Prayer against the surveillance state

The colourful ceilings of Mumbai’s taxis, from @thegreaterbombay. Image description: A diptych showing two pictures side by side. The first picture shows the ceiling inside a taxi, in colourful floral pattern with black background covering 1/3 of the whole frame. Visible also is the partial face of a woman in scarf, who also looks down at the camera. In the second picture, the pose of the woman is the same, except the ceiling is replaced with another lace pattern in baby blue with an oval shape in the middle, filled by illustrations of colorful fruits.

If I was still in knee-deep of my PhD at this point of time (my research was on social media implications on networked protest leadership from a sociological point of view), I would have taken great interest in giving Twitter’s new ephemeral messaging feature, called Fleets, a try. But there are too many of these ‘stories’, disappearing features, starting from Snapchat, then Instagram, which then was expanded to its sister company Whatsapp and its mothership Facebook, and what I found out today, LinkedIn too. Can you imagine what abominable corporate humblebraggy everyday-you-should-be-hustlin’ content is lurking over at LinkedIn stories?

But of course, I’m saying this with these caveats: 1) Fleets was only launched for a little over two days (and even already, its privacy is already questioned), 2) I haven’t even given it a try yet, and maybe given my reluctant vow to reduce social media usage, I will never start. My experience, however, taught me that every social media feature would eventually end up being afforded and bended in some creative ways by social movements and grassroots organisations — in fact, a lot of social media features these days were co-opted from how the movements and organisations made use of them! (If you want to read more on this, this whole 3rd chapter of Design Justice speaks about so). Maybe, when that happens, I’ll dive in Fleets and provide some ekphrasistic review on yet another feature we did not ask (I am also looking at you, Instagram Shop feature).

Image description: A handwritten note which reads — Abstract: In programming language semantics, the introduction of unbounded nondeterminacy, which amounts to the introduction of noncontinuous predicate transformers, is needed for dealing with such concepts as fair interleaving. With the semantics of the repetition given as the strongest solution of a fix point equation, the weaker preconditions expressed in closed form would the require transfinite ordinals. Here, whoever it is shown that, even in the case of unbounded nondeterminacy, the fundamental theorem about the repletion can be proved by a simple and quite elementary argument.

This week, in the history of newsletters, I learned that the computer scientist Edgar Dijkstra frequently sent his newsletters to his colleagues at Department of Computer Science of the University of Texas. In the early years, he wrote them by hand, photocopied, and mailed them over — and as the years progressed, he then typed them out. How did he feel not having to worry about the amount of opens, clicks, unsubscription, and, if people actually read and liked what he wrote, and continue sharing anyway? Bliss, I would assume. Full archive here.

Reading in my tabs:

  • A fantastic leadership question.
  • An AI that helps you summarise the latest in AI, and also one that claims to be able to detect sarcasm.
  • “[…] if it’s so easy to recreate the unwanted touch in the digital era, how can we expect an entire industry that was built on exploitative and coercive practices to suddenly ignore its underlying business premise? If we agree that the spread of facial recognition technology is the digital equivalent of being touched by a stranger, what kind of education, regulatory changes, awareness raising and organising needs to happen so that we can design digital futures that build on meaningful consent and respect?” On bodily integrity during the digital age.
  • This professor prepared a series of activity that gets students thinking about ethical implications guided by the lessons from the Black Mirror series.
  • Young feminist and LGBTQI+ organisers are driving inclusion in Thailand’s growing pro-democracy movement.
  • Zoom is driving a boom in ring light sales (it me!!! I got one because of Zoom video calls too!)
  • The rise of ambient TV shows (think: Emily in Paris) designed “to provide sympathetic background for staring at your phone.” Lmao
  • And TIL the cellular humanities, “precisely about that to which we are not paying attention: the ubiquity of these small computers that more and more people have, as well as a cluster of mentalities, behaviours, and attitudes that develop along with the machines. They’re about how the social fabric is changing around us rapidly, and where we feel these changes the most.”
  • Ursula K. Le Guin’s reply to an Argentinian reviewer who claimed she wasn’t a hard science fiction writer since “technology is carefully avoided” in her works: “Its technology is how a society copes with physical reality: how people get and keep and cook food, how they clothe themselves, what their power sources are (animal? human? water? wind? electricity? other?) what they build with and what they build, their medicine — and so on and on. Perhaps very ethereal people aren’t interested in these mundane, bodily matters, but I’m fascinated by them, and I think most of my readers are too. Technology is the active human interface with the material world.”
  • Duas against the surveillance state: “O Allah, I yield to Your infinite wisdom and mercy. And I pray that You watch over us and continue to guide us in our battle against tyranny. I pray that You bring ruination to the oppressors, that the tyrants may fall with their institutions, and that they are ripped from the face of this earth. I pray that You blind those who would do us harm, who would seek us and hunt us, and who would attempt to extinguish this flame You have sparked. I pray for Your love to hold us, to grant us wellness, to keep us safe, and to embolden our communities. I pray that You continue to empower us to fight for justice in your image, and that You are merciful to those of us who cannot fight. And, O Allah, I am grateful for You, and humbly pray for Your wisdom as we work to build a more just world.” (thanks Liy for sharing this!)

STATUS BOARD

  • Reading: Edward Said’s memoir Out of Place, and Verso’s The Care Manifesto (still).
  • Listening: This sublime piece called Dou Coula from Arat Kilo ft. Mamani Keïta & Mike Ladd.
  • Watching: Just finished watching The Crown Season 4 and wouldn’t stop addressing the cats in Queen’s English accent.
  • Food & Drink: It was wet market day this morning, which also meant buying a day’s worth of breakfast from the nearby food stalls. I’ve got roti canai (roti prata for some of you) with dhal gravy and sambal, nasi lemak (but of course), some pulut panggang, sardine curry puffs (my absolute favourite), and pau sambal (which I grew up calling Malaysian burger).

