Politics, Technology and Design – My busy January

This January I’ve had the chance to do research work in lots of (more than usually) interesting ways – in art museums, castles, design schools and among colleagues from many disciplines. I’m so impressed at what I was doing:

Disassembling a Toaster in an Art Museum


I started the month on a panel at the V&A Museum’s Design Culture Salon series, talking about ‘transparent design’. I used the opportunity to take apart a toaster while talking about Heidegger, something I have always wanted to do. I focused in my talk on the politics of hacking, asking about the different experiences of a ‘closed’ but functional (what Heidegger calls ‘ready to hand’) toaster, and an ‘open’, ‘hackable’ but non-usable toaster (what Heidegger calls ‘present to hand’).

The idea of breaking something to understand better how it works, or how it comes to be,  is a central tenet of hacker culture.  A number of theorists have worked on how to think about the broken, the trashy, or the defunct as productive places to work: Jussi Parikka and Garnet Hertz have talked about doing ‘archaeology’ on broken toys and out of date electronics, and Jennifer Gabrys has a very sensitive philosophy of trash. I in my own work have been interested in studying failure, breakdown, reconstruction. But this failure simultaneously removes the utility of an object and attaches the politics of reconstruction to prowess in hacking and cracking. This raises a question about how and for whom we would like design to be transparent.

Building an Imaginary Machine in a Castle

I kept working on this idea of failure as a productive politics at an amazing Daghstul Seminar at a castle in southwestern Germany. It was appropriately remote and gloomy – this photo was taken at 8 am!


These seminars are usually only for computer scientists but the organizers of this one worked hard to bring together an interdisciplinary group to discuss social, theoretical and technical aspects of building autonomous, non-Internet networks. These are the kind of things I have written about here.

A few of us – Jon Crowcroft, Paul Dourish, Kevin Fall, Kat Jungnickel, Irina Shklovski and Christian Becker – worked over several days on the concept of ‘failing networks’, culminating in a critical making exercise to build a ‘failure machine’. Kat and I both use critical making as a technique to materialize research and inquiry processes – and in this case to demonstrate interdisciplinarity.


The ‘machine’ was modelled after a 17th century piece of wearable technology called a chatelaine (what I think of as a Wonder Woman utility belt). It featured a set of intersecting filters and controls that, depending on the perspective of the person wearing it, would create unpredicatable outcomes. Some of the filters included a ‘moral concern unbundler’ to take into account unexpected social outcomes of technology, and an ‘unarchiver’ that alternated between an inappropriate failure to remember and an inappropriate failure to forget.


The best thing about the exercise was how much it resonated with computer scientist colleagues. It turns out that establishing the limiting conditions for networks is actually an important process, and that network scientists DO in fact build ‘failure machines’ to test their networks. But these don’t usually include the kind of contextual, social, temporal and political aspects that we included in ours.

Narrating the Live Hack

Fresh from the excitement of using design methods to bridge disciplines, last week I cycled over (in the sun! !) to the Royal College of Art for a workshop with Kevin Walker’s Information Experience Design MA students.


While Kevin tried (and sometimes failed) to add blinky lights and switches to an Arduino, I talked about the assumptions we make about democratization of technology (Heidegger again..) and introduced some really tricky questions about how our experience of life is mediated by constantly dyanamic software processes – and what this might mean for our sense of identity, our privacy and our relationships.

Designing in Academic Research

Finally, I started to apply what I’ve learned about design as a research process with my LSE Media+Comms colleagues. With Nick Anstead I’ve started investigating how our department might build a research tool to help us bring together sizeable and varied  kinds of data sets and quickly and effectively analyse them. At the same time I wanted to investigate how the design process might help the department express some of our shared (or divergent) perspectives on research. We held a ‘Research Dialogue’ where we debated the use of ‘Big Data” in our practice, and hypothesized what kinds of ‘data analysis machines’ might represent our research priorities. We think we have some insights that can actually help us design a tool, but already the process has given me lots of food for thought about how values, opinions, and unexpected tensions emerge in prototyping processes.

I’ve also relaunched my Digital Media Futures course for the term, where we will be experimenting with similar ideas and practices. And sometime soon I’m looking forward to sitting down and doing some concentrated writing….I hope.

What is it you know about?

I was chatting with a colleague before the holidays, and I glibly said I was ‘interdisciplinary’. She raised an eyebrow and gently suggested that I ought to be precise about my expertise, because, she said, “I don’t know what it is you know about”.

So I thought, given the reflective, new year energy, that I’d try to tell you what it is I know about. I know mostly about how people think about and build communication technologies and systems, and the implications that this has for bigger and more interesting concepts like ‘democracy’ or ‘governance’. This means that I spend a lot of time thinking about what technologies are, how we come to know about them, how we know about things in general, and what all of this might mean for these larger abstract entities. But there are in fact a few things I actually know about, including philosophies of technology and language, and pesky ideas about modernity that actually do have some importance in the everyday struggles we undertake. Here are 4 things.

1. Technologies are not just stuff.

This seems obvious to me, but I am told it’s not. Technologies are not just stuff. They are not ONLY objects that you can employ to solve a problem. They are also practices and ways of thinking about how to be in the world. I like to think about all kinds of ‘technology practices’, including things as ordinary as the toaster I just took apart and left strewn over my office.

However, I’m most interested in communication technologies, but that’s a pretty broad area too. It includes the design of systems, electronics and physical objects, as well as the interactions between these human-built systems and other ones (like policy-making, art-making, community-making).

I’ve been influenced by Heidegger and some of the other phenomenological philosophers of technology, because I think they have some interesting insights into how it feels to come to know things, especially things that are both greater and more abstract than one’s everyday experience. I particularly like Albert Borgmann’s notion of practicing technology as a way of becoming mindful about the relationships between our everday lives and the tools and systems that we employ to engage with them.

