Category Archives: Uncategorized

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 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 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 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 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)

Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, (Progress Publishers, 1955), accessed 23 August 2011,

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

What is the ‘Good Life’? Leisure, work, and parenting


What’s a good life? Why do we work? What is work, anyway? If I’m not being paid, but I have to get up at 4 am, is it still work? Is it still a good life?

These are the kinds of things I’ve been thinking about in the last few weeks. I’m currently on maternity leave spending time with my tiny daughter Hannah, and this experience is letting me think in all kinds of different ways. It’s a brief, and intense time – in November, I will start a few months of full-time work as part of the European Network of Excellence in Internet Science, and in January I take up a tenure-track position in the Department of Media and Communication at the LSE. But in the meantime I’m changing diapers, singing songs, giving hugs, walking around the city, and thinking.

The Economics of the Good Life – Enough is Enough

This morning, philosopher Edward Skidelsky and his father, political economist Robert Skidelsky discussed greed on BBC’s Today program. They argued that in contemporary society we have more than enough resources for everyone to live a life of leisure, which in the past was only available to the well-to-do. Such a life of leisure would mean stepping back from pure capitalist consumption. But it would also mean, as Edward said in the program, “living more spontaneously, less purposively. That’s something that people are frightened of.” The Skidelskys have also published an article In Praise of Leisure in the Chronicle of Higher Education, pointing out that we live in a world of abundance, not scarcity. There is no financial reason, then, that some people need to work 50 hours a week to meet needs, while others don’t seem to have enough.

The Sidelskys are clear that they are not advocating Marxism. Indeed, they claim that increased prosperity should ‘lift all boats’ not make everyone perfectly equal. To address the consequences of inequality, they propose a consumption tax to replace an income tax. This, they say, will help people to realize when ‘enough’ is ‘enough’.

 The Philosophy of the Good Life – Meaningful Work

Certainly, acknowledging that we live among abundance and that inequality is a result of meeting wants, not needs, is part of thinking about a ‘good life’. But others have considered it more philosophically. An American pragmatist tradition that includes Henry David Thoreau, John Dewey and Albert Borgmann – as well as Matthew Crawford, the philosopher and motorcycle mechanic – has thought about how meaningful work creates the good life. This is connected to what the Skidelskys think is real leisure: the ability to engage in an activity for its own sake, and not because of economic necessity. So what happens when someone who loves to think and write steps out of the job that pays her to think, write, and teach?

Out of Work? Thinking and Parenting

The past few weeks of maternity leave have made me think about the life of leisure in a different way. I am responding to the needs of Hannah, yes, but I am also living life at a pace which I have rarely ever experienced – a pace dictated by impulse, interest and intuition, not by arbitrary demands. In some ways, it is similar to the pace of life I lived as a student, in the rare periods when I was not frantically worrying that I had written enough or read enough. Compared to a life responding to work demands, it is slow. Much of it is concerned with responding to Hannah’s needs, rather than my wants. But many of those wants are simple, leaving me with a surprising amount of time to think.

I think about work, I think about parenting. I think about urban design, the history of London, the cultures of Brixton and Kennington, why babies wiggle, what music is, and sometimes I even think about the future of the internet. There is a freedom in this thinking, but it is difficult to specify what it results in, or to find time to write anything down. Babies are endlessly demanding, and household chores are by definition, never done. This puts my ‘good life’ in direct contrast with what the pragmatists (by and large men) describe as the good life. For them, the good life depends on feeling the satisfaction of having done work well, and on having fully engaged in a process which is not linear (like consumption) but cyclical and reflexive.

Borgmann’s famous example of living the good life compares the process of heating a house with a wood stove versus turning on central heating. Chopping wood, filling the wood stove and lighting the fire leads to a feeling of connection and participation in the process, which produces the satisfaction of the good life. But applied to many tasks of caring and home-making, the process is less obvious. You have to change thousands of diapers before a child is toilet trained. Regardless of whether you wash with soap and a scrubbing rock or a new washing machine, the laundry always builds up again. In between, you have many snatches of time to think but not long periods of time to write. Facebook and Twitter become compelling because it takes only seconds to post – and you might receive a response (which is unlikely for a long post about the good life).

