidivism is nebulous because it’s really hard to study this group. Interested that VR is what opened up these possible studies.

Also a shift in how we view pedophiles. Virtuous Pedophiles is a support group of people trying to prevent acting on their impulses. Another group like them is called the Dukelfeld Project. Confidential treatment focused on preventing them from acting out. Accessibility to a population which has been traditionally hard to research PLUS new research tools usually means a huge amount of research coming out, but not so much for this case. Dukelfeld was able to get on their feet because there aren’t reporting issues, it might be covered by insurance.

In the US, Lupron (what people use to chemically castrate themselves) can be gotten under perscription as well. We’d first need a better idea of this as a psychological problem rather than a moral problem. How is the legal system changing? We used to think homosexuality was a moral failing, and then a disease, and is now accepted. How does that transition happen? Popular culture led. TV shows etc. The law came afterwards. Untouchable was a documentary on this. If you throw the word “pedophilia” into any legal debate, all the politicians jump in to vote for it. There’s no nuance. The topic (understandably) raises so many emotions for folk that it’s difficult to have a rational conversation about it. The YouTube videos for NYT articles are saying they need to be slaughtered for saying it might be an illness rather than a moral feeling. European culture just thinks about porn files as any other file. It allows them to approach all of this in different ways.


So: you’re a robot ethicist. What’s stopping you from studying this? A: Funding. It can come most easily from foundations, but only a limited amount does. Most governments don’t support it [though as noted elsewhere: in Germany treatment for pedophilia is covered by insurance].

Can people get help with their urges? What are their motivations for doing this work? Is there a trend in what’s going on?
I don’t know that the landscape of research today is big enough to generalize. I know of only 2 researcher using VR for this. Maybe there’s more than that, but it is small.

Q: What are the key research questions in this space (intimate robotics)? As an experimentalist, are there things you’re thinking about studying that will help answer these Q’s?
A: (Kate):- how do our interactions with robots affect our interactions with humans? I think about harm: if our interactions with robots lead to harmful interactions with other humans, than that is a bad thing. But we don’t know if our interactions with robots will lead to any of these negative outcomes, so we have to do the research.
We currently know how to observe and measure behavior with robots, but we don’t know if this changes your behavior with people. That’s hard to study in any arena, and especially with intimate robots, I’m worried we won’t do it at all. If a big name in social robotics can’t get support for such work, how can anyone do that?

Q: In defense of continental Europe and its culture – I have experience with Quaker work in this field; they are some of the frist to visit prisoners, and they work with sex offenders. All these technologies seem to further sequester and isolate offenders from society. That seems to be something they’re trying hard to get over; they want to integrate with society. Do you think it is possible in the US to propose a system where groups voluntarily engage w/ pedophiles, on the basis that they are humans, and shouldn’t be treated even worse than violent criminals?
A: (Christina) A story just came out about a [NJ?] task force that is dedicated to that. I don’t have any way to answer, but people are starting to consider it.
A: (Ron) I don’t think this is a panacea for reintegration; but it should be considered as a possible positive force.
A: (Kate) People being visited are the small percentage who have been convicted of a crime. Most people affected have a hard time coming forward at all. I love that groups are forming to help (convicts), but we need legal changes and maybe tech changes as well if those can help people.

Q: (Willow) You’re talking about a lack of data and other things. This is the most academic panel we’ve had so far. I wonder if by opening up science to more citizen science approaches like other panels have, we might catch more data and discover more things. Are there possibilities to try citizen science approaches to sex studies?
A: (Ron) Yes, and I support anyone who wants to contribute to this, but: this does need strictly controlled science evaluation, with IRB and other controls, to get reliable data. We couldn’t even get accurate recidivism rates, and how hard could that be? Numbers were all over the place, because of the dearth of data. And we need to understand the tech coming down the pike. That might be easier to distribute, rather than the study of sexual deviance.
A: (Christina) VR is also bing used to study and treat victims of sexual trauma. This (type of tech) isn’t a one-way street. When we talk about amplifying research methods, it’s not just for offenders.