2. We don’t live under conditions of modernity

But I have some problems with Heidegger and Borgmann, most of which have to do with how very modern they are, in the philosophical sense. For these dudes the world is systematizable and predicatable. A ‘good life’ is possible because goodness is not a relational value. It can be defined, and hence it can be experienced.  It’s worth noting that Borgmann, in particular, is very keen on personal and private responsibility in the practice of technology: he sees this as absolutely essential. I think this focus means he misses something about how and why we build things together – one of the other things I like to think about is how we do things in community and not always, and only, as individuals.  As you can see, Borgmann and Heidegger have been important in inspiring what I’ve come to know – even though I think they are missing a vital insight about how we live at the moment.

We are not, at the moment, living in modernity. Although our everyday experiences might appear to be predictable, we are in fact subject to enormous and swarming complexity at every turn. Climate change promises that even the weather will be unpredictable. Massive use of social media provides data that suggests that everyone has complex and shifting networks of friends. No one trusts governments, and whistleblowers become unlikely heroes, and simultaneously villains. Every story has at least two sides, and now we know about them both. This is not to say that the modern world, of objectivity and predictability, has disappeared. It is simply to say that this culture is something other than modern.

Which makes me think that, to understand the experience of being along with technology, we might need some philosophical assistance that isn’t limited to thinking about being modern. Latour is helpful in a limited sense, as his actor-network theory positions experience as explicitly relational between humans, machines and other entities. However, as I’m often interested in my work with the little politics of getting along in everyday life with community members, not to mention the big politics of deciding how technologies should be regulated or governed, I can’t quite take on Latour’s heavily deconstructed sense of power. Yes, power is imaginary. We made it. But no, that doesn’t mean it can be left out of the relational systems that we imagine and build. So I leave Latour at a certain point. Haraway is much more useful: she takes as a given the idea that we can’t be objective and that we are not unitary, modern beings with only one way of being. She resists also the idea that we are totally separable from technology or can control it – as early as the 1980s she worked with the provocative metaphor of the cyborg: something not-only-natural, and not-only-technological. In a non-modern world in which technology has indeed fundamentally altered the experience that we have of the natural world, this approach is one that I think it essential for making sense out of our relationship with technology.

3. We make change by making arguments. Some people make arguments by designing technologies.

Technology is not just stuff; it’s practice and being and knowing. We build it in certain ways, make claims about that, and debate the claims much as we do with all other kinds of cultural products.  One of the other things I like to think about is how and why people argue about things with each other. This is what connects my work on the experience of being in the world to my policy-related work. Policy too is a human construct, and it is an observable process of communication that creates policy. I am very interested in the kinds of arguments that people choose to advance rationales for different policies (again, ones related to communication technologies or to the process of communication and the rights attached to it).

So I investigate arguments. Mostly I do this by paying very close attention to how people advance their claims about particular things that they think communication technologies should do, or should represent. These include the metaphors that they choose, the order in which they introduce their ideas, the appeals they make to particular kinds of authority. I’m fortunate in this practice to have spent many years studying literature before I studied design and communication – in literary criticism everything is artifice, but everything is meaning too. That positioning is a strong part of my practice.

Most arguments I study are made of words – but actually building technologies is also a way to create arguments about how things should be. Take the internet for example. If you read interviews with its creators, you can see how the idea of a network where information is broken into packets and then routed as efficiently as possible to be reassembled at its destination is a metaphor for a particular way of thinking of communication: the message is the important thing, not the mechanism of transmission, and indeed the transmission improves as the network expands. It’s extremely elegant.I like to pay attention to the arguments advanced by designing things in particular ways. If I can, I try to understand the technical underpinnings, or else I interview people who build things about how they build them, hoping that they can also tell me why.

4. Ideas Matter.

Finally, and briefly: I know that ideas matter. Philosophy is important because it is how we learn to think about the things that we actually do. I have ideas about how I think the world should be. I believe in justice, fairness, and equality. I believe that society is collectively responsible for itself and its members, which includes the natural world that societies all depend upon. I can’t and won’t apologize for believing these things. These are the ideas that matter to me, and because they matter to me I investigate them in my research, seek them through my philosophy, and write about them in my work. These values and norms are my guiding force, and so as committed as I am to empirical scholarship as a way of respectfully investigating the world inhabited by others, I am inclined towards projects that allow me to investigate values and norms, and especially to ones that help me to develop what I think is important.

These are the things that I know. I know other things too, but these are the ones that come together, link themselves, and place themselves in my mind. Philosophy, design, being in the world, and struggling to have a good life. Happy New Year.

Transparency in Place of Democracy : The future of informational activism

[ This is a slightly modified version of a presentation given at the ‘Invisible Harms’ conference on November 14, 2013 at the University of Pennsylvania]


 We have heard that ‘information is power’. But what kind of power has it become, and for what purpose? In the past two years we have experienced how leaked information can change the power dynamics between citizens, elected individuals and governments, from WikiLeaks to the Snowden revelations.  Leaks form one part of a dichotomy that also includes promises of greater government transparency – and all of this is held up through the technical promise of the internet. The WikiLeaks drama, the actions of Anonymous, and the large-scale surveillance of major democratic countries via PRISM and Tempora all point to the development of cultures that value transparency as a key component of democracy – in fact, I’m starting to wonder if transparency – the goal of visibility – is starting to stand in for democracy – the goal of respresentation and accountability.

A short history of information activism

At the root of the current fascination with transparency are a series of mediated dramas involving WikiLeaks, Anonymous and now the governments of major Western democracies engaged in mass surveillance. These 3 cases can be taken together as an illustration of the development of a concept of transparency coming to stand in for a concept of democracy, under situations in which democratic accountability can be obfuscated.  I believe that we have come to a place in which many of the features of democracy – especially the idea of participatory democracy but also representative democracy – have been transmuted into a promise of transparency, of visibility. I believe this has to do with changes in how the power of information has been perceived.