Reconsidering the Good Life

Several things about this experience make me want to reconsider these existing ideas about the good life. First of all, one of the consequences of capitalism has been, paradoxically, the valuing of caring (or ‘women’s’) work. Paid parental leave* acknowledges that childrearing is work, as do the sky-high prices for daycare places in big cities. This makes me worry that in a Skidelsky world of needs instead of wants, the autonomy of women and girls would appear less valuable, and that parenting and caring work would again become invisible. Second of all, the contemplative quality of the American pragmatist’s ‘good life’ seems to depend on the ability to get feedback on work being done, and to be able to reflect on the quality of that work. For Matthew Crawford, for example, the satisfaction gained from fixing a motorbike is related to the validation on the quality of the job that he receives from motorbike riders.

Parenting, on the other hand, is short on validation. Infants don’t tell you when you’ve done a good job, and society at large has much more to say about bad parenting than it does about good parenting. Indeed, an entire book has been written that attempts to point out that parenting is valuable work, even when it doesn’t look like much is happening. This is one step towards accepting the work of parenting as part of a ‘good life’ that includes much toil, but much imagination as well.

As for me, I will be walking and thinking, and sometimes writing. Is it work? Yes, and important work, if we see Hannah as a member of a future society. But is it the only key to the ‘good life’ of the mind? I am not sure.

*NOTE: Long, underpaid maternity leave reinforces the idea that caring and parenting is of lower value than other forms of work. From a ‘good life’ perspective, a much better policy would be to provide better-paid periods of parental leave, and to make it mandatory for both parents to take some of it. But this is a discussion for another day . . .


Privatized governance and “consent of the networked”

(cross-posted from the POLIS blog)

This afternoon I am chairing a talk and discussion with journalist and internet policy specialist Rebecca MacKinnon, hosted by POLIS. I’m especially looking forward to this talk because Rebecca’s new book Consent of the Networked: The worldwide struggle for internet freedom touches on some of the ideas that I have been thinking about and working on. I’ve only just received the book, but already have some interesting questions to raise in our discussion, especially about how activism operates when internet spaces are constrained by state and corporate activity.

The book argues that along with new government strategies to control online information, private sector actors like Google and Facebook are also becoming involved in shaping the way we access information. At the same time as the internet empowers dissent and activism (especially in contexts where they are already strong), it is also being actively shaped by regulators, governments and companies. MacKinnon urges us to consider how to make democratic politics and constitutional law function to maximize the potential good of the internet and limit the abuse of the power it can represent.

But things get complicated, because in a global network you have governments exerting influence over people who didn’t vote for them, and because you also have private corporations ‘governing’ through the policies that they set for users, as well as through the architecture they employ. Governments with as varied political backgrounds as authoritian China, crypto-democratic Russia and theocratic Iran use ‘networked authoritarianism’ to enact complex controls on the kinds of content that individuals can access over the internet, as well as using the internet to collect information on individual dissidents that can help them undermine activist movements. Or they can plant pro-government information through processes of ‘astroturfing’. The activist space of discussion and action is contstrained in several directions.

MacKinnon struggles with the same tensions I come across in my work: how much value can we place on the alternatives created by hacktivists or the disruptive actions undertaken by cyber-vigilantes like Anonymous? These offer attacks on, and alternatives to, a corporate and consumer internet that implicitly ‘governs’ without our consent. But they are still the alternative, and not the mainstream. It might not be reasonable to expect the millions of people who interact via Facebook to shift to a free or open platform that is not based on centralized data storage and analysis?

She concludes with a set of recommendations for effective internet governance that acknowledge the failures of nation-states in this area. She lauds the efforts of the Global Network Initiative, a multi-stakeholder organization that includes civil society partners as well as internet and telecommunication companies who work together to create self-regulatory codes for the industry, but she also calls for greater corporate transparency of sites blocked or throttled. Unfortunately, the existing efforts made in this area, like Google’s Transparency Report, don’t cover the data processing arrangements or storage agreements that constitute so much of the private ‘governance’ of the internet.


It’s interesting to put this book in context with the latest volume to come out of the University of Toronto’s OpenNet Initiative: Access Contested. This book examines the specific interplay of internet control, activism, and culture in Asia. It examines how the issues of internet governance, control, and resistance are no longer characterized by opposition by activists to state activities. Instead, activism and the cultures that it grows from emerges from within the spaces left by both state and corporate actors. As much as we need strong policies for effective governance from both the government and the corporate sector, we also need to pay attention to how and where activism is taking place – whether its expanding freedom of expression or building internet alternatives.