The energy to resist, the energy for joy

Diwali celebrations on the streets of Southall, London, 1984. (via @brownhistory in Instagram)

There are two things that I was not quite prepared for post-PhD, and those are 1) how quickly you were expected to get to work, and 2) there really is never an end to the imposter syndrome (but if you are never really good at the things you are doing anyway, is it really imposter syndrome? What meta reflection is this?). In May, less than two hours after announcing that I had succesfully defended my thesis, I was asked, “so what’s next?” from a super smart colleague in the university who could literally churned out research ideas month after month. The honest answer would be, “I want to sleep for 16 hours straight” but because she was this bright human being with fierce determination that I am equally awed, inspired, and intimidated of at the same time, I answered, “maybe I’ll have a think at that paper idea we spoke the other day”. I never wrote that paper, or any. And that’s the prelude to this question and many others along the same line of, “How many papers have you written?”. My answer — which is none — further baffled people, especially in academia, as to how someone with a doctorate did not have any (there were no requirements for paper submissions for me to pass my PhD), and never expected to churn one as soon as I could (I am no longer in academia). My naivety again got me — I took a break from tech industry to escape the ‘hustle culture’, only to be caught in the same culture. 🎶 Maybe it’s hustle culture, maybe it’s 𝓷𝓮𝓸𝓵𝓲𝓫𝓮𝓻𝓪𝓵𝓲𝓼𝓶 🎶

A few months ago I rappourteured for a storytelling workshop where the participants talked about planning workshops of their own. One of them mentioned that in some cases, if there were too many people discussing on how to construct an agenda, she would wait so, read the room, and then deduce her answers from there. “Too many cooks can spoil a broth,” she said. And that’s how she carried herself in the workshop as well — she was quiet most of the time, but when she spoke, it was gold. I did not know if every time I speak up people felt it was gold as well, but deep down I said to myself — as someone who often took longer time to react I might appear dumb, as someone who is so annoyingly prudent at times, as someone who often stepped back to see the bigger picture then zeroed in — “I found my people!”. I was reminded of the time my teammates basically argued — raised voices and insults and whatnot — to get their views across while we were working on a group assignment during one of my MA classes. As someone who often shies away from confrontation, I was at the edge of the table listening and digesting their every perspective and then sketched a draft framework of what we could achieve. They finished arguing about 10 minutes later, and we ended using parts of my sketch for the presentation. That’s where I figured out maybe I am not slow, I am just… unintentionally strategic. 

I have had several mental battles whether to include the PhD after my name in my CV. It especially hit me hard one time when some of my friends, as part of friendly banter, began telling me their shoulders hurt, or that they have a rash, further trying to invalidate that only medical doctors deserve the title. It hit even harder when I was rejected left and right during my job hunt. How many times I have heard people saying something like this: in reference to other colleague who had done her PhD years ago, that she is ‘chill’ because she chooses not to use Dr. in her name? And women who ask to be referred as so, is ‘uptight’, ‘demanding’, ‘eksyen’ (the word originates from English word, ‘action’ but Malaysians often use it to indicate ‘arrogant’)? What an unwelcome challenge for women to ask to address themselves according to the qualifications that they have earned, what a form of feminist act this is.

So here it stands: I have completed an independent research where I have produced an in-depth, critical, and original scientific work within a stipulated time frame — hence a major feat that deserved the merits of my doctoral degree. This imposter syndrome does not invalidate the knowledge I earned, my skills, and my qualifications, but instead, I am accepting it as a pseudo-medical name for a larger structural problem that have historically affected largely women and the minority groups. It is the opposite of “it’s not you, it’s me” trope. It is definitely them. And if you have ever felt so, I am here to tell you that you do belong, and you are good at whatever you are doing.

As for the papers, maybe I will publish them, or maybe I won’t. And when/if I do publish them, they would be ✨gold✨.

Reading in my tabs:

  • What really makes us resilient?
  • Timely: “I have to remind myself that I’m resting to store up the energy it takes to resist, and also the energy expended in experiencing joy.” Lots of beautiful insights here in this conversation with Black writers in rethinking rest and productivity, embracing imperfections, exploring different modes of resistance, and many others.
  • Online misinformation is rampant. Four tips on stopping it: 1) make sure that you have your own facts straight, 2) alert the platform early, 3) think about the impacts of reaching out publicly versus privately, and 4) remember our social media posts are tied to our identities, so lead with empathy.
  • “If you’re not door-knocking, if you’re not on the internet, if your main points of reliance are TV and mail, then you’re not running a campaign on all cylinders.” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez consistently talked about the importance of digital and organising — which is what successful modern campaigns are made of.
  • Another brilliant piece from Zeynep Tufekci that made me gasp and go “This makes perfect sense!”— the real message of this election is not that Trump lost. It’s that a weak and untalented politician lost, while the rest of his party has entrenched its power: the perfect setup for a talented right-wing populist to sweep into office in 2024.
  • The European Union has agreed to stricter rules on the sale and export of cyber-surveillance technologies, which requires companies to get a government license to sell technology with military applications; calls for more due diligence on such sales to assess the possible human rights risks; and requires governments to publicly share details of the licenses they grant. However, the new regulation only seeks to provide more transparency, and it remains to be seen how much of a difference they will make on the ethical front.
  • TIL gleefishing: the antithesis to doomscrolling — it’s when you can’t stop scrolling to good news.
  • “Be careful. With what relief do we fall back on the tale, so often told in revolutions that now we must organise, obey the rules, so that later we can be free. It is the point at which the revolution stops.”