Q: You all seem to say that lack of funding and stigma are barriers. What would this look like if those didn’t exist? Get to Ethan’s initial questions: how does culture change, this medium change, over the long term? How does this change the future of dealing with taboo paraphilias?
A: (Ron) Human research interaction work has at present gone almost too far in requiring huge amounts of data. I think we can develop research with small focused sets of data. Then a series of progressive experiments could gather a larger body of data over time.

Q: There are studies that suggest porn has changed standards of sex. If these child robots are rolled out, who gets to decide if you can have such robots as therapy, or as entertainment?
A: (Kate) A lot of research here has been very [basic]. Many studies have questioned if violent/sexual games change behavior. Methods used in those cases can be applied to robotics. The increased realism may have more of an effect, but similar approaches may apply.
A: (Ron) To my mind, courts or physicians would say it is appropriate. But there would have to be quasi-controlled environments for this to work.

Q: (Victoria) I’m interested in areas where sex is considered? inappropriate such as w/disability. Looking at sexual deviance – how much correlation or research has been done to see whether pedophilia is different from other deviances? (anything considered unnatural by any society: bdsm, homosexuality, &c) If we’re talking about changing human behavior, can we cross-examine sth like violence, and the relevant effects of VR? [To inform these questions in a less taboo realm.]A: (Christina) I don’t know if any correlation like this has been done. In 20y of VR research, we find that yes it can influence RL behavior. PTSD can be reduced more quickly… unconscious racial bias can be reduced (in at least one study), though that’s incredibly difficult to break even temporarily. It’s not crazy to think this could influence behavior in pedophiles.
A: (Ron) Changing human behavior happens routinely, with or without robots – a change wrt. views on marriage, bestiality

Willow question: why can’t people consent to sexual research?
Question: how do advanced robots consent to sexual research?
Willow question: why are we talking about fully autonomous systems? Does the debate in self-driving cars and mixed-control systems apply here?

You belong to society

I’ve been unable to continue ignoring a notion that most people I see in online debates about gender1 carry, which is that those in these debates do not think they impact society, and subsequently have no individual responsibility towards it. It is simply a soup of which they are a part, where they are a stone — immutable to the broth around them, of no consequence to the overall flavor.

Let’s talk about emergence, here from the Complex Systems perspective, as the interaction between the parts and the whole. “Can’t see the forest for the trees,” as not being able to see the big picture because one is so focused on the next-scale-down of units (trees), despite these composing the next-larger-up scale (forest). Each has different behaviors, which slightly or drastically effects the other. Or, “the devil is in the details,” in which the opposite happens, the smaller-scale being skipped over while the next-larger-scale is focused on. You’ll note that these things matter to each other. They influence each other. In many circumstances, these two scales are caught up in creating each other in at least some small way2. To claim that one is more important than the other glazes over this connection. Plus, the math doesn’t work out right.

Let’s talk about values. I would like a just and equal world. I bet most of the people I talk to would also like some version of this. Some folk hold other amazing core values such as inclusion or empowerment. Here’s the thing to understand: anyone you interact with3 will be holding something like this inside of them. Maybe not so explicitly, maybe not as an active part of their interactions, but it is there.

Let’s talk about fault. The people that got us to where we are now were doing the best they could under the circumstances. Maybe some were malicious, but generally. they were just surviving. People in power tend to want to continue doing well. People who are out of power generally make do, though they’re likelier to have a generally more shitty time. Inequality makes both sets unhappy. It’s not the fault of the people in power that the structures which allow them to be in power exist; it’s not the fault of those out of power that they were born into a setting that keeps them out of power.

Let’s talk about responsibility. While no one currently alive is to blame for history, we are currently building the next generation’s history. Hell, we’re building our own. And we have a responsibility to act in a way which upholds our values, rather than shirks responsibility as bizarrely tied to fault. I don’t want to take the responsibility to respond kindly to this person because their upset is not my individual fault. I don’t want to help clean up after dinner because not all the plates are my fault. I don’t want to take responsibility for mending the rifts in society because they’re not my fault4.

