I’ve just returned from Berlin and Transmediale, where I was lucky enough to get to host a panel called Democratic:Ability, in which Garnet Hertz, Tapio Makela, Juergen Neumann and Nancy Mauro-Flude discussed the various ways that DIY and hacker culture promise, and constrain, political transformations.

We wanted to get away from a technocentric perspective on the relationship between technological tools and political subjectivities.   As such we discussed the way that DIY culture influences individual agency and challenges market ideology, as well as the difficulties of confronting institutions (like city governments) when scaling up P2P projects like community wireless.  In addition to examining these structures of political relations, we also considered identity politics, examining how projects like the GenderChangers Academy politicize our essentialist perspectives on gender and technology, and the significance of “boundary objects” in negotiating when things are political (for example, a piece of media art in an art gallery) and when they are not (a piece of media used uncritically in everyday life).  The presentations explored this work at the boundaries in various ways, including Nancy’s silent photo essay on processes of developing autonomy and agency and Garnet’s reference to several DIY citizenship projects that use DIY to reveal broader political issues.  Tapio focused on our imaginations of technology, and the way that our oppositional imaginings of technology also provide us with new ways of consuming technology – this connected with the observation that DIY practices are an emerging market for producers of certain electronic components.

One of our strongest lines of questioning was about how much had changed in terms of radical politics due to our interconnected and interactive media, our ability to DIY.  We struggled with this question quite a bit, which I see as being partly a reflection of the difficulty in reconciling the marginal with the hegemonic, the dominant paradigm with the emergent.  We noted that DIY technology can become political and can become radical.  Technologies can be boundary objects embedded in struggles that have been unfolding for a long time.  But how does this happen, when, and where?  We didn’t arrive at a fully-worked out answer in the discussion, but I reflected on this later:

The middle space, in between the new modes of production, is the space in which change happens – when the the capactiy of a certain tool or mode of working outstrips the constraints.  This allows it to transcend the breach between emergent, collective grassroots practices, and more entrenched power structures.  We can think about the emergent middle space in several ways:  we have boundary objects that mark it, we can think about the relationships that it structures between people and their fellows (who might be other humans, or technologies, or non-humans).  But we also have the middle space of social and organizational coordination.  Adjoining this middle space are institutions which might include the market or (perhaps most strikingly in Egypt) the political system, education or the patriarchy.  These are not completely fixed, as they are composed of our social relationships.  So how do they change?  And, more fundamentally, how do the ideas that we can work out about P2P technologies, DIY and hacker subjectivites, help us to understand them?