STATUS BOARD

What is one boring fact about yourself?

Some days (weeks!) are like this. Things I have failed to write this week:

  • A review of Simone Browne’s super brilliant book on surveillance studies in relation to blackness, Dark Matters.
  • Some progress on the module on care, remote work, Covid-19, and beyond, that I am currently working on with an equally brilliant friend.
  • Some half-baked local scene political commentary, which I have always been careful to write and despite I would always put a disclaimer that I am always, always writing from a place of learning and not expertise, I decided I’d want to watch it form into a much more solid shape, or stash it into my personal journal after all.
  • The realisation that it took me four days to figure out why someone’s tone did not sit well with me. Which also explained how I remained in a friendship that made me feel unsafe and small for about 4 years until one day I sat in my car crying after an argument, muttering to myself, “enough”. That word itself is its own heartbeat, reviving me to “no more of this bullshit”.

There’s this whole essay I couldn’t stop thinking about this week, about confession and social media, when the certitude is everything posted online lives forever. Next week I want to give a try to write something more formed like this essay. Wish me luck.

Writing these tweets has surely helped me cope: in therapeutic terms, they are the canoe that helped me safely travel from one side of the river to the other. But now that I have reached the next shore, it might be time to build myself a better boat. In other words, I wonder if my over-sharing functions as a half-measure. I am worried that this is a way of pantomiming a level of comfort with vulnerability that I actually lack; that I am screaming into the void without having to receive any feedback. Or, put another way, I fear that to over-share is to seek out the rewards of being loved without submitting to the mortifying ideal of being known. Dropping a tweet thread but committing to not reading the replies. Posting anonymously on my throw-away so I can say everything.

I follow Rob Walker’s The Art of Noticing newsletter, where in every edition he would post an icebreaker prompt sent in by his subscribers. In one edition, the icebreaker was, “What is a boring fact about yourself?” The question, as opposed to the “Name one interesting thing about you” is used to “”help mitigate privilege inherent in ‘what is one interesting fact about you’ or ‘what did you do over the summer’” sorts of questions. […] Asking about boringness is more of an equaliser. Besides: “This gets kids talking, which is fun — real mundane stuff like ‘my favourite sandwich is club’ or ‘I prefer dogs to cats’ ends up being a nice way to make connections — and can be sometimes surprising, actually.””

What is a boring fact about yourself? I’ll start: I sleep with at least four pillows, and with one leg jutting out of my blanket.

Reading in my tabs:

  • How to talk to kids and teens about misinformation.
  • “These stories reveal that care is at the center of socio-technical systems. We often miss that real “innovation” isn’t all sleek technology, but rather found in the everyday, living processes of caregiving and collaboration. And we should see the work of caregivers in those terms.” On understanding that technology can’t provide care, just redistributes it — and it is often to the caregivers who have to learn to use, maintain, and even repair medical technologies for their ill and disabled loved ones.
  • The legacy of discrimination from the Indian caste system is rarely discussed as a factor in Silicon Valley’s persistent diversity problems. Decades of tech industry labour practices, such as recruiting candidates from a small cohort of top schools or relying on the H-1B visa system for highly skilled workers, have shaped the racial demographics of its technical workforce. Despite that fact, Dalit engineers and advocates say that tech companies don’t understand caste bias and have not explicitly prohibited caste-based discrimination.”
  • What is the point of teaching dystopian science fiction when actually living something just as terrifying? Nadya Sbaiti, an Assistant Professor in the Center for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies at the American University of Beirut designed a course where she and her students analyse fiction as multiple horrific events unfolded in Lebanon. In it, they found lessons in exploring utopias and dystopias, a place to project their “anxieties and worries in order to manage and make sense of the coming unknown.”
  • “Through such photos we too can be transported to the scene of the reader, but the experience of reading remains entirely theirs – always unknowable to those who look on.” This photo essay on the gratification of watching others absorbed in reading.
  • “Virginia Woolf kept one. So did Samuel Johnson. W. H. Auden published his, as did the poet J. D. McClatchy. E. M. Forster’s was issued after his death. The novelist David Markson wrote terse and enveloping novels that resembled commonplace books; they were bird’s nests of facts threaded with the author’s own subtle interjections.” When people asked how I came up with these interesting links I shared, I have to say it’s thanks to my ongoing and somewhat obsessive practice of journalling and keeping a commonplace book since 2009 that has partially contributed to me being such a hoarder of introspective materials.
  • TIL: Meitu-tify, the modification of one’s facial appearance before sharing it online. The word originates from the Chinese image editing software, Meitu.
  • “[…] but don’t kid yourself: government is not where it’s at: it’s only a good place to start.”

STATUS BOARD

Poets, visionaries, mothers of Grendels

Artist Paolo Cirio published photos of 4,000 faces of French police officers online for an exhibit called “Capture,” which he described as the first step in developing a facial recognition app. He collected the faces from 1,000 photos he had gathered from the internet and from photographers who attended protests in France. Cirio, 41, took the photos down after France’s interior minister threatened legal action but said he hoped to republish them. “It’s about the privacy of everyone,” said Cirio, who believes facial recognition should be banned. “It’s childish to try to stop me, as an artist who is trying to raise the problem, instead of addressing the problem itself.”