In each of these, it is not just what you are asking for yourself, but what you are changing in the people around you. When a child is being surly, and a parent reacts badly because a nerve got struck5, the wrong lesson is being imparted. It’s not about the parent’s feelings in that moment. It’s about how the child learns how to react to someone expressing their feelings in a not-yet-eloquent way6.

Sometimes taking on this responsibility to society means shutting up, even when you’re right. Sometimes taking on this responsibility means speaking up, even when your voice trembles. Sometimes this means cleaning the common area, even though you haven’t even been around for the past week. It means having differences and resolving them in a way that makes sense for future generations to also resolve them, even if you’re not happy with the results.

When anyone says “my individual experience matters more in this moment than how we as a society deal with moments like these” I see them as throwing a tiny tantrum rather than building a better world. It’s not their fault. Why should they have to do anything to fix it? This is why I continue to think Laurie’s piece is so great and I get filled with rage and bile at StarSlateCodex. This is why I find GamerGaters outright laughable7. This is why I find some of my geek feminism friends so aggravating at points7. In all of this, I see why they’re saying what they’re saying. Of course those feelings are valid. But that’s not the whole point, is it?

Get our shit together. Focus on where we want to be, and manifest that in each interaction we have. This is what I assume most people are doing, and why I’m now so comfortable saying “I don’t like how we’re doing this, can we try another way?”

I don’t like how we’re doing this. Let’s find another way.


1. And race, now, too!
2. Exceptions of pragmatic lock-and-key example, and the theoretical molecule representation of same self model.
3. With incredibly rare exception, not based on if you get along with them or not.
4. Are you fucking kidding me, this is how we get ants.
5. children can be astute little fuckers
6. I am in no way claiming to be amazing at this, merely that I am aware of, and subsequently actively working on, it.
7. “You need to listen to me!” they say, while not listening.

Expressions of Solidarity


I wonder if, what Scott means, in this whole storm recently, is actually:

“Your struggle is my struggle. While I had a really rough time growing up, it must have been just as hard for people like me, and even harder for those facing structural oppression. I want to fight these systems with you. When you say I’m ‘privileged,’ I feel like my experience is being discounted and it makes it difficult for me to be in solidarity with you.”

I feel like this is what Laurie is asking for. I know it’s what I would ask for.

AkiraChix and Weaponized Social

I went to AkiraChix: Women in Technology Conference in Nairobi, Kenya this past Saturday. It was pretty outstanding. A couple hundred people in attendance, including a few men, and an incredible variety of relationships to tech (women who run the business side of tech orgs, sysadmins, bloggers, PHP devs, those in technical classes, etc).
Here are some things that stood out to me, in no particular order:
  • Cross-generational mentoring: There were students from 2 (3? 4?) high schools in attendance. AkiraChix has ongoing talks and workshops at these high schools, and the young women were definitely a highlight of the conference. Some jumped to interact/speak up, some needed/wanted encouragement to speak up, but each had astute and empathetic contributions to the conversations and workshops. Those who have been in tech for 20+ years in Kenya and the rest of the world had a reigniting of passion, and the interactions seemed great all around. I’ve been inspired to make more of an effort in integrating youth in future events I participate with.
  • Celebration of achievements / ritualized phases: AkiraChix has a bunch of photos of graduations from classes/bootcamps the group has held, and were hosting a competition for tech for women’s empowerment, etc. I often get so lost in process I forget to celebrate the milestones that have been accomplished — this was a good reminder that these moments of pausing and celebration are important.
  • Integration with educational systems: The students in attendance felt comfortable in their skills as well as with the other attendees in no small part because of the consistent interaction between high schools and AC. AC has created curriculum for (I think) both their own workshops as well as for general use in schools.
  • Self-care: Every. Single. Volunteer and Speaker consistently asked each other “how are you doing? Have you eaten? Do you need some tea or water?” It was difficult to not take care of one’s self, and it was infectious to offer care to others around you after this had been instilled. A++, 1 million points.
  • Focus on interactivity: The day was led by a keynote from Juliana Rotich, about the new AC tagline, “she builds, she serves, she leads” which was powerful and inspiring. This was followed by a panel with lots of time for Q+A, 3 rounds of breakout sessions, and a wrap-up panel (again, with lots of Q+A). The interactivity made sure everyone had a chance to speak, as well as breaking down more traditional (and hierarchical) “I speak, you listen” modes. I find this important to systemic change.
My experience, and a few sticking points:

Despite traveling globally pretty consistently for the past 4 years, I’m still very much aware of having been raised in the whitebread American Midwest, and feel that my experience of being aware of, but not the target of, power inequalities in race might be similar to those of feminist men. Intersectionality is something I studied… 10? years ago (oh man), but not something I’ve been deeply committed to understanding until these moments of enforced empathy. Sorry for being so late to the game, everyone.
I am not scared of being shouted at for saying something wrong. I’m terrified of no one talking to me about it if I do. That makes my bringing up sticking point in this context difficult – being still somewhat fresh to post-colonialism, there is definite deference to the light-skinned in Tanzania (and I think a lesser but still present tendency in Kenya), i.e. my Tanzanian friends get frisked before entering buildings, whereas I don’t. Differing with people in at the conference was delicate business I tended to avoid in deference to this. Was this power dynamic not present because I was in a space AkiraChix had created, and invited me into? Was it something to pay even more attention to, as one of three mzungus there? Is my assumption of this power dynamic reinforcing that power dynamic? Have I used the term “they” somewhere in this entry because it would be ok in other contexts and I missed the othering it causes in this one? HOLY SHIT THE ANXIETY. Regardless, here are the things I still found sticky, and I hope everyone feels comfortable telling me if I’m wrong, or even simply presenting it in a terrible way:
  • Rhetoric of Lean In: The idea of “just try harder, stand up, etc” is incredibly disconcerting to me. This is a tension between activism (things are going to suck, you’re going to get hurt, but it’s worth it for societal gain) and basic human dignity (you shouldn’t have to “lean in” at the office, as a woman. You shouldn’t have to, anywhere). This happens in the weird time between legal equality and normalized equality. But is Lean In different, in this cultural context? I heard many women speaking of men whose verbal representation had changed after street harassment exposure, and of fighting to have their voices heard, and it now being understood as culturally normative in some spaces. In short, because this idea doesn’t work for my circles, does it mean I need to bring it up here, and what does my bringing it up mean in larger contexts?
  • Tension of timeliness and inclusion: The “successful/productive” technologist is also perceived as a timely one, a value instilled by the Global North, which is in tension with those with less time or access to transportation, who spend longer in traffic and are subsequently 30 minutes or two hours late to any endeavor. This was hard for me because of my own temporal anxieties. There has been a shift in Kenya in the year I’ve been gone, across the groups I’ve spent time with, with more value now placed on timeliness. I don’t know what this means, and I don’t have the language to speak about it.
Finally (have you made it this far? holy wow), I had the honor of being invited to sit on the closing panel of “Securing Women’s Spaces Online.” The video will be up eventually, but the prezi follows. I encouraged the re-writing of social scripts/memes to not include attack nor rockstar martyrdom (common in hacker circles, and a script I’m concerned about being transmitted), and to remember that homophiliy is easy but serendipity is why the internet seemed/seems so wonderful.

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.


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.


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.


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.

Teachable Moments at #CivicMedia

Cross posted from the Civic Media blog.

A panel at the MIT-Knight Civic Media conference was about the Open Web’s Second Chance, and the problems we are facing with growing the open web movement.  The panelists were Mark Surman, Executive Director of the Mozilla Foundation and Seamus Kraft, Executive Director of The OpenGov Foundation.  Mark kicked things off with the story of the open web, how Mozilla was born in 1997 and where he sees the movement today.  Then the conversation turned to Seamus, who was first logging online 17 years ago when Mozilla was founded.