Darknets and super-encryption: The new face of Internet activism?

The ‘open’ internet was supposed to give us a worldwide ‘network society’ where our communications would move from being controlled from above through broadcast models, and towards more horizontal ‘mass-self-communication’. The excitement about the use of social media in the Arab Spring and even the furore over Anonymous’ (temporary) disruptions of some minor engines of capitalism suggest that we are still tantalized by the potential that technology appears to bring. At the same time, we become worried about exploits of the networked power of the internet – that come in the form of cybercrime and widespread breach of existing laws and norms like copyright.

Increasingly, the negative and disruptive aspects of the ‘open’ internet seem to be getting more attention than the potentially positive ones.  Governments are concerned about the rise of cybercrime, the threat of filesharing to industries that depend on the control of intellectual property, and the control of dissenting speech.  Along with industries and police, they strengthen intellectual property laws, prosecute and shut down file-sharing servers, track individual activists through social networks, and arrange with Internet Service Providers to block and filter problematic internet content.

So now we are in a situation where law, policy, and architecture combine to close down aspects of the ‘open’ internet. This has the paradoxical result of driving underground some of the practices that used to take place out in the open – beginning with some of the more unsavoury actions that happen on the internet, like file-sharing, but also extending to the kind of activism celebrated as an example of the democratic potential of the ‘open’ internet.  On one hand the move away from the ‘open’ internet has inspired innovation in technologies like encryption, file-sharing and and community wireless mesh networks, but on the other, it could have longstanding impacts on our communication environment.

Yesterday, the Guardian reported that Pirate Bay, in an effort to resist a High Court decision that file-sharing sites should be blocked, has moved to a new system for filesharing, using magnet links instead of displaying torrent files on its website. Magnet files are links with no files associated with them, which avoid tracking by containing very little information apart from an indication of the content they are associated with. The attraction of magnet links, according to SoftPedia, is that they make it easier for file-sharing sites to avoid accusations of wrong-doing in court.  Other file-sharers use ‘cyberlocker’ technology where users pay for passwords to third-party file servers (often supported by advertising) where they can leave files they wish to share with others. Unlike torrents, cyberlockers (as well as magnet links) are difficult to monitor. They are also incredibly useful for benign purposes like sharing files between work and home, or collaborating with other people – the popular file storage system Dropbox is a form of cyberlocker.

These changes in practice are part of a move where some of the more unsavoury and disruptive products of the ‘open’ internet shift to dark corners where it is more difficult for governments and courts to get a clear picture of what is happening. They may respond by passing laws or enacting policies that attempt to address illegal behavior but in doing so may overreact to actions that are not illegal. For example, the UK’s Serious Organized Crime Agency (SOCA) recently took over a music sharing domain after suspecting its operator of conspiracy to defraud – but not without initially posting a message implying that people who downloaded from the site may have conducted criminal offense. SOCA eventally changed the message, but the implication was that the use of ANY music site could be a criminal offence – which might well limit the number of people who want to use legitimate music-sharing sites, and push the less legitimate ones further underground.

Activism too is moving into the dark shadows. One of the consequences of the Arab Spring has been a greater attention by governments to the communications of its citizens – and in parallel greater attention from activists to securing or encrypting their activities. The New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative has been working on various prototype technologies meant to help activists avoid blocking, filtering, or internet outages. These include Commotion, a project that promises to use networked devices (mobile phones, laptops) as the points of connection in a mesh network that could grow to ‘metro-scale’. Designed to be decentralized and to link devices together in ad-hoc formations when and where required, the project promises to create an alternative network as an when needed. The New York Times reported on the project, which was supported by US government funds, calling it part of a ‘stealth internet’. My old community wireless networking co-conspirator Sascha Meinrath is quoted as saying “we’re going to build a separate infrastructure where the technology is impossible to shut down”. The article also reports that other veterans of community wireless networking have moved away from creating networks that help to share internet access towards networks that are designed for secure communications – including the FunkFeur wireless networking project in Austria. This project has been building an autonomous network across the city of Vienna which is owned by its builders, a longstanding goal which, in case of threats or constraints on the commercial internet, could provide an alternative mode of communication.