I just finished reading Maria Dahvana Headley’s translation of Beowulf, which is claimed to be a more feminist and accessible translation compared to its predecessors of Tolkien’s and Heaney’s. The poem begins with the Old English word “hwæt”, which is tricky to translate, but in many cases it would denote some sort of a call to attention. Tolkien chose the word “Lo”. Seamus Heaney, “So!”. Headley, in the introduction in the book explained that she was trying to invoke a scenario of a resident village bro who just settled into his spot in the bar, ordered a glass of beer, and was about to tell an epic manly story to his peers. So she begins her Beowulf with “Bro!” 

It is definitely hard to translate a quintessentially male ancient poem filled with a violent heroic campaign such as Beowulf, believed to be “product of a single aristocratic class of warriors and it is directed exclusively to the interests of such an audience”. Women are mentioned in the margins in the poem, they take place only as extensions of their husbands, or in the case of Grendel’s mother, as a monster. Even the queens were often described in the poem as ‘peace-weavers’, which means that marriage to them would only mean uniting two tribes together. In the poem they are just as intermediaries, their jobs are just to be bearing children to ensure the bloodlines between the tribed continued, and they were occasionally mentioned to be passing cups to the warriors during the many feasts they have. It does make sense for Headley to begin with that line, because well, Beowulf is indeed a bit bro-y.

But just like Headley, who spoke about this extensively in her introduction, I am intrigued by the character of Grendel’s mother. Even as the mother of a monster, she is unnamed and is an extension of her son. We all know when we refuse to name someone, that person is of no absolute importance whatsoever in our narrative. There were many translations of her appearances, but many times she is mentioned to have both human and monstrous physical characteristics — Grendel, however, a full-blown hideous man-eating monster, a descendant of Cain himself. Even her previous translations describing herself did not do her justice. In the poem, Beowulf is referred as to as an “aglæca” — a warrior or soldier. Grendel’s mother is referred to as the feminine form of the word, “aglæca-wif,” which was translated as a monster, a wretch, or a hell bride. In bringing humanity back to Grendel’s mother, Headley translated as “aglæca-wif” as ‘warrior-woman’, driven to blood feud after the grief of losing her son.

Toni Morrison in her essay Grendel and His Mother, questioned the lack of Grendel’s back story and motive, where in the poem he was only placed as a preconceived evil ready to hurt and kill. I think this passage is a good prompt for us to rethink of the binaries of good versus evil, and instead ask: Did you think he might be dispossessed? Might the system have excluded Grendel and made him act that way?

But what seemed never to trouble or worry them was who was Grendel and why had he placed them on his menu? [… ] The question does not surface for a simple reason: evil has no father. It is preternatural and exists without explanation. Grendel’s actions are dictated by his nature; the nature of an alien mind — an inhuman drift […] But Grendel escapes these reasons: no one had attacked or offended him; no one had tried to invade his home or displace him from his territory; no one had stolen from him or visited any wrath upon him. Obviously he was neither defending himself nor seeking vengeance. In fact, no one knew who he was.

Apropos to nothing, and yet everything, I could not stop thinking about this interview between Angela Davis and Yara Shahidi:

YS: I can look at every photo I’ve posted and see how many people have shared it. It then creates a hierarchy of what we think makes an impact rather than what actually does. One question I had tangentially: Being a part of the social media world is often how one develops a political opinion. Do you have guidance for young people developing an opinion now, on how to develop a non-reactionary politic?

AD: As a person involved in education for the vast majority of my life, it’s so important to not to confuse information with knowledge. In this day and age, we all walk around with these cell phones that give us access to a vast amount of information. But that does not mean as a result that we are educated. Education relies precisely on learning the capacity to formulate questions — what we call critical thinking. Learning how to raise questions not only about the most complicated issues, but about the seemingly simplest issues, so important.

This is one of the reasons I find the trans movement so important. When one learns how to question the validity of the binary notion of gender, one is questioning that which has persistently been the most normal context of people’s lives. The work of ideology happens in those seemingly normal spaces.

This is also why the police-abolition campaign has been so important. Prisons and the police state are assumed to have been with us forever. So we begin to ask questions about how we address issues of harm without replicating the violence: how we create safety by not resorting to the same tools of violence that are responsible for us being unsafe.

Reading in my tabs:

  • The cutest story to cleanse the garbage fire of our social media timeline and our respective political situations.
  • “People in power, the ones doing the crowning, generally believe that there is no one else qualified until they happen to decide to bestow the crown. It’s easier that way, isn’t it? To think that the first happened just because the right person finally managed to emerge and break through, and not because there was a whole system put in place to make sure no one who looks a certain way or comes from a particular background ever has a chance to do so in the first place.” On our cultural fixation with and celebration of firsts, ask instead: Who never got the chance to try?
  • As Cuba sluggishly got its population online, the shadow internet developed by volunteers provided a lifeline for thousands of people.
  • Also, an account of how Latin American social movements in the 1960s to the 1980s had experimented with less oppressive, perhaps even liberatory, ways of indexing and searching information.
  • Nigerians don’t trust the government to respond to emergency calls, so they created their own apps instead.
  • In Gaza, citizens are imagining what public spaces could be in Minecraft, and then actually building them. (Thanks Zam for the link)
  • How interesting is this workshop!!! #DRAGvsAI Virtual Workshop: Halloween Edition explores the ways that drag can be used to thwart the algorithmic monsters of facial recognition technologies.
  • Cyberfeminism Index is an in-progress collection of resources for techno-critical works all the way from 1990 till recent.
  • 30,00 word guide for surviving life-altering events. I see this is something I could come up with, if I am given ample time to research and write, and cooperative mental health.
  • A bunch of TILs: An evil, injurious, or worthless privilege or law is called a ‘pravilege‘. Keyword squatting. The Chinese word for ‘selfie’ is ‘Zipai‘, literally ‘self-shot’. The word for an ancient Greek emotion that corresponds to being bored, listless, afraid and uncertain is ‘acedia‘. Or as the kids say it — MOOD.
  • “[…] hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries — realists of a larger reality.”