Seamus first went on the Internet in the late ’90’s for two main reasons.  Not as an activist, or as a software developer, but as a young teenage boy both hoping to trade live Grateful Dead and Phish concert recordings…and looking to meet and chat up his preferred gender on AOL Instant Messenger.  Fast forward to today: Seamus became a fighter for the open web in 2011 when he, as a conservative Congressional staffer, saw the impending SOPA and PIPA laws threatening the everyday Internet he had grown to love over the intervening years.  He is someone who dearly loves what the Internet has enabled him to do, exchanging music and knowledge, and connecting with others…and he has dedicated his life to protecting it.  A beautiful story – we need more activists generally, and the more diverse we are in our origins the more vectors we can understand these issues along. So it was pretty rad that he showed up to a conference that is diverse in some ways but not in others to talk about this shared ideal. I love this – it gives us more dimensionality to our ideas when they hold up under different objectives and sources as well as the ones we’re more used to.

But Seamus’ story of discovering the web wasn’t told that way.  The phrase “going online to get girls” kept cropping up during the panel discussion.   Indignation bubbled up on the back channel, and then turned into outrage. When Seamus left the stage, he saw the Twitter Storm, was shocked and aghast at the interpretation, and spent the rest of the day owning up to his mistake and personally apologizing on Twitter…all far away from the conference.  I would have done the same. I am amazed and honored that he returned the next day, and even more so that he’s willing to write this with me.

Seamus here:

“As I sat outside the conference, reading every single Tweet and comment, and soaking in how my non-inclusive language made people feel, it was like getting punched in the stomach…by myself.  It was brutal, searing and embarrassing, all at once.  How could I be so blind with my language?  Had I actually become the Idiot Tech Guy?  I should have known better, and used the language we celebrate as open web activists, instead of what you’ll too often find in the darker corners of the Internet.  Reading the civic media hashtag and all the tweets directed at me, I felt like I had irreparably insulted everyone in the room, everyone watching the webcast and everyone fighting for the open Internet.”

“In telling the story of how I logged on as a young teenage boy, I had allowed myself to use the language of a young teenage boy.  And in trying to share my passion for growing the open web movement, I had accomplished precisely the opposite.  Showing up the next day was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but I am so thankful for the kind and amazing people who put aside their justifiable anger, sat down with me on the conference sidelines, and literally helped me become a stronger, more aware and – I pray – more linguistically inclusive person moving forward.  You gave me another chance, a lesson in humility, and some sorely needed hugs that I will never, ever forget.”

Now Willow here, with an exercise in empathy:

I’m reminded of being in New Orleans, and trying to make a point about NOT being an expert – the people who live in the area are experts in their own experience. I said “I’m clearly not from around here, look at me.” As in look at how sunburned I am, I don’t spend time outside or know how to take care of myself when I do. But guess how it was perceived, and how I immediately knew it must have been perceived. I was mortified. The best I could think to do in that moment was turn even redder and say “well, that came out wrong.”

But no one called me out. There was no discussion. And that, I think, sucks even more. What we have in this moment from the Civic Media conference is a chance to learn and teach.

I was more upset about how my community reacted to this than I am at Seamus’ comments. The comments were unwitting, and bumbling, yes. It’s good (I would argue necessary) to call those things out. I honestly feel that if he’d been speaking directly to the audience (not on a panel) he would have seen that immediate feedback from the audience. I’m upset the other panelist and the moderator didn’t call him out on it, gracefully, in the moment. In fact, they may have cued, or at least amplified, it. And I am upset that a community that considers itself open worked itself into a frenzy over such comments — and that I was a part of that.

This is an amazing moment to learn – and certainly not just for Seamus. Here’s the question: If someone well-meaning uses language that triggers response from an esoteric community, how can we inform them in a way that assumes their good faith and alliance? I don’t know of any discipline or approach (including feminism) where I think “don’t come back until you can meet us at our level” is an appropriate response to people who are trying but might stumble. Especially given intersectionality, and that as feminist values start showing up in new arenas (yay!) the people already there don’t understand those nuances yet. How could they?

