Archive for August, 2006

BarCamp: the ultimate unconference

Tuesday, August 29th, 2006

BarCamp Vancouver
August 26/06
Workspace; 120 people registered

After partying into the wee hours the night before (ok, that was me at least) or prowling the streets after midnight on the photowander, 8:30 a.m. the next day came early. There was a great spread (!) but I’d eaten and caffeinated at Tim’s (what can I say? still a Windsor girl at heart).

9 a.m. Scheduling

This was a (very polite and low key) free-for-all. Everyone gathered at a wall covered in brown paper, which was divided into a grid. Prospective presenters looked around for the sharpie and post-it pad (likely in someone’s hands), and wrote their session’s brief title, possibly their name, on the note and stuck it to their desired time slot and room (there were various seating capacities).

9:30 Schedule Confirmation

Here, organizer Darren Barefoot called out each note, asking the presenter to summarize and pitch, in 15 seconds, their session. He would occassionally make a room or time change (in dialogue with presenter). Presenters were also encouraged to collaborate, if they had similar interests, or swap time slots, if need be.

BarCampers were cautioned to check the schedule regularly, as it was apt to change frequently, and without notice for, example, if interest in a session were misjudged.

10 a.m. Sessions begin

There were 8 concurrent sessions with a total of 12 (1/2 hour) timeslots (there was the odd exception, for example, Yoga for Geeks, was an hour-long session).

In Session:

Presenters accepted questions throughout, and sometimes asked audience members to make a mini presentation (to further explain or illustrate some point); audience members sometimes challenged or disagree with presenters, but it was all very amicable; during presentations, people were often on their computers – blogging the session, checking out websites/things related to talk, taking notes, checking their various accounts – sometimes following the presentation online (or “practicing” e.g. in photo camp – trying out tricks, tips etc.). People floated in and out of sessions as interest or time permits

There seemed to be much collaboration and discussion going on in between session, or by people sitting out a session. There was a fairly high level of excitement – certainly much more that what I’ve typically experienced at acaedemic conferences. At one point I commented to a friend that I was actually having fun.

Sessions ranged from the accessible to inaccessible to all but the geekiest, including:

– From Social Signal, 2 dynamo talks: Rob Cottingham’s “Secrets to a killer technology speech” and Alexandra Samuel’s “Tagging for world domination”
– Sarah Pullman’s tech conference mainstay Yoga for Geeks (although I did hurt my neck, ironically enough)
Lucian Savluc and Zak Greant’s pitch for their upcoming FLOSS conference, eLiberatica, in Romania
– From NewsForge Bruce Byfield’s discussion on the challenges of online journalism; you can check out his write-up for the run-down on BarCamp.

I know I’m the farthest thing from a tech but hot damn some of these cats (and yes, they’re mostly men) are hardcore geeks – computer nerd was the term I always reserved for my brother from his BBS, dial-up days.

Anyway. My presenetation, “Geeks and global justice: How tech activists change the world” was upgraded to a larger room (the Lounge) and to my great surprise, it was standing room only (the floor and chairs being taken). There were a number of questions and a back and forth discussion ensued. Of course, with a half-hour time slot (10 minutes of which were taken up by technical difficulties – the irony is delicious), we couldn’t get into it in much depth. Afterward, however, a number of people came up to me to express their interest in my topic, to tell me about their related work, or to give me their cards and/or offers of assistance in my research. This was heartening indeed. I also met one person who explicitly agreed to be a participant in my project. As I have been experiencing difficultly gathering these people into my fold, I was very pleased.

By the end of the day I was fading and took a break from a particularly geeky session, wherein I was understanding nothing, to have a cup of tea and stare out at the gorgeous view of the north shore (Workspace occupies most of the second floor of an old building in Gastown).

It was, in sum, a successful day – interesting, fun, productive. Not a bad line of work, this.

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One time, at BarCamp…

Sunday, August 27th, 2006

These are notes from my BarCamp Vancouver presentation, which was fun to do, and well attended (to my surprise). I don’t have upload functionality yet (some problem I need help to fix) so my captivating powerpoint presentation is still on my desktop.

Changing the world one line of code at a time

What is tech activism?

• Tech activism combines the free software ethos derived from geek culture with concerns for social justice on a planetary scale.
• Tech activists are the computer programmers who write, develop and deploy software for the online projects of activist groups. They also develop and maintain activist Websites and provide technical support, largely on a volunteer basis.
• The novelty of tech activism moves beyond the political alliance of social justice activists and computer geeks, however. Rather, it lies in the way tech activists incorporate the democratic goals of the GJM into the very technology used to pursue those goals.
• That is to say, tech activists recode software intended for use by activists in a way that anticipates the progressive social change they pursue. In this way, tech activists produce both an alternative version of the technology that is accessible, participatory, and non-hierarchical, and an alternate vision of society based on those same ideals.