STATUS BOARD

Holding ourselves accountable

Anatomy of an AI System“, diagram and essay by Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler that attempts to chart all the human labour, data, and planetary resources used to create an Amazon Echo device. From Data Feminism.

I just finished reading this brilliant book by data scientists Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren Klein called Data Feminism, where it proposes a new way of thinking about data science and data ethics that is informed by the ideas of intersectional feminism. Today, when data is being used to discriminate, police, and surveil more than ever, this book invites you to treat individuals and communities beyond data points, and to ask — especially if you are in the field of data science and technology — Data science by whom? Data science for whom? Data science with whose interests in mind? And who’s going to be harmed from this practice of the field of data science — which is overwhelmingly white, male, and techno-heroic — and how are you OK with this? 

I could not especially stop thinking of the last few chapters in the book, where the authors laid out a documentation of their values and their metrics for holding themselves accountable. If you have read my previous newsletter, I have especially been taken an interest in verbalising and documenting personal / shared statements, more so than manifesting, but more towards, as mentioned in the book:

[…] we saw how statements of shared values can become important orientation points, guiding internal decisions at challenging junctures and making ethical commitments public and transparent.

Here are the authors’ metrics for accountability:

  • Insist on intersectionality
  • Advocate for equity
  • Prioritise proximity
  • Acknowledge the humanity of data
  • Be reflexive, transparent, and accountable

From the book, I also learned about the feminist standpoint theory where it “recognises the value of situated knowledge — acknowledging the perspectives and experiences of the knower and how those have shaped the knowledge they produce. Accordingly, we situate ourselves and the learning contexts in which we work.” In essence, what we write, what we produce, can be influenced by where we are socially situated in the world — both our privileges and how we can also be oppressed from the matrix of domination (race, class, gender, ability, sexual orientation, religion, age, etc.) So from this book, the authors, D’Ignazio and Klein recognised their significant privileges from their whiteness, ability, institutional affiliation, and education, while at the same time experiencing oppression based on their gender. This is a very important perspective that I wished I have encountered while I was still writing my thesis, where I could situate my privileges and the experiences of oppression which had both benefitted and limited me in my research, of which, realistically, all of us have experienced! But I guess it is never too late to learn now, and there will always be other opportunities where I could be able to apply this someday.

But also, to conclude:

[…] values are not enough. We have to put those values into action and hold ourselves accountable time and time again. This constant emphasis on accountability is not easy, and it is not always successful (case in point). It also takes time. Our final metrics are uncomfortable but in some ways constructive: they serve as evidence of the distance between our ideals and our actions, they help us locate the help we need to bridge those gaps, and they help us persist.

The book is available for free here, and I would highly recommend for any of you who wants to interrogate the way we do data and technology — which we should! — to read it.

Reading in my tabs:

  • The four myths of healthy tech.
  • What if we borrow ethical data principles from the field of social work so we will be able to so clearly and explicitly deal with issues of justice and oppression, rather than just treating people and events as just data points? Maybe this is what it would sound like: “Data scientists treat each person in a caring and respectful fashion, mindful of individual differences and cultural and ethnic diversity. Data scientists promote clients’ socially responsible self-determination. Data scientists seek to enhance clients’ capacity and opportunity to change and to address their own needs.”
  • “There are two ways forward [to address the great climate migration]: climate reparations or climate colonialism. Reparations would use international resources to address inequalities caused or exacerbated by the climate crisis; it would allow for a way out of the climate catastrophe by tackling both mitigation and migration. The climate colonialism alternative, on the other hand, would mean the survival of the wealthiest and devastation for the world’s most vulnerable people.” On why we need a reparations-based approach to address the coming wave of climate refugees.
  • What can ethnographers learn from science fiction and speculative design? Very intrigued about the idea of ‘design friction’, a sort of tool that “would use the alternative futures and storytelling methods from speculative design in order to interrogate the gaps and seams that we uncover through ethnographic research.”
  • Something I am unlearning these days: ‘carceral feminism‘, the idea of mainstream feminism that is leaning on becoming more prosecutorial and punitive — and instead, to focus on addressing issues of harm without replicating and resorting to the tools of violence that are responsible for making us unsafe.
  • “The idea that women and femmes will be neutered of any desire for violence or rage if they become caregivers is, of course, inaccurate. Mothers and caregivers are, in fact, people who get to experience the full range of human emotion. But it is a useful cultural narrative for perpetuating the idea of the Good Mother and, more broadly, the Good Woman: Look, here is the most powerful villain in the Disney pantheon, and even she can learn to quiet her wrath out of love for her daughter.” Whoa, I have never thought of it before, but this is a brilliant essay on the sexual politics of the Maleficent movies and how women are only suited to power if they have children, otherwise, they are just witches.
  • Documentary Mania is a website with hundreds of documentaries you can watch for free. So that’s weekend sorted.
  • Cats have been walking all over our stuff for centuries, and elephants as environmental engineers.
  • I asked you to be human — I am no needier than other people. But the absence of all feeling, of the least concern for me — I might as well go on addressing the birches.”