Different mediating technologies appear to promise different ways of organizing social relationships and meanings. The press, for example, promised a platform for speaking in one voice to an audience of many. But the internet promised an even greater democratization of information, with everyone in theory equally able to post information or to comment on it. The idea was horizontality, equality, and a ‘generative’ type of openness that was based on the ability to build or rebuild the technical platform of communication; in the old network science understanding, to ‘route around damage’. As theorist José van Dijk writes, “Connectivity has become the material and metaphorical wiring of our culture, a culture in which technologies shape and are shaped not only by economic and legal frames, but also by users and content.” (p. 141).

As an example, take this speech that David Cameron made in 2006: “You have begun the process of democratising the world’s information . . . by making more information available to more people, you are giving them more power.”  A typical statement, and one that resonated with a party developing a “transparency agenda”, plans for ‘open government’ and accessible government data. We will return to Cameron’s speech in a moment.

WikiLeaks: ‘transparency uber alles.’

bostonglobe (image from the Boston Globe)

WikiLeaks enforced transparency by mobilizing technical capacities of the internet’s networked mode of communication, but also by creating communicational paradigms that link mass media forms of communication and interpersonal forms through a globalization of communication and a greater interactivity (as theorist Cardoso notes). In this context, the WikiLeaks phenomenon includes two elements: First, the disruption of news production that resulted from the partnerships between WikiLeaks and mass media organizations; and second, the technical and legal measures taken to shut down WikiLeaks (mostly by US commercial and state actors) and the reactions mounted against these measures by individuals associating themselves with Anonymous.

Wikileaks presented an apparent challenge to the mediating and gatekeeping power of the mass media, but through its partnerships and connections with mass media, beginning with the Guardian and secondarily a set of other leading broadsheet newspapers, first in Europe and then around the world.

The leaks that were released up until the diplomatic cables in 2010 were discussed by those who read them, but were not generally part of a broader discussion about state secrets. The partnerships with news organizations became important in advancing  Julian Assange’s purpose, but also created new ways of ‘doing’ journalism, as Leigh and Harding (2010) report in their book on the Wikileaks partnership with the Guardian. These new ways of ‘doing’ journalism included working with Assange and other WikiLeaks members to select relevant cables, doing fact-checking, and constructing narrative from the deluge of data that the cables represented.

The cyberlocker technology that allowed WikiLeaks to gather information that would never have previously been published disrupted the control of information that previously characterized both the regimes of the state and the mass media. The ongoing circulation of diplomatic gossip and low-level critique taking place around the world wherever WikiLeaks cables are published by a partner newspaper is evidence of this disruption.

After the drama subsided, the long-term consequence of WikiLeaks was in part a stated commitment to transparency by governments. At the same time however, it also produced a counter-movement towards less networked, more ‘invisible’ forms of communication.

Anonymous(ly) Enforcing transparency


This brings us to the long and interesting story of Anonymous, and here I tip my hat to Gabriella Coleman whose recent work rigorously researches these so-called  ‘shock troops of the internet’ and arguably their tactics draw both strongly on the networked structure of the internet and on the power of transparency : they often publish personal information as a way of embarrassing powerful figures into action. For example, in 2011 Anons launched Operation Darknet targeting websites hosting child pornography. Most notably, the group hacked a child pornography site called “Lolita City”, releasing 1,589 usernames from the site. Actions like this do the same thing as WikiLeaks – using the capacities of the internet to enforce transparency on wrongdoers – in this case ‘naming and shaming’ people who are engaged in online activities that are both illegal and immoral.

Ironically,  Anonymous depends for its effectiveness on a lack of transparency about its membership. The group’s few rules include not disclosing one’s identity, not talking about the group, and not attacking the media. This last is important because media coverage of Anonymous actions is one of the ways that the ‘freedom fighting’ that the group engages in becomes effective – as you can see in this image of Anons advocating for the release of Edward Snowden.


Transparency is enforced by Anonymous on the targets it chooses while resisted itself. But by resisting transparency and (once again) taking on the particular qualities of the internet as a networked communication platform. Interestingly Anonymous is now calling for government transparency (second image is of FEMA hack day in support of Snowden), which brings me to …

The ethics of mass surveillance


My third example are the large-scale surveillance operations mounted by the US and the UK. As I discuss in this interview with security expert Ian Brown, these operations included collection of raw internet traffic flowing through the UK (in the case of Tempora). All communications data were kept for three days, with metadata being retained for thirty days. This ongoing surveillance submits millions of people to constant monitoring.

Once again, transparency is enforced upon one group by another group who gain power from their obscurity. In this case it is government security agencies who, without the knowledge of the public, effectively render all communication data transparent to some extent. If you think about it for a moment or two, this scale of surveillance effectively renders every individual’s daily life transparent to government spies, without subjecting the rationale for that spying to democratic debate.

Ironies of transparency

The irony of government transparency (and indeed of massive government spying) is that it shifts power relations such that the least powerful in society become those who have nothing to ‘show’. They are the people who cannot demonstrate a ‘paper trail’ and by not having anything to prove themselves, they have more to fear than those who are outwardly transparent. The extremely paradoxical thing about this is that those who have the most power are those who can engage in steganography – hiding in plain sight by being very transparent. We can see this kind of strategy emerging with corporate social responsibility strategies where companies confess to poor practices, hoping that the admission gains them some points. In a way this is a perversion of democracy, and what I think of as a new, invisible Iron Curtain (here, for reference, is the old one, in Budapest).



The future of information activism – hiding in plain sight?

I have discussed how Anonymous inverts the power differential between the surveyor and the surveyed in order to make their activism more effective: they also use the internet in a way that inverts the usual straightforward relationship between transparency and democracy: they can enact activism that is participatory and hence ‘democratic’ precisely because they can be anonymous while inflicting transparency on others. This reverses the situation of pervasive surveillance and expanding governmentality that results from the extensive collection of individual personal information by governments.

I expect advocacy efforts in future to employ not just this inversion of transparency but also, in another turning upside down of existing power relations, to engage much more in steganography – hiding in plain sight. Already activist organizations have begun using internet-based tools to suggest ways to do this: in a previous post I discussed the implications of this move into the “dark web”.