Other projects go even further: ArsTechnica reports on The Darknet Project, another proposal for a worldwide meshed network, and Serval, a project to create ad-hot wireless mesh networks using regular smartphones.

At one level, these projects feel like reinventions of the internet, which a collective burst of imagination framed as a platform for horizontal, networked communications. But now that the centralization and control of that platform is becoming evident, we need something else to imagine. The problem is that in creating darknets and super-encrypted dropboxes, all of the other benefits to speech that the internet has supported can get lost. One open internet, as compared to numerous separate and encrypted darknets, suggests the opportunity for global interconnection and communication. Already, social pressure and the habits of millions of internet users conspire to create ‘echo chambers’ online. What remains is a shared imaginary of openness, of a resource to be governed by its users. The rise of super-encryption and darknets suggests that this imagined unitary resource is fracturing. As more of the unsavoury action goes underground, so might the kinds of communication we think of as ‘open’ and democratic. What do we risk when the activists go underground?



Why ‘computer class’ is pointless: educating IT participants, not consumers

This morning I read thatt UK schools are failing to provide students with ICT training.  Only 40% of teenagers receive some kind of computer training, and from what I can gather, this essentially means learning to use proprietary software to do things like print screens, format texts for printing, and develop spreadsheets.  Journalists despair over these poor levels of computing training and worries that the country would fall behind if children didn’t take more computer qualifications.

But what these ‘computer classes’ are doing is training consumers – people who follow instructions and learn a standard set of processes on products provided by big companies. In creative terms, it’s like learning photography by looking at magazines without ever picking up a camera. What people who actually work as programmers or software developers do is mostly creative problem solving using tools based on logic and mathematics, as well as social processes including the design process – and of course, creativity.
It is these things – problem solving, understanding the capacities of different kinds of tools, creatively applying them – that are the foundations of being a participant, as opposed to a consumer.  This participation and creativity is what will will drive innovation and (maybe) economic growth.  According to David Gauntlett’s book Making is Connecting, participation and creativity also open opportunities for civic participation and (maybe) positive social change.

Using ICTs in teaching/learning is not really about ICT at all, then.  It’s about having learned various logical and linguistic processes that are part of particular problem-solving tools, and about having learned how to creatively apply those tools to solving problems.  You can learn the basic processes by learning foreign languages, or Boolean, or by paying attention in math class.  But the key to connecting coding to a broader ethic of participation is allowing places within education where these abstract things can have a concrete application. That should be across the curriculum, and it should be fun. MIT’s ‘programming for everyone’ Scratch lets you build and animate beautiful things – programming in the service of art. You don’t have to teach database design in a separate class if you require history students to determine how to devise a database that brings up different/similar/related historical situations related to significant social changes (ie, the causes of WWII, to cite the perennial favorite).

I went to elementary and high school in Canada, and yes I was taught programming (as well as touch typing) in my public (state) schools. I didn’t much like the programming I learned, as it was in a ‘computer science’ class that didn’t seem to have much to do with anything. I didn’t get to do anything interesting with the BASIC loops I built. But at other times in school I remember making cool things using all kinds of ICTs, as well as other technology. I learned how electronic circuits worked, as part of a geography project to devise an electronic quiz where lights would turn on when someone correctly identified a Canadian province.  And when I edited the school newspaper we learned to lay out the paper on a drafting board . . . and then using graphics software. Everything we did then can be done now in ways that are more interesting, more interactive, and more powerful.

But there is huge resistance, that I think is part of a culture that sees ICTs as discrete and separate entities that we engage with as consumers, following patterns instead of inventing our way in. When Will and I proposed to lead a session on research, creative work and technology for his alma mater that would have involved the students devising a research project with social implications, and then developing technical tools to solve their research problem, the school didn’t take up our offer. They said that they did use ICTs – their students learned how to make Powerpoint presentations.

I still need to learn to code, properly. I can’t ‘walk the talk’ as a scholar of code and digital media otherwise, and I want to participate too. I’m going to learn Python, because Will’s just finished running a course to teach it to London’s finest visual effects artists. But which language I learn doesn’t matter as much as learning what computer code can do – which is like learning what words can do when you first learn to read. Once you learn that, you can use those words to express your ideas and participate in the world. We now have even more interesting ways to express our ideas. Programming, building electronics, making and sharing electronic music – or videos – or blogs – or Tumblrs – are all ways to write ourselves into the world – and to participate.