I’m reminded of how I trained ballet and gymnastics for the better part of a decade and yet had terrible balance. I had no stabilizing muscles because if a movement wasn’t perfect, I was supposed to bail. With parkour, I practiced to fight to stay on a ledge, by whatever wiggling and arm-waving necessary. The imperfections of maintaining footing trumped perfection of form. The thing was, in doing this, I gained enough minor muscle control to start landing things near-perfectly.

Being an ally is HARD. To me, the important thing is not never messing…which I see as impossible. Even the most linguistically precise shift contexts (intentionally or through context collapse). The important thing is returning to a conversation after a misstep. And it’s on me, as the one being allied with, to make it safe to have those post messup-talks when I think they’ll be useful (and I have the bandwidth, and etc etc). I’m not remotely suggesting not to get mad about something that is horrible, as anger is of course merited a human emotion etc etc. But after anger… then what?

If the point is the understanding, and the respect and equality that comes of that understanding, that means learning. And while there are some great resources out there on feminism, equality, behavior, etc, I assume we all know that there’s a difference between reading a book on how to do something and doing it. While it’s not necessarily on us (women) to teach men what’s going on, people are going to have to learn somewhere. If it’s up to men to learn, and we’re (feminine types) not the ones teaching, it’s probably going to be other men. Which is awesome, but I want to be open to questions and check-ins – “are we doing this right?” because we know the vacuum chamber hasn’t exactly worked out well so far. And this sort of exchange means there will be faux pas. And we need to know how to handle those in a way that encourages the growth of the other person in the process. That is what learning is, after all. It is my prerogative if I want to be a part of those conversations, but I am advocating here that it is worth it and a responsibility, not an obligation.

So how do we do this? How do we call out information in a way that it cannot be ignored which can be quickly addressed or shown that it won’t be? How do you like to have your social faux-pas pointed out? For me, I’d like people to say “HEY! Seriously?” in the moment, assuming good faith, and I’ll either drop everything for that conversation, or sidebar it for later, depending on level of urgency and transgression.

Seamus here:

“Looking back, I would have loved to have had the panel’s language called out while we were still on stage; and as a result, the opportunity to engage in a meaningful conversation and adjust was was being said in real time.  An ‘Excuse me, but could you elaborate on that last comment?  It comes across as rather sexist.’ would have instantly set me straight, as would the ability to have seen the action on the conference hashtag while we were in front of the room.

“I’m not sure exactly how we can translate into real life the instant linguistic feedback loops made possible by the open web and social media.  But I do believe it’s possible.  To me, the definition of ‘ally’ should include having the confidence within our community to call out non-inclusive language from the audience, ensure those on stage truly listen and understand, and help the person who stepped in it – like I did – right their wrong words and grow stronger from what can be a positively painful experience for everyone involved.”

The Fears of Inequality

Written in response to the recent Santa Barbara shootings, mental illness, misogyny, and the debates and #YesAllWomen on Twitter. I focus here on fear, because the bodily harm, harassment, stalking, job insecurity, etc are already focused on at the hashtag. This is an important part of that conversation, and one that is missing, but is by no means meant to be the focus.

Years ago, a difference of opinion severely chilled a friendship with someone with whom I loved arguing. He saw the lack of easy acceptance from women as an emotional violence against men at an equal level to the physical violence enacted upon women by men. I agreed that it was problematic, and the two fed into each other, fueled by culture at large. I absolutely disagreed that it was of equal standing. Fear is a very real thing. Whether it is that someone will laugh at you or someone will kill you, the fear is real. The repercussions and reality lived are what are different.

Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them. – Margaret Atwood

On a lighter note, I really enjoy this short clip from Louis CK about saying yes to dates:

It is vital to make it clear that the objectification of, violence against, etc+preposition, women is absolutely unacceptable, and that continuance is untenable. It is possible, even necessary, in the same moment and breath, to have empathy for the fear experienced by being on the other side of the coin of these atrocities. How dehumanizing it must be to be expected to treat other human beings as objects. And most of the language we have around this phenomena is in Feminism, which is villainized during the propagation of these issues. How can one make use of tools closed off by the simple fact of where and when and with whom they grew up?