The speech I quoted at the beginning of this talk has, according to the Guardian newspaper, been deleted from the internet. The UK Tory party is committed to government transparency and has been supporting open government initiatives, yet this week it has been deleting the archives of its speeches from 2000 to 2010, some hope in the hopes that it will distract from criticisms that it has changed its policies.



The Five Questions We Need to Ask for a Better Future

I just watched The Great Gatsby. It’s a film for our times, in some ways. The embarrassing, pointless excess. The stark contrast between the fabulously wealthy and the poor, the environmentally pristine and the polluted. But it’s also a film about nostalgia, and how reaching for the past can become a pathology – closing with the famous lines from Fitzgerald’s book: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

The panicked nostalgia of Gatsby is paralleled by our own incoherent economic nostalgia. I heard a lecture last night from Stephen King, the chief economist at HSBC, where he laid out the fact that the exponential living standard increases of the past can’t be repeated in the future. What this has done, in practice, is to increase inequality and, apparently, squeeze the middle class to the point of disappearance. But is it possible that nostalgia for the middle class is just as vain as any other nostalgia? I spend most of my time thinking about how we imagine different kinds of futures through technology. I think there’s good evidence that the ‘middle class’ as it’s been conceived in the past is dissolving, but I also think that the same pressures that make us worried and nostalgic could also inspire us to think about the parameters for a ‘good society’.

The End of the Middle Class

Without a doubt, increasing property prices, food and fuel costs and stagnant wages mean that fewer people make enough to have a traditionally ‘comfortable’ lifestyle, and certainly it is no longer possible for large numbers of people in Western countries to assume that they will automatically enjoy living standards better than their parents’. At the same time, advances in technology along with consolidation of capital and wealth creation among a very small number of people mean that a global elite is developing. This global elite benefit from the fact investments and capital can now be held in various jurisdictions – London’s property prices remain high on average in part because of the ongoing demand for second homes and investment properties, which aren’t even lived in.

Technological development also contributes to the reduction of a middle class. Algorithmic trading among other financial innovations allows for more efficient trading among the financial elite, while sophisticated software development is making it increasingly possible to restructure middle class jobs – in some cases replacing human workers and in others breaking down complex jobs through software into smaller tasks that can be automated or outsourced. Key to both of these processes is the application of ‘machine learning’ or ‘algorithmic processing’ in which computers recognize patterns and perform dynamic calculations. Such algorithmic processes have even recently been used to write newspaper articles.

Undoubtedly there are forces (social, financial and technological) that are gnawing away at the middle class as it has traditionally been imagined, and perhaps giving middle class people common cause with others who have been more obviously oppressed.

A More Just Future?

Perhaps instead of focusing on the gap between the fabulously and unbelievably wealthy and the relatively poor, we could start focusing on the aspects of a ‘good society’ that actually matter to people. These include basic but also subjective measures. I think there are at least five that are truly important, and that as a society we should think about how to employ the structural dynamics of this moment in history (especially including technology) not to mourn the loss of a past society but to build a fairer and more just future one. I’d like to provocatively ask five questions that sociologists will recognize as similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but which I personally think owe more to American pragmatist philosophers and educational and theological pioneers.




Speak/Listen/be Heard

Believe in Something

Be together

In other words, how can we use a world of limited physical resources to keep the maximum number of people not just fed and sheltered (maybe by insisting those London houses stay occupied?), but also how can we (in a world without growth, remember) create accountable social structures. How can we allow people to speak their minds and listen to them (democratic processes?). What can we believe in that will transcend the everyday and allow us to express who we are? (Art? Religion? Creativity? Innovation?) And finally how can we find ways to work and be together collectively, not just as individuals (Co-working? Solidarity? Neighbourliness?).

I realize these are vague principles. But I think that the vagueness might help to provide some expansive thinking. Technological practices like algorithmic calculation of large amounts of data can certainly help with meeting basic needs (think of smart energy meters, for example), but it’s also up to us to consider how to employ it for the other things that are important to us.


Alternatives to the middle class are possible. We can learn to cook and can at home, return to growing gardens, and maybe do less paid work. Perhaps that would be a better life. We can also use our present technologies and institutional structures to support our  government data and collaborative technologies have been leveraged to help people find get access to local places to grow food (Allotment Data Project), better routes to travel by bicycle (Cyclestreets), and ways to share tools and expertise locally (Streetbank. New technology, in the form of air quality and noise sensor has also meant that communities have been able to take local authorities to task if they don’t act on problems such as very noisy industrial yards or air pollution (Mapping for Change). A good life doesn’t just mean staying at home baking or gardening – it means being able to find meaning in a project that you work on with others.

(this is the gardening club at Archbishop’s Park near my house)

To make a better society, we need to reduce income inequality – even Stephen King agrees. But we also need to be able to think about how to make a good and just society that is centered around fundamental values. Can we find enough to eat? Can we be guaranteed warm, safe places to live? Can we achieve this in ways that give people responsibility and autonomy so that their concerns are heard and listened to? What can people believe in and how can they work together (in large and small ways) to achieve things that are meaningful.
Keeping these abstract, but very basic ideas in mind is a concrete means of focusing on the positive possibilities for the future, rather than “beating against the current” towards a past that can’t return.

Why every job is like joining the circus

I used to be a circus performer. Well, kind of.


When I was in graduate school my brothers decided to spend their summer earning money busking as a street circus act. One of them learned to juggle, one of them learned to ride the unicycle (and juggle) and the other one learned to breathe fire. They had a pretty good show, and would even have performed for the Prince of Wales if the Mounted Police hadn’t turned them away for having flammable gas in their equipment bag. Fire breathing is apparently dangerous.

I was feeling a bit left out of this, so while I was doing my PhD I signed up for trapeze lessons. I was living in Montreal, so it was pretty inexpensive to take trapeze lessons at the local community centre. The teacher also worked for the National Circus School and the Cirque du Soleil. After the class, I stayed on as a solo student, and trained regularly on the trapeze. When you are working on something intellectually difficult, it is fantastically focusing to spend time trying to hang by your toes.