Freedom Abroad, Repression at Home: The Clinton (now Cameron?) Paradox (repost from LSE Media Policy Blog)

I wrote this post over at the LSE Media Policy Project blog . . . enjoy!


The London Conference on Cyberspace, attended by top government leaders and corporate actors, was set against a backdrop of increasing concerns about cyberwarfare and the risks (to governments and businesses) of the open internet. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was meant to deliver a keynote address. Clinton’s expected participation and the event’s focus on the threats to intellectual property and national security of open networks suggest that a worrying feature of US internet policy may be coming to the UK.  This feature – what I call the Clinton Paradox – consists of stressing internet freedom abroad while controlling or limiting networks in ways that could constrain the same freedoms at home. The UK government’s concern with the risks of an open internet, and its stress on policing and ‘protection from threat’ suggest that this same strategy may be repeated here. Already, we can see the roots of the “Clinton Paradox” in the response of leaders to recent events like the so-called “Facebook” or “Twitter revolutions” of the Arab Spring.

Both Prime Minister David Cameron and Hillary Clinton initially come out in support of these movements and of the importance of open communication networks in general. In February 2011 Cameron gave a speech in Kuwait, saying “[The movement] belongs to a new generation for whom technology – the internet and social media – is a powerful tool in the hands of citizens, not a means of repression.”  Similarly, Clinton’s 2011 Internet Freedom Agenda states, “the internet has become the public space of the 21st century – the world’s town square, classroom, marketplace, coffeehouse, and nightclub. . . The value of these spaces derives from the variety of activities people can pursue in them, from holding a rally to selling their vegetables, to having a private conversation. These spaces provide an open platform, and so does the internet. It does not serve any particular agenda, and it never should.”

At home though, leaders took a different tack.  When WikiLeaks, founded to release publicly significant information not published elsewhere, published information embarrassing to the US government, Clinton helped to co-ordinate action by government, banks and internet service providers to withdraw support from the organization and (unsuccessfully) remove it from the web. Other domestic policies likewise tend away from freedom and towards control. For example, the US Federal Communications Commission has now ruled that mobile devices are not subject to the net neutrality rules that prohibit discrimination of media content based on its source or destination.  Instead, mobile operators, who now control the means through which an increasing number of people go online, can block, throttle, or degrade any kind of content they like.  Most recently, the ominously named E-PARASITE bill was introduced into the US Congress. It stipulates that an internet service provider can be liable for any content or site that it delivers that has a “high probability” of being used for copyright infringement.  Critics of the bill claim that this provision could extend to almost any site that hosts user-generated content.

Cameron’s recent actions suggest that his government could also be pursuing a harder line on control of internet and social media. After the riots in August, Cameron’s advisors for a time seriously considered censoring Twitter and other messaging systems. Net neutrality is less important than the opportunities provided to internet service providers to differentiate their service and develop new markets. Although no equivalent of the E-PARASITE bill has been proposed, the UK internet registrar, Nominet, is investigating ways of dealing with imminent criminality online, including the trade of illegal goods. These could include removal of websites. For the moment this endeavour is narrowly focused on crime, but it raises the question of whether government or law enforcement would like more control over what appears online.

The rhetoric of control and security suggests that an open internet brings risks of terrorism, crime and theft. Speaking in advance of the London Conference on Cyberspace, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague stressed the risks of cyber-attacks to government and business, noting that banking and taxation systems were ‘liable to attack’.  He stated, “”Countries that cannot maintain cybersecurity of their banking system, of the intellectual property of their companies, will be at a serious disadvantage in the world.” In his speech at the conference itself, he broadly supported the ideals of the open internet, while tempering his enthusiasm with renewed commitments to security and an end to the ‘cyber free-for-all’.  He mentioned the “heightened risk of exposure to crime as efforts to clamp down on crimes such as child pornography in one part of the world are rendered ineffective by illegal practices on networks in other countries” as well as the financial and social risks of terrorism online.

The UK government may be at risk of making policies that fit into the Clinton Paradox: praising the importance of an open internet but continuing to support policies and enforcement strategies that concentrate control of the internet and social media into the hands of a few. This is not a call to return to naïve cyber-utopianism. A global, networked communication and data transfer platform certainly carries risks. The question is whether those risks should be replaced with repression.