STATUS BOARD

Verbalising the idea of care

Shirin Neshat’s All Demons Flee. Image description: A black and white photograph by Iranian artist, Shirin Neshat. Hands of individuals wearing all black are seen nestling a sharp weapon, placed in the middle of all of these hands together.

I have been trying to articulate this edition of this newsletter a couple of times over the weekend, only to scrap everything out, which usually explains that I am in currently in a weird place mentally at the moment — so this is a whole garble, forgive me. At the surface of things, I am just like every single one of us out there, regardless of countries and regions and only to be defined by several different contexts — pissed with our leaders’ thirst for power which inadvertently (although I wouldn’t say so!!!) put us all in a fatal rut. 

So first, call to action:

I broke down briefly this morning, thinking of how much I long to hug my nieces and nephews, of whom I could only see through the little Zoom squares — contrary with the pictures of our politicians disregarding social distancing, shaking hands and touching people in the midst of their reckless political campaigning (a 1-year-old died). The rich and the powerful continue to be oblivious of the grief of this all, plundering the future, waldenponding in their mansions, getting bailouts, entirely unaffected by the growing economic cavern. And now this whole technoractic language of it all as we are reduced to data — numbers of positive, number of fatalities, contact tracing, r-naughts, numbers of unemployment — how do we reclaim ourselves beyond data points? How do make sense of all sorts of grief at this point of time — of people we have lost, of the social lives we have lost, of the blurring boundaries of offline and online — provided we have the privilege to be able to be online, of the intensification of class divide, of the growing uncertainties of our employment/unemployment — have you ever thought of the notion of having to work to ‘earn a living’ by itself is undignifed? Imagine being told you have to earn to be able to exist! How do we write when nothing makes sense anymore?

I have nothing much to offer this week except that I have been relearning the idea of care after years coming from a place where it was so foreign. The conversations I had been in last week had made me think that the idea of care, while I have always thought is always possible, would be made possible if we (as in organisations/companies/startups etc.) could step up further and verbalise it. Imagine reiterating the idea and having a framework of care and safety in every process of our work to remind yourself and the people we work with that it is possible to have this safe, respectful space, where we no longer have to absorb and manage someone else’s second hand anxieties, where we could have reasonable expectations of each other, and celebrate each other’s milestones, no matter how small. It’s like having a poster of motivational words to remind ourselves every so often of your goals on your wall, or if you are a Muslim, it’s like playing the Quran recitations so many times the poetry and the values are embedded in our minds, and if we choose to do something about it — in our practice. If we could imagine the idea of care, if we could verbalise it, reiterate it every step of our process — then we could do something about it. And when I am talking about ‘we’, I am not talking about individual employee or a mere member of the organisation — I am talking about how it should begin from the leadership, I am talking about a collective responsibility. 

Yesterday was World Mental Health Day, I was reminded of this line from Laura Lamb Brown-Lavoie’s poem, On This, The 100th Anniversary of the Sinking of The Titanic, We Reconsider the Buoyancy of the Human Heart, “The trouble with you humans is you’re so concerned with staying afloat. You’re not a boat — you can go under and come up again with those big old lungs.” This week I am sinking into some sort of feelings, but I am recognising that I am not drowning in it. And so, I will resurface when I am ready.

Reading in my tabs:

  • The students left behind by remote learning, and the students exposing the invasive test-taking software through TikTok.
  • “Why are my sides so sore and achy? It’s from crying, I’m told. I did not know that we cry with our muscles. The pain is not surprising, but its physicality is, my tongue unbearably bitter, as though I ate a loathed meal and forgot to clean my teeth, on my chest a heavy, awful weight, and inside my body a sensation of eternal dissolving.” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote on grief after losing her father, every bit of her word I could relate to so well.
  • And another one on grief in the digital time, as the author lost her best friend to the coronavirus: “How does one measure the support of digital grief anyway? Would I have loved her more if my “story” had received 400 views? Would our friendship mean more if a few more people had sent crying emojis in response?”
  • “Before the pandemic, I was thinking a lot about how jobs with vocational awe — from librarians to teachers, from pastors to zookeepers — ironically expose the workers with those jobs to exploitation. Complain about pay? You don’t love the job enough. Attempt to unionise to advocate for a better safety net? You don’t love the job enough. Complain about systemic sexism, racism, or other exclusionary practices at your institution? You don’t love the job enough.” PREACH.
  • And on that note, employers need to know how to handle grief, personally and especially collectively these days.
  • There’s this article about ‘data sprawl‘, now that people are starting to work from home and companies are concerned that company data is going where it should not be, as normally “employees using personal devices for work” so their IT executives are worried that “their employees are not following the policies for keeping their data secure.” This reminded me of several discussions I was in over last week on the questions of the cost of equipments and labour now that people start to work from home and use their own devices — are they going to be compensated if their devices break down? What if they have to go buy new devices and fall sick in the process? All in all, that just like the requirements you have for people to work physically in the office, provide your employees all they need to work from home, which means — small stipends to cover for their WFH equipments or Internet access, and do all you need to assess and close the security and control gaps in your remote work setup etc. Policies would be the last thing to implement once you have made sure the gaps are addressed and filled.
  • Another tale of how each of our innovation has considerable human impacts — including, and especially, those that started as a joke.
  • Because we might need it: the best animal live feeds from around the world.
  • “Drowning people / sometimes die / fighting their rescuers.”