I also watched a lot of circus, and learned about how ‘new’ circus plays with the limits of the body and the emotions. Characters are developed through movement and impossible tricks, and what becomes clear are the amazing capacities of humans to push beyond themselves while still retaining all their foibles. Although contemporary circus doesn’t usually involve animals, it almost always involves clowns, who act as naive observers and make you laugh by usually pointing out what is obvious but you didn’t want to pay attention to.

I stopped training on the trapeze when I moved to the UK, and spent my postdoc years rowing (well, it was Oxford). I went back to aerials for a time to learn the silks, but for the moment I’ve retired.

However, as I’ve headed back to work (in a new job!) I’ve been thinking again about circus. Here are my 5 reasons why every job is like joining the circus. I have said ‘every job’ in the hopes that many people can get something out of this list, but these things apply particularly to jobs where taking initiative, being creative, and working together are important.

1. Fear will stop you

When you are doing aerials, you are often many metres up in the air performing moves where you have to leap or fly. If you think too much about being afraid to do these things, you’ll never do them. Part of rehearsing is about acknowledging the fear and repeating the movement enough times that it fades. When I protested that I would surely die before learning how to tumble from the top of the trapeze to the bottom, my teacher matter-of-factly informed me that “we are here to do impossible things”. Most jobs involve learning how to do things that make us afraid. The trick is to refuse to let the fear stop you doing them. Practice helps.

2. Pyramids need all kinds of acrobats

A human pyramid needs enormous strong people on the bottom, people who are stable and flexible in the middle, and tiny nimble people at the top.  All of the human pyramid participants have different qualities, and all are essential.

3. The easy moves are the hardest

This is related to #1. You are more likely to fall doing something simple than something really complicated. In a way, the fear that motivates us to practice the difficult figure sometimes also causes us to ignore the simpler transition that comes right afterwards. Do not underestimate how hard easy things can be.

4. Lose yourself

In a compelling circus performance, the audience is amazed at the ability of the artist to take a risk, to defy gravity, to hang by her toes. But the performer is not doing it to impress. She is lost in the flow of the art. Through the frustration of practice, she has located a way to do what she is doing for herself, even when there are people paying her.

5. Clowns speak the truth

This is the most important lesson. We laugh at the clowns because they tell the truth we do not want to hear. This is their simple humanity, and the gift they give to all of us. Every workplace can benefit from the humanity of the clown. This doesn’t mean tell jokes or try and make everything funny, but it does mean recognizing the irony of truth: that a conflict is resulting from someone’s hurt feelings; that power is being enacted that makes people uncomfortable; that an idea that seems good on the surface might be damaging. In these situations, the gentle naivite of the clown (or the Shakespearean fool) can be helpful, even if it is just being played out inside your head.

Work is hard, no matter what it is. But it’s worth remembering that everyone can do impossible things.

Idle No More: I weep, I learn

I just cried watching this video. 9 am on Monday, at my desk, tears streaming down my face. It is a video of hundreds of Canadian aboriginal people processing and dancing through Canada’s largest shopping mall. The action is part of a protest movement started by four women, called Idle No More. The movement calls for the Canadian government to respect the treaties signed with the First Nations governments and opposes new legislation that would undermine existing protections to waterways and the environment. Idle No More’s founders call for respect for indigenous ways of knowing and sovereignty over land, as well as education and the revitalization of indigenous people. The movement is building – galvanized by a hunger strike by Chief Teresa Spence who called for a productive meeting between the Canadian government and indigenous leaders.  Over 100 protests have already occurred

So why am I crying? I grew up in Saskatchewan, in Plains Cree country. Indigenous people were all around me. But the dominant story of the place was that these people were second-class citizens. It was common to hear white people refer to “dirty Indians” or imply that aboriginal people never worked or were a burden on the state. I knew this wasn’t true. My mother worked at the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College (now First Nations University of Canada) and so did I, for a little while. My family went to the powwow every year. But even in these spaces you could still sometimes sense the powerlessness of an oppressed people. Observing as a white person, in indigenous territory, I knew that I was part of the reason. In part, this morning, I was crying from the guilt and shame of that realization. But I’m not sure that is the whole reason.

The people in the video have looks of justice on their face. They are proud. They are angry. And they are strong. I cried hardest when the dancing started. I had never realized what the dances could communicate – such power and grace and conviction. These are people who had their land taken over, their children stolen and re-educated. Their languages undermined. And now, they have had enough. They are organizing, and dancing, and taking the Canadian colonial government to task. I am in awe, and I am still crying.

Out here in the UK, I sometimes feel incredibly powerless as every morning brings a new revelation of government malice and incompetence. Cuts to benefits for the poorest, punitive rules on getting jobseeker’s allowance (or what Canadians call Employment Insurance). Privatization of public services and the gutting of education systems including the universities. I feel paralyzed sometimes at the extent of the social damage, the number of things that I feel are hurting people and communities. And then I think what it must have felt like for all the aboriginal kids I grew up with, and all the people walking and dancing in the video. It must have seemed like too much to fight yet another law that would make things worse. And then, it seemed possible to move again. The movement is aptly named. The people are idle no more.

Somewhere in the middle of the video, one of the walkers calls “what do we want?” The answer: “Justice”. When do we want it? “Now!”

That’s what I want too. For everyone. If you are in Canada or have a vote in Canada, write to your MP and tell them that you support Idle No More and oppose Omnibus Bill C-45. If you are here in the UK, drop me a comment and help me think about what kinds of things we can do to break the paralysis, the idleness.


The Return of the Clinton Paradox- Internet Governance and the ‘sticky WCIT’

I wrote this post for Free Speech Debate on what I could glean was the impact of the ITU’s World Conference on International Telecommunications, held in December in Dubai. I argue that while the media presented the ‘breakdown’ of the talks as a fracture between Western democracies (notably the US) who support free speech and Eastern states who wish to control communications, experienced observers saw a set of worries emerge about the long-term consequences of having the US manage internet governance – including the return of the Clinton paradox where internet freedom is guaranteed in one sphere while reduced in another.