Free Software

• Integral aspect of this activism (in addition to creating/maintaining digital infrastructure) – developing, appropriating and redeploying software in order to achieve social justice goals
• e.g. Active (CAT’s open publishing platform, used for Indymedia); IMC geeks’ hack of TWiki

Democratic rationalization

• In this process, the constitution of the Internet is altered; that is, by carving out space for non-commercial activities (e.g. social justice groups and organizations, which embody notions of participatory democracy, equality, freedom etc.), creating online communities and producing software with other motives than profit or social control, tech activists have changed not only the way people “do” activism, but the face of the Internet itself (www)
• This has profound implications for the deepening of democracy offline, through altering the way society is organized


• Digital divide: is this really an issue?
• Gender divide: what barriers do women face in the technical sphere?
• Is the global justice movement dead?

Whys and wherefores

• Why do these geeks do what they do: motivations?
• What do they do, actually: case study
• How do they define their role in the new global justice activism?
• What are the main issues facing digital struggles today

BarCamp: wiki in the flesh?

Saturday, August 26th, 2006

Today I’m checking out BarCamp Vancouver. I first learned about at the Canadian Communication Association’s annual conference, in June. I presented on a panel with other members of the ACT Lab, on various aspects of Feenberg’s critical theory of technology. After our panel, this guy sort of waves to me or points at me. I did one of those casual looks behind my shoulder and donned the “who me?” expression, trying to look as cool as possible. It was my first panel. Anyway, he introduced himself, in the perenially sexy Quebecois accent, as Stéphane Couture, and then launched into a Latourian critique of my presentation (on tech activists’ appropriation of wiki technology). Then he said he and some other tech activists were putting on a conference about wikis sometime in the near or distant future, and would I like to come?

So. I misplaced his email (recycled the paper it was on, actually), but tracked him down through my intrepid sleuthing skills and my good friend Google. In the process I discovered the conference was actually a bar camp – they call it RoCoCo, Montreal’s version of the Portland Recent Changes Camp. And I’m all, what’s BarCamp? So I checked it out and lo and behold, one was coming up in Van. I signed up.

And then I got an email, out of the blue, from an old girlfriend, whom I hadn’t heard from in over a decade. She saw my name in the BarCamp wiki when she registered. She’s a geek now, with her own podcast, Lipgloss and Laptops. She’ll be podcasting the event, so you can tune in to antics and ongoings of VanBarCamp at your leisure.

Bascially, BarCamp is the grassroots response to FooCamp, annual invitation-only unconference hosted by open source publishing luminary, Tim O’Reilly. I’m interested in BarCamp because it is the physical manifestation of the virtual wiki. Who cares? I think it’s important because it shows the link between the tech activism, whose effect is twofold (deepening democratic tendencies of technology e.g. free software in particular and the Internet in general) and democratic practice in the physical (vs. virtual) world. This suggests a dialectical relation between the technical and the physical. In other words, democratic practice online is prefigured by the desire for a more just society; actualized as democratic interventions into the development and use of technology, it then manifests in alternative modes of social organization in the physical world. This is what I’m writing about in my chapter for the ACT Lab book that Feenberg is putting together (he has high hopes for it and will be approaching MIT Press; we’ll see…)

I hope to present at BarCamp tomorrow but I’m not sure how many social justice types will be there. I get the impression it’s more about the technology rather than the activism, and appeals to “tech creatives”: local technologists, geeks, innovators, enthusiasts, entrepreneurs, tech writers, tech managers, bloggers, podcasters, video bloggers and hangers-on. I suppose I might be described kindly as a hanger-on. Anyhow, I’m going to check it out, take field notes, blog it, see how my preconceptions pan out. I could be totally wrong.

At the barbershop

Thursday, August 24th, 2006

Yesterday I arrive one hour early for my hair appointment. As I turn around to leave, I see it’s Scott Uzelman sitting in Mel my stylist’s chair. It is a small town, this planet. This is a guy – media activist, scholar, and now instructor at Simon Fraser University – whose Master’s thesis I quoted in my own, before I lived here or knew him. Lame? you may think. But not so; in 2003 almost nobody had published on Indymedia. There were a handful of academic sources, but of those, some were chronically out of touch (gasp! no, not scholars!) and others had missed the boat on the importance of IMC. So Scott’s work on IMC Vancouver was important; as an Indy activist he was engaged in some cool work – participatory action research etc. with fruitful results.