These issues are systemic, a positive (not “yay”, but “self-reinforcing”) feedback loop. (Not the only components in this feedback loop, clearly). Until we address the root cause for women being cautious of men – the high likelihood of violence being inflicted upon them – that caution is a legitimate response to a very real threat. We must make our way up Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs – not in series, but in parallel, with a focus on the more dire.

I am not blaming you, as a man, for things like what happened in Santa Barbara. I’m blaming what culture makes men think they have to be in order to be manly. What that means for your alienation because it is unobtainable. What it means for people like me, who happen to have a certain body, for you to strive towards that unobtainable standard through the objectification and devaluation of my self. You are not at fault for where we are as a culture. You are, however, responsible for getting us to a better place than where we are right now.

This is what I mean when I call out friends and strangers about discounting the fear felt by all parties in this mess. The fear is shared, but different. The fear is real. Do not discount the fear, or demean people for feeling it – because the fear is legitimate. Hold people accountable for their actions. Address the causes of their fear, in a way that holds all people as whole.

It is because I love you, that I fight to diminish your power over me. When we are equal, we can freely love each other as we are.


Donning my angry feminist hat.1

First, let’s get the initial argument out of the way. Sexism exists. It definitely exists in tech communities. There are long-standing scientific studies on it, whole departments of colleges based around it, and the next person who thinks we’re past it (not “doesn’t want to talk about it,” but thinks it doesn’t exist)2 is being taken out back to be flogged as a fundamentalist3. Here’s a handy timeline. This entry deals mostly with women and sexism. You all should know by now that “women” is but one word used to refer to an area of a matrix, but I feel like using my wordiness on other topics today. Know that I’m focusing on one facet of an entire intertwingled object of marginalized populations4.

Everyone grows up with social scripts, unless they are raised in a box with no interaction with anything (no way IRB is letting you do that one!). The cadence of your voice to your posture to how you indicate interest are all influenced by social scripts. These scripts abstractly guide how we interact with one another – we are cued from past interaction, seen or participated with. This is part of why it is difficult to get women to speak at conferences – because they don’t see the value of their words, because the bulk of interaction has pointed at that5. Individuals from the projects won’t take a promotion because authority is seen as negative, and they don’t want to have authority over their peers. And because these roles continue to be filled by not-that-demographic, that-demographic never sees that it’s possible for them to do it. Women specifically are also socialized into letting people down easy and into making space and providing support for other people and the group over themselves (which is great when it’s reciprocated!). So, a society that objectifies women also sets the expectation that they will be objectified. We tend to grow into the expectations set on us6.

When women talk about being cat-called on the street pretty constantly, and the response it “I don’t see that” from her male peers, that is because they don’t. It doesn’t happen (as much, or at all) when they are with her7. And they don’t know how to be aware of it when it does happen around them (and are often participating in it). As someone in the penumbral8 space of gender norms, let me queersplain something to you. I don’t get catcalled much, because the way I walk and interact with people is pretty head-on. I am not scared to get in fights, to make eye contact, and to call people on things (most of the time). My upbringing is to thank for this. My parents consciously reduced the amount of exposure I had to mainstream social scripts through television and magazines. They made sure I felt comfortable in my own skin. My self-possession is a learned behavior9, and one that I am privileged to have obtained early on. But because I apparently also have hips, harassments still happen to those around me. I see it on a regular basis, and have to constantly decide if it is worth engaging in conflict.

Persistent, low grade harassment is so invisible until seen in aggregate, that when someone does snap, it’s seen as out of proportion. We have the ideas of straws and camels backs, and practice of drip water torture for a reason. Small things add up. When asked to laugh with you about the absurdity of the situation, and that “dongle” is indeed a funny word, maybe the laughter will be a beautiful moment of shared understanding. But when it’s not about the abhorrence at the system itself, such comments are instead just another straw. It can’t be taken lightly because it’s one of many. The individual voicing that comment is responsible for being a part of that load, when in fact they should be actively lightening it. The people who share that load with you get to joke with you about how utterly ridiculous it is that you can’t be using your strength to carry other things. It would be easier to just roll with it, but that also continues a culture that makes such comments ok. It is harder to fight.