Thanks to Free Speech Debate for the chance to write this.

Cultures of the “Maker” movement

It’s time to have a closer look at the cultures of the ‘maker revolution’. The tech world is getting increasingly excited about the opportunities presented by 3D printing, open source hardware and the new markets for DIY that they produce. But somewhat unsurprisingly, there has been little attention paid to the cultural aspects of these practices. So far, writers have assumed that ‘makers’ are pretty similar to ‘hackers’ (ie, mostly men, mostly young, etc), and what they are up to is much the same as in the software world. In fact, women play a much larger role in open hardware and ‘making’ culture than in open source software culture, although you wouldn’t necessarily know it from some of the recent writing on the subject.

Is ‘Maker Culture’ just about printing your own lego?

Wired Magazine’s Chris Anderson has published a new book (MakersThe New Industrial Revolution) in which he enthuses about the way that 3D printing can inspire individuals to make things that they can then sell to others in a a number of ‘long-tail markets’. He evokes a world where people manufacture their own Lego bricks that can then be endlessly recombined to build new things. (Sadly, this book is nowhere near as good as the novel by Cory Doctorow, also called Makers, which uses the same ideas, but imagines that they combine to make a new economic system, which is then challenged by the powers that be. It’s great – read it – you can get it here for free).

In a review ofAnderson’s book, the Guardian’s Simon Poole points out that “in Anderson’s brave new world, everyone is a creative-geek tinkerer but no one does the boring stuff.” This boring stuff, the stuff that can’t be outsourced, includes making pizzas and running dry cleaning shops.  So there is Makeable stuff (Lego?) and Non-makeable stuff (bread? pizza? laundry?). One is hip, and the other is not, and it is interesting to see that the non-hip stuff is not only non outsourcable, but the stuff that we used to think of as women’s/domestic work, not worth counting or paying for.

I think there is a better story to tell about ‘making’ than this one, and that better story acknowledges the various ways that making is gendered and cultured. This seems obvious enough, but actually doesn’t come through in many of the discussions of open movements. We need to acknowledge this as a research community – first, so we can acknowledge the innovations of cultures past, some of which are obscured because of the inattention to women’s history. And second, so we can avoid essentializing gender and culture when we make recommendations for how to open knowledge or create knowledge sharing processes.

A better story: Art, craft and culture

To address this cultural gap, I will start by talking about craft – the making of lots of things (beautiful, bespoke things) for individual home use.


My grandmother studied home economics in the 1930s. Then she raised five children and decided to go back to school. In her 50s and 60s, she was an art teacher and now, in her 80s she is a well-respected spinner, weaver and fibre artist. This is a picture of her studio. She made all her own clothes and her kids’ clothes for many decades. My mother also made many of her own clothes, and our family holidays included learning crafts like knitting, sewing, clothes dying and paper making. I grew up in a world of craft, and a world of specialized, ‘made’ objects. Until the development of Etsy, the only way to buy someone else’s craft would be to wait for the annual craft sale. For women like my grandmother, craft was a necessity, but also a way into a sustaining creative practice.

FLOSS and Hacker cultures and ‘Making’

I have not followed in this family tradition (once being told I was ‘craft impaired’ after failing to complete another project), since I always preferred either reading or messing with computers. When I started working on tech cultures I got really excited about the idea of hacking, and dove into reading about the guys at MIT who snuck into the lab at night, built train sets, and set about making the frameworks for free software. I got even more excited when I saw the ideas of free software (ideas about the responsibility to keep ideas and materials that you received from a commons available for anyone else). Open source and free software have had a big impact on DIY cultures in software, and in the computer-based world of hacking. These ideas have also started to flow outwards to influence the idea of making hardware open-source – as I wrote about in this article.

The politics of making

What I see happening now is a collision of the two worlds: the Making culture has a cultural history from the MIT hackers but it also has a strong influence from traditional crafting cultures. Both of these histories are being transformed by their combination. Traditionally, home economics, crafts and arts were invisibly the work of women. The rise of ‘home economics’ as a disipline suggested that these activities could be studied and made scientific. Women’s creative work was valuable within the domestic sphere and as a support and comeplement to other work taking place outside. In the decades that followed, second wave feminism invited women to embrace other kinds of work outside the home, and increased prosperity reduced the economic necessity for home canning, rug-making, knitting and sewing.

Now, craft and DIY reappear as political acts, reclaiming the personal and communal in a neoliberal capitalist system that has separated effort, affect and creativity from production. This communal aspect has historical roots in activities such as quilting bees and knitting groups, but has flourished online too, through community sites like Ravelry.com and the hundreds of recipe sharing sites that proliferate on the internet. Craft slides in to art, and craft appears as well in a reinvigorated space for DIY practice that also includes new forms of craft commerce, like Etsy.com and social media marketing for individual crafters. Craft is commerce, and craft is collective. Millions of people learn once again that everyday making has a beauty to it, and that everyday making is something done together, as a community and culture.

Open Hardware: Craft+Electronics=Entrepreneurship


Open Hardware carries this forward: designing and making electronic kits positions entrepreneurs at the nexus of craft and hacking – and many of these entrepreneurs are women. Limor Fried’s Adafruit Industries makes and sells a number of electronics kits including Arduino boards and Raspberry Pi min-computers. Ayah Bdier’s littleBits make up a library of electronic components that snap together with magnets (the photo above is of a prototype I saw at the 2011 Open Hardware Summit – the finished ones are MUCH COOLER). Leah Buechley’s LilyPad Arduino is a set of flexible electronics that can be sewn into clothing – a particularly satisfying mixture of the hard and soft. In addition to entrepreneurs there are also artists who push on the space between electronics, art, and craft creation – projects like Rachel Lyra Hodspar’s Medium Reality menswear (and pants interface) and the tinkerers/artists/media-makers who are part of the Constant Association for Art and Media. Finally, Catarina Mota keeps up research on new materials and making through the Open Materials Project. What’s interesting about these projects is that they are electronics and ‘making’ projects but they are also linked into cultures and practices of art and craft – to experimentation and creation.