Anyhoo, I’ve seen him around here and there – he’s completing his PhD at York in tdot, but living here in Van. Now I’ve been here for over two years, but it’s never felt like home. I can hardly figure out my directions because there’s no grid, or several, and I’m hopeless on the best of days. And it really just feels like a glorified Windsor (Ontario, that is) with mountains as a backdrop, and some sea salt in the air. Instead of breath-stifling humidity, there is rain (which, to be honest, I dont’ really mind). Poverty is more apparent, and more appalling; and on the flipside, cost of living is ridiculous. Finally, the service in restaurants is atrocious and I’m usually incensed by the end of my meal – moreso as I pay the bill because I cannot not tip, or even tip poorly (when you’ve been a server for a decade, this is something like a world view).

But meeting Scott in Kokopelli (on Commercial Drive), by sheer chance, as if I lived here all along, as if I knew people whose haircut I could crash, and hang out talking about our work, the politics of the academy and our big dreams for it, well, that was just cool. He said later it reminded him of the old-style barbershop, with discussions of power and politics and such. Which is a funny thing, because women have never gone to the barbershop (typically) and were thus excluded from discussions of power and politics, as usual. I’ve been reading Betty Freidan’s Feminine Mystique for the first time (it’s amazing. I highly recommend it to all) and it has really made me reframe everything in a feminist context. Which is good, because we tend to forget that things really are that bad. So while I can’t reminisce with Scott, I get his point. And it was fun.

What exactly do you do?

Wednesday, August 23rd, 2006

Today a bunch of us gathered in the ACT Lab with Andrew Feenberg for an interview with the Faculty of Applied Science’s FAS Thinking, a newsletter used to promote the various research activities and projects of the different schools within the faculty. It is an interesting task to try to explain philosophy of technology, critical theory of technology and technology studies, as well as their divergences, in under 25 words (the obvious critique of journalism would go here if one had the time or interest). Anyhow, it was, well fun is not the right word, but once we all got going, it was interesting. I mean, academics typically like talking about their work, and since we all start from the same theoretical foundation or reference point (that is, Feenberg’s critical theory of technology) we can communicate, and understand, basically, what each other is saying. The interviewers, on the other hand, have no such reference point, and further, are unfamiliar with the jargon (some obvious toughies were rationalization – democratic or otherwise, hermeneutics, phenomenology and the like). There were a lot of gaps in their notetaking, when talk turned technical, and who could blame them. We’ve been at this stuff for years, they’re attempting a crash course, with no similar motivation. We’ll see how the article turns out. I’ll link to it when it’s published.

Here it is

Monday, August 21st, 2006

This blog is the bare skeleton of my doctoral research project. It is an experiment in all respects. Primarily, it is an exercise in open scholarship as well as a test of my faith in the new global justice activism and the democratic potential of the Internet.

Is it possible to do serious, sincere work in an open environment, an unregulated (sort of) space like the Internet? A project like the one I envision can only be built upon the values espoused by the new global justice activism: mutal aid, trust, volunteerism, creativity, participatory knowledge. My Friend says I am being naiive. And I am naiive, until I’m doubled over and retching from betrayal, disappointment and longing. Still, after 35 years, I’m naiive. Or perhaps just stubborn (which is not, often, unrelated to stupidity). Anyhow, there it is.

And here I am, finally, in cyberspace – a destination and a persona. My project will be fleshed out in this space as the days and months go by. I need to finish my damn comps first, but then I’ll begin “collecting data” in earnest. More on the tradition of the academy to come. No doubt.

Who am I? Activists in the global justice movement are a suspicious, cagey bunch. I first learned that covering the OAS protest in Windsor, Ontario in 2000. I was reporting for the community weekly I helped found – the only alternative voice in the city (except, in fairness, for CBC radio at times). The only media outlet interested in what the activists had to say. But because I had official press credentials (not my IMC pass) I was scorned and heckled by protesters. Funny, to me, they didn’t know I was one of them. So, for the record:

I am a social justice activist and doctoral student, in that order. I go to school at Simon Fraser Unversity in Vancouver, Canada, and I work under the American philosopher of technology, Andrew Feenberg. I’m interested in figuring out ways to make a better world. Right now, I’m studying how activists in the global justice movement appropriate technology to achieve their social justice goals. Tech activism has (at least) three simultaneous outcomes: it democratizes technology, it develops democratic practice and it produces an alternative vision of society. This blog is meant to be a space for documenting the history and accomplishments of tech activism. In the spirit of the free software movement, it is an experiment in open scholarship, and all tech activists are encouraged to participate through contributing to the project, as well as questioning, editing and correcting information found here.

Thursday, August 3rd, 2006

I’m writing a journal article for Tailoring Biotechnologies. And their editorial comments are here.