STATUS BOARD

A sort of joy

In 2015, the data visualisation firm The Office For Creative Research (OCR), collaborated with the theatre troupe Elevator Repair Service (ERS) to craft a live performance called A Sort of Joy, using the metadata from MoMA’s collection database — all 123,951 of them — as the source material for its script. The performance seemed innocent at first. It started with a group of white men standing in the centre of the room, facing out towards the audience. They wore headphones and had an iPad each in their hands, of which they held out so the audience could see. A group of white women walked in a circle among them, also with iPads in their hands. The men then began to recite the first names that came out on their iPad screens — John (Baldessari, Cage, Lennon, Waters, etc.) then a few long seconds later, Robert, then much longer seconds, David and so on so forth. The women kept pacing around them while having their eyes on the men’s screens, all at the same time without saying a word for a mere three minutes. 

Then there was a ‘Mary’ on the screen, and the women said the name, almost an exclamation. Then it started to make sense to the audience — who previously were probably wondering, why are the men in the inner circle? Why are the women encircling around them like they are to be preyed on? Who are those names being mentioned? — that the names belong to some organisation / community / institution etc. where the representation is skewed towards the male population. They then started to anticipate for more female names, until ‘Joan’ came out in another minute, then ‘Barbara’, then the male names made more and more appearance. We never heard a ‘Khalil’, a ‘Salama’, a ‘Dinesh’, a ‘Eun-Jung’, a ‘Kwame’, or anything that does not remotely represent Western names, because the names being recited belonged to the names of the artists according to the most works in the collection. This is why ‘John’ came first, then more male white names, before we heard a female white name.

The performance — a result of the many ways my brain links information with each other — was what first came to my mind when I watched Netflix’s The Social Dilemma last week. The docudrama, directed by Jeff Orlowski, gave us a picture of the many ways the social media and Big Tech had sown trouble in both personal and societal level. As someone who had the opportunity to be educated in STS (Science and Technology Studies) field in my brief academic years — speaking not from a place of expertise, but more from a place of sharing — I am not here to refute the messages laid out in the docudrama, nor to question the redeeming intention of the tech personalities portrayed in it. 

But I couldn’t help to point out one glaring element that tech industry still lack of despite the years — that became one of the ways that led to this ‘oversight’, this “has a mind of its own” (it doesn’t, your values are embossed in the innovations you built), this “none of us had ever anticipated/intended this” (of course, because you don’t seem to want to listen to others) — and that is the problem of representation. The overwhelmingly male and white (or the intentional hiring of any majority population in any industry) and the persistent assurance that all of this “were never intended” was how Robert Moses came up with an overpass bridge so low that buses which carry people of colour and less affluent could not go through to access the beautiful parks of Long Island. He never intended it, I mean how could he see it — he did not live the very lives of the people he hindered access to the parks to. Oops! The lack of representation of other minorities in tech was also how Black people was classified as ‘gorillas’ in the AI facial recognitiontrans people would get pulled aside at airports for security checkBlack defendants were marked of a higher recidivism than their white counterpartswomen hired less and lesshow people could literally get killed, and how we still have this shit today — can you believe how tired we are?

(And can you believe 1) despite undergoing — I presume, multiple — peer reviews, none of the reviewers ever stood up and said, “hey uhm, I think this is wrong” and 2) the guy who looked the most trustworthy looked like Mark Z??? BYE)

These are just small samples of ‘oopsies’ that happened when your innovations do not consider the real lives of others, and it has to start with representations.

Not only that, Black and PoC scholars had been doing the work and sounding the alarm for YEARS, and in the docudrama we can see the first non-white interviewee showing up only after 50 minutes. The producers knew they had a problem with representation, probably a little bit too late, which is why they threw in the Black dad in the cringe-inducing drama re-enactment, with his appearances being so minor and his lines so few. 

Now — I’m not saying we should not listen to the messages in The Social Dilemma, but you can be in one industry you held in high regard and offer your criticisms in the name of wanting us to do better. The deal with The Social Dilemma is that these problems — fake news, dark patterns, psychological and behavioural tinkering in the name of ‘growth hack’, etc. — seemed to not be seen as a problem unless a prodigal tech bro woke up one day and decided to change the world out of the harms he had been complicit in through his slide deck and TED talks. I’m not saying it isn’t a noble cause, but to go back on the idea that your ideas were built on the shoulders of giants, as what some of us academics had been trained to, always check if someone had done the work before us and always cite cite cite, and if it helps, ask yourselves these four questions before embarking on a project you think you are the first of its kind:

  1. Are you listening to experts and vulnerable communities?
  2. Can you join existing efforts?
  3. Can your technology do what you say it’s going to do?
  4. How does your technology shift power?

If you like The Social Dilemma and found it compelling for many of your own reasons, I would suggest that you follow and read the works of these scholars of the sociocomputing field: Ruha Benjamin, Safiya Noble, Joy Buolamwini, Sarah Roberts, Marie Hicks, Sasha-Costanza-Chock, Zeynep Tufekci, Charlton McIllwain, Anita Say Chan, Wendy Chun, Lisa Nakamura, Virginia Eubanks, and Beth Coleman — and because by no means this is an expansive list: Mozilla has a thread on the works of more of these amazing scholars and some resources you can read if you want to know more about algorithmic biases.