Open Hardware and Making Cultures

To sum up, there are a few aspects to the cultures of open hardware that I think are different than open software, and that I think are worth considering (and celebrating) as we start thinking about the politics implicit in Anderson’s argument about the economic and social benefits of ‘making’.

1. open hardware projects cut across and connect with other forms of DIY, taking up this politicized and gendered dialectic in a productive and interesting way.

2. Many open hardware entrepreneurs are women. My observation of these projects is that they are pragmatic, creative, and fill market niches, but that compared with open software projects they are less concerned with the debates about licensing, division of labour, etc.

3. There is also a cultural link connecting open hardware with new media art and experimental art forms. Hardware designers and entrepreneurs aren’t just coming out of computer science departments, they are coming out of media and design departments and through a whole range of other professional and creative paths. While the art world has its own gender issues, this variety of pathways may be less constraining that the expectation that tech entrepreneurs come only from computer science backgrounds.

I’ve been watching and thinking as the world of ‘making’ has moved from one in which some making work was innovative and high tech and some making work was pretty well invisible. The growth of open hardware as a place of creative opportunity and entrepreneurial opportunity is also connected to its position in a longer history of making and doing in which women have also participated. We now have some interesting opportunities to look at the current developments and the historical context, and celebrate the progress we are making.


HowTO: Be a Writer – my contribution to Invisible Spaces of Parenthood

Last night artist Andrea Francke launched a book – Invisible Spaces of Parenthood: A collection of pragmatic propositions for a better future – wrapping up several months of workshops, talks, DIY house-building, felt storyboarding, and other interventions at the Showroom art space. A few months ago, I went along and had really interesting discussions with Andrea about the visibility or invisibility of parenting and domestic work, and the opportunity to use DIY practices to rethink these. She had turned the Showroom into a library and workshop featuring How To manuals from the past 40 years, works of radical social theory, and lots of tools and toys to be used by people of all ages.  Her book was meant to collect instructions that developed from work in the gallery workshop.

I contributed this HowTO: Be a Writer (on parental leave). And in the spirit of Andrea’s launch talk accompanied by her son Oscar, I include this photo of a writer and her daughter, giving a talk at OKFest in September.

HowTo: Be a Writer (on parental leave)

By Alison Powell, with assistance and distraction from Baby H

DISCLAIMER: This was written entirely next to, around, over, despite, and because of a small child, who was three months old when the text was begun and four and a half months old when it was finished. Your results may vary.

Step 1: Begin.

“To begin, begin” (the Tao)

Before beginning, wait for baby to nap. Once baby is asleep, check the news, respond to correspondence, uncrease paper or launch software. Write a sentence. Erase.

Baby stirs.
Pick up baby.
Tend to baby.
Put baby down.

 End beginning.

Step 2: Begin, again.

Think of a story.

Adult lives are cyclical. Time to file the tax return, again. Another summer, gone. Baby lives are relentlessly linear. Very young people quite obviously develop and progress. They enforce narrative, even when we adults insist on the arbitrariness of narrative, on the fragmentary notion of story.

Babies enforce narrative on our work. In shortened time scales, we demand progress. I rush to finish this sentence as I hear my daughter stirring, anticipating something new from her even as I demand something more, perhaps even more than I can give, from myself.

Step 3: Ruminate.

You are walking, or I am walking. Perhaps it is raining, or very hot, or noisy, or an undistinguished day distinguished only by you (or me) walking through it with a baby in a carriage. You are invisible in this action, unless you happen to be a man, in which case you are visible only by virtue of your manliness, and only for a moment.

Think. Think of all the ideas of your project, in no order, in rhythm with your steps. Think of writing the words you most want to use to tell your story. Imagine the pleasure of putting them together. This is the portion of work that is always invisible to creators. We think that work begins as we sit down to write or walk into the studio. In fact, we are working always, folding and refolding thoughts. Naomi Stadlen writes, in her book What Mothers Do, that part of mother’s (sic: parent’s) work is to be infinitely distractable. Hence, parents escape into imagination and reverie. Stadlen implies that this reverie is a consequence of distractable existence, and merely a phenomenon in itself. But for the creative parent, the writer-parent, the artist-parent, this reverie is lifeblood. In it we exist again as our singular selves, with our creativity freed to circulate towards the project we crave.

Step 4: Hope

Return home from the walk. Empty the dishwasher. Put some clothes in the laundry. Change the baby. Make a sandwich. Eat 3 bites of the sandwich. Pick up the baby. Think. Imagine writing. Imagine making. Sing a baby song, see a baby smile. Put the baby down, eat the sandwich. Hope.

Step 5A: Snip

Baby sleeps. Or sits on lap, or feeds quietly. Snip. Write a sentence. Make a sketch. Capture an idea stewed at walking pace and in reverie.

Step 5B: Do Nothing

The creative producer, who used to be called an artist or writer, before neoliberalism reduced the world to the individual and the tasks that they might enact to fuel the system of supply/demand/discipline, is tallying her outputs. She is thinking of how to describe them to the grant agency or the hiring committee. Parental leave, she has heard, should be no excuse for a lag in production.

The baby grows. There is always naptime. There are always the snips of time for drawing or writing. There is always the temptation to work, to feel connected to the cyclical narrative of project design, creation, delivery.

So do nothing. Sit. Look out the window. Forget baby, forget project, forget work, forget progress. In capitalist theory, labour time is only valuable when it is used to create surplus value: Marx writes: “We should not say that one man’s hour is worth another man’s hour, but rather that one man during an hour is worth just as much as another man during an hour.” In that hour, the men must be making something that can be exchanged for something else. In this reckoning, baby raising time is no time at all. Creative time is no time at all. Since nothing you are doing is measurable by neoliberal metrics, do nothing.