Which gets us very smoothly into this whole Pycon thing, and how Adria is a very public figure.

When you are a highly visible person, you are expected to adhere more closely to the outlines of social scripts. For privileged populations, that means being MORE of what indicates success – demanding, manic, callous. If you are from a marginalized population, it still means fitting MORE closely to those expectations within that demographic. We call them archetypes for a reason. Individuals from those populations, rare already in roles associated with success, are demure and muted so as not to tip a boat they already feel shaky in10. At the same time, people of privilege are socialized to retain their privilege. Two to tango and all that. Because of all this, I feel a public response to a systemic issue occasionally trumps individualized response11.

The thing about this specific situation is that the same startup culture which claims Safe Space To Fail for tech doesn’t provide the same support and space for learning social lessons. Social lessons which are hard, but somehow the technical community has persuaded themselves and the rest of the world they are exempt from learning. That inability to care for our own, let alone others, is killing us and keeping our brightest from finding home.

The reason this debate is so visible is because it shows the tension between what we think is the case (why some will think this is dead-horse beating) and what is (many people’s daily existence). It shows the tension between where tech and social affect each other. And perhaps most tangibly, it shows the tension between the ideals of our society and our shitty labor laws. No one should have been fired over this, though we should still be having discourse. Hate to say it, but the same patriarchy12 that makes all this shit a part of everyday experience for so many is also what upholds the idea that your employer knows best and you have no desire nor ability to stand up for yourself and each other.

The response here is not more in-fighting and drama (which are not even true responses). The action here is to realize where the flaws are and to band together, to have nuanced conversation. We need unions. We need to support marginalized groups while not infantalizing them by taking control of their own ability to stand for themselves. It’s hard work. No one said it would be smooth, but brilliant people are used to sticking to what comes easily.

1. (Can it be a wizard hat? You bet your fingers it can be)
2. This is like saying racism is done in the US because we have a black president. Your desire to move forward blank-slate does nothing to the actual starting point of a vast majority of the population. Lack of acknowledgement of history is what is preventing many potential allies from doing anything except perpetuate the current state. Handy Infograph.
3. It’s the equivalent of someone saying “I don’t believe in webpages” and you saying “but you’re reading one right now” and them saying “silly coder, you really should look around you.” If they actually decided to figure out what you were talking about, you might sit and explain it to them, open up conversations, give them a book. Here’s my favorite starting place for feminism: Said the Pot to the Kettle: Feminism for Anarchist Men.
4. Which is what meant by references to “minority,” we mean “represented in the minority” – a language misstep that I do not intend to keep making. This misunderstanding of “minority” as “population minority” is similar to cracks implying scientific “theory” is a wild guess.
5. I challenge you to observe a room of people and tally how often people are checking their phones when a man is talking versus when a woman is talking. Audiences indulge in distraction far more when a woman is speaking, and not because of subject matter knowledge nor presentation style. Imagine how that effects your self-assurance when doing public speaking. See if you catch yourself checking your own phone more often in different cases.
6. Whole other entry in the works about halo effect and expectations vesus desire. But I didn’t want to overload you right now.
7. If your response to this is just always having a male companion, you are an event-addressing, non-systems fuck.
8. (insert favorite word into a ranty post +10 points)
9. Just as yours, or lack thereof, is learned.
10. I keep my blue hair, let me tattoos show, don’t hide my sexuality not only because it’s me, but because it also sets the tone for future people. It is a conscious choice, and one that sometimes detriments my ability to make professional progress. My subcultural markers are opt-in. My sex and sexuality are not. My desire to have all of them show is something I choose at personal cost for societal gain.
11. Only addressing these things individually is like playing whack-a-mole.
12. Look how far I made it in this entry without using the word! Look look look!