Walking into the new week with this much freedom, vigour, and wholesomeness:

Reading in my tabs:

STATUS BOARD

  • Reading: Catherine D’Ignazio’s and Lauren F. Klein’ s Data Feminism, Sarah Burton’s The Strange Adventures of H, and Pablo Neruda’s Los Versos del Capitan.
  • Listening: A client recommended me to the music of Malian guitarist Samba Touré, and it’s all I ever play the entire week.
  • Watching: Ocean Vuong on the yin/yang of creativity — yin is akin to “fishing with a large net, casting your net wide and waiting for the bounty to fill” and yang is “the decisive moment where decisions are made where order happens — architectures built in service of a final goal — yang is when you harvest the fish and chop it up and send it to market and produce it and tend to communities or the rest of the larger world.” Also, Enola Holmes.
  • Food & Drink: The enhanced lockdown was lifted yesterday (yay!) and despite still being wary of the rising cases nationwide, I managed to go to the local market and get some mackerel pieces and turned them into spicy grilled fish!

Thank the human alarm clocks

Suzani textile from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, by Madina Kasimbaeva. Image description: A spread of a Suzani textile from Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Floral motifs adorned the entire spread, made up of the earthy colour combinations (red, brown, green etc.) against a dark navy blue background.

In the previous edition of Courtney Martin’s the examined family, she quoted a line from Sharon Salzberg’s Real Change, which asks:

How many people need to be doing their jobs well in order for you to be able to do your job well?

The idea that we are never sole individuals, that we are social beings first and foremost, and that the achievements and successes we have built are sustained on the actions of other people in close proximity or peripherally around us, is never new, but something that needs to be reminded from time to time. I realised this specifically as I wrote down my acknowledgement section of my thesis as I tried to include the names of everyone who have helped me tremendously throughout my project while trying to keep to the page limit (brevity isn’t my strongest suit). Not only that, however substantial the amount of work comes from my own blood and sweat, much of them was guided by the previous work of the scholars and the learned of the past and the current — this whole standing on the shoulders of giants. This almost always made me emotional and grateful for others who opened the doors for other people. And that is how I would always strive to do too, once the doors are opened for me, I will keep it open for others, particularly those who had to jump through more systemic hoops than any of us less marginalised folks do in order to achieve their lifelong dreams.

I think about this article by Rebecca Solnit and specifically this phrase a lot, particularly after encountering (sometimes, well-meaning, passionate, new) activists who insisted on knowledge gatekeeping — a symptom that sometimes are prevalent among academics too (and also something I must have done in the past, and have reminded myself every time I found myself being judgmental too):

I wanted to yell at some of the people I run into, “If you think you’re woke, it’s because someone woke you up, so thank the human alarm clocks.” It’s easy now to assume that one’s perspectives on race, gender, orientation, and the rest are signs of inherent virtue, but a lot of ideas currently in circulation are gifts that arrived recently, through the labours of others.”

When the cathedrals you buid are invisible, made of perspectives and ideas, you forget you are inside them and the ideas they consist of were, in fact, made, constructed by people who analysed and argued and shifted our assumptions.

Solnit also shared a beautiful passage Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza wrote in the wake of the 2016 election:

This is a moment for all of us to remember who we were when we stepped into the movement — to remember the organisers who were patient with us, who disagreed with us and yet stayed connected, who smiled knowingly when our self-righteousness consumed us. Building a movement requires reaching out beyond the people who agree with you. I remember who I was before I gave my life to the movement. Someone was patient with me. Someone saw that I had something to contribute. Someone stuck with me. Someone did the work to increase my commitment. Someone taught me how to be accountable. Someone opened my eyes to the root causes of the problems we face. Someone pushed me to call forward my vision for the future. Someone trained me to bring other people who are looking for a movement into one.

There is also a fitting Zulu sayingUmuntu ngumuntu ngabantu, which basically means ‘a person is a person through other people.’ 

Do you have a list of the human alarm clocks that you wanted to thank?

Reading in my tabs:

  • What we can learn from the world’s largest fully remote company.
  • This position paper by the Indigenous Protocol and Artificial Intelligence Working Group is a great resource for folks interested in designing and creating AI from an ethical position that centres Indigenous concerns. Thank you The Engine Room for sharing.
  • The lesson of COVID-19 is that scientific and technical expertise stripped away from humane wisdom — social, moral and political knowledge of what matters, what we value, what needs preserving, repairing and caring for together — is a mere illusion of security. It’s an expensive life raft lacking rations, a compass, a map or a paddle. It cannot carry us safely into the futures we all need to build, for our nations, humankind and for coming generations of life on this planet.”
  • “Hustle culture isn’t the wave anymore. Not by a long shot. Now it’s discernment and shrewd allocation of resources and boundaries galore.” Author Mary H.K Choi on working through a pandemic.
  • I was on Readwise free trial once, and I loved that it sent me daily snippets of what I have highlighted from my Kindle and Instapaper to my inbox — that way it refreshes my mind about what I have read and learned and found interesting. Recently I learned it had added more useful features, such as grabbing clips of podcasts which will be automatically transcribed into texts, and they will be sent to my inbox. Honestly, I have a long list of things to get and do and help when I am financially secure, and I am adding Readwise subscription to one of them.
  • What does it mean to love the life we’ve been given? / To act well the part that’s been cast for us?”

STATUS BOARD

  • Reading: Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, rereading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated, and Pablo Neruda’s bilingual version of Los Versos del Capitan in an attempt to learn Spanish.
  • Listening: This Earshot episode about Kylie Webb, who compiled her ‘sonic bucket list’ — a list of “11 sounds that I want to commit to memory” after being told that she has a condition that at some point she will lose her hearing.
  • Watching: Netflix’s The Social Dilemma, which is, uhm, OK. (I have a lot of thoughts actually, but it might require another edition.)
  • Food & Drink: Still under enhanced lockdown, and making anything out of the pantry leftovers — today it is super fiery nasi goreng belacan idc.