Step 6: Do anything

Forget Marx. What did he know? He had seven children and only 3 grew up. Can we assume that he did not worry about how to balance dialectical materialism with diapers? In any case, Marxist feminists encourage us to do anything, to think of our labour of production and re-production as valuable. Silvia Federici’s feminism angrily confronts the way that patriarchy categorizes women as “workers, domestic workers, baby-making wonders” (Power, 2009), and the way that some autonomous Marxist thinkers focus on the affect of labour, tinting some work with female qualities without considering the meaning of feminism. Affective labour refers to the labour of caring, the emotional work that smoothes interactions, facilitates flow. There is no reason why this labour is female, but it has been cast as such. Nina Power thinks that most work gets this ‘feminised’ cast, except perhaps artwork. “The female artist has an implicit double-job to undertake, if she is willing – to rethinking [sic] production and reproduction in such a way that the material and the immaterial, the personal and the objective. . . The work of the female artist is to go beyond ‘work’ as we currently understand it – the double-burden of which has characterized the lives of women for a very long time – to use artistic practice to rethink the notion of practice’.

So whatever you are doing, it is work, but it is also art. Your child is art, your raising of it contains the opportunity for your most artful intervention in the universe. But the child is also anti-art, absorbing bodily and emotional attention that could be attuned to the turn of a phrase, the interpretation of a concept, the drawing of a scene. Art-making is the declaration that you exist as a subject, and not as the object of someone else’s art. Does it make a difference that you are one kind of productive subject as a parent and another as a writer?

Step 7: Bake a cake? Wash the floor?

Your house contains a kitchen and a studio. Knitting, sewing, baking and other domestic activities are not always visible or valorized – but they are also, fundamentally creative work. We can distinguish them from the other, endlessly repetitive tasks of housekeeping and childrearing, the diaper-changing, laundering, tidying and cleaning that constitute perhaps UN-productive maintenance work. The work of domestic creativity is now considered an aesthetic and artistic practice in its own right: witness the work of Fritz Haeg, who re-imagines domesticity and domestic artistry by self-consciously queering it, and self-consciously attaching this artful work to place and context. Claiming to engage with the locality and the seasons, Haeg’s work re-valorizes the domestic arts. But we have to ask the question (at least this question, in this moment, with the baby wiggling on the lap between the typing fingers) about whether this artistry re-valorizes traditional ‘women’s work’ or whether it only becomes valuable because it has been taken from the home to the gallery, and from the everyday to the sublime.

Traditionally, crafts and arts were a way of making necessary ‘women’s’ work pleasant and aesthetic. The rise of ‘home economics’ as a form of scientific management of home-based work solidified the gendered aspect of this work, but also suggested that these activities could be studied and made scientific. In the decades that followed, second wave feminism invited women to embrace other kinds of work outside the home, and increased prosperity reduced the economic necessity for home canning, rug-making, knitting and sewing.

Now, craft and DIY reappear as political acts, reclaiming the personal and communal in a neoliberal capitalist system that has separated effort, affect and creativity from production. This communal aspect has historical roots in activities such as quilting bees and knitting groups, but has flourished online too, through community sites like Ravelry.com and the hundreds of recipe sharing sites that proliferate on the internet. Craft slides in to art, and craft appears as well in a reinvigorated space for DIY practice that also includes new forms of craft commerce, like multinational Etsy.com or the ideosyncratic, local Night Markets. Craft is commerce, and craft is collective. Millions of people learn once again that everyday making has a beauty to it, and that everyday making is something done together, as a community and culture.

Within these exchanges on making and practice are also the unofficial exchanges of tacit knowledge that helps the banal bits of everyday life proceed (or indeed, the artful act of childrearing). What do other people do in order to work? As a parent, you recognize the importance of these tiny pieces of knowledge, and as an artist you recognize the silent, often unmeasurable influence of the collective, of the longer, larger conversation about ideas of which they form a part. But you have to ask: does the banal, quotidian exchange about washing powder have the same force as the exchange about theory? The critique of most recent practice?

Step 8: Do what can be done.

You have been for a walk. You have changed the baby. You have read the philosophers. You have examined your subjectivity. You have considered the broader consequences of your work. Now you will try to put on the radio, pick up the cup of tea, put the baby on your lap or under the table or on the playmat in the studio, and do whatever it is that can be done. Your attention is not perfect. Your production is slower, you feel, than it was without the tiny person squirming in the corner or calling from the next room. You are divided. But you are also more than your practice, more than your parenting. You are – that is, I am – more than one kind of subject. I knit together more than one kind of knowing. I have more than one kind of attention. I am a different kind of creator than I was before. And in the knowledge of this, I will do what can be done.

Step 9: Read.

Fritz Haeg Domestic Integrities (2012) http://www.fritzhaeg.com/domestic-integrities/main.html

Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, (Progress Publishers, 1955), accessed 23 August 2011, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/poverty-philosophy/.

Nina Power One-Dimensional Woman (2009) Zer0 Books.

Naomi Stadlen What Mothers Do. (2004). Piatkus Publishers: London.


Alison Powell is a writer and scholar. She is a Lecturer in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics where she studies media futures and ‘critical making’, and from whom she received paid parental leave which she used to write this article.

Baby H lives in South London. She likes baths, trees, and singing.


OK Fest Slides: Open Hardware Cultural and Legal debates

I have just finished a talk with Juergen Neumann and Dannie Jost here at the Open Knowledge Festival in Helsinki. We are continuing a discussion that we have been having for a few years now concerning the community and cultural responses to the ‘new industrial revolution’ that is emerging from technological changes including rapid prototyping, globally accessible knowledge via the internet, and shifts in expectations about intellectual property.

My presentation commented on the range of cultures and practices that are part of ‘Open Hardware’ movements and practices, and some of the debates about standards and licenses that turn up as a result.

Here are the slides:

OKFest law slides