Archive for September, 2006

Web of Change – Kate’s session

Wednesday, September 27th, 2006

I was fortunate to be able to run an open session at Web of Change. I was hoping to gather together a group of hardcore geeks working on free software projects, or on any tech projects, oriented to progressive social change. I was interested to hear the shit, from the source. This is really a crucial aspect of my research. I think that the theory is important. It is necessary to think about things from a broader perspective – like what we’re doing and where we’re going as a society; like what the fuck is wrong, and why (and how) we should change things.

The guys (and yes, it was all guys, as per) who attended my session were really interesting. No shock there, but the other commonality they shared was a desire to “do good”. Only one was involved in the activist work I typically study (Guamanian, an original Indymedia hack, from IMC Victoria). But it was fascinating to hear their take on my take on things. They were very generous in tolerating my non-geekiness, and the audacity I show in wanting to scrutinize them for academic purposes.

I gave my spiel on what I think tech activism is, its history, and how it imbricates with the global justice movement. I am realizing with increasing despondence that this movement is not on the radar of many people, and the geeks at Web of Change are no different. I had a chat w/Guamanian a.k.a. Dan Bashaw after, a sort of session debriefing, and he agreed that the broader open source community is not just unconcerned with this sort of activism – they are unaware of it. That’s a bit of a nasty shock. But the cats in this session displayed a genuine interest in the topic, which was pleasantly surprising. Dan suggested that probably the only way the tech activist community communicates with the much wider open source community is through its code. That is, not through its guiding philosophy or self-professed ideology, but through the programs that have legs beyond specific activist projects and translate into broader use.

Dan made the very astute observation that what activists learned in the global justice/anti-globalization movement has not translated or crossed over into the more institutional setting of NGOs and non-profits. Many of the activists at Web of Change work in this sector – the professional “social change” sector. In sessions, there has been virtually no discussion of this very major, relatively recent wave of social justice activism – the event-centred, radically democratic, often anti-capitalist activism which earned much (negative, un-analytical, sensational) media coverage from 1999 till the outbreak of the Iraq war. It’s like Seattle et al. never happened for most of the folks here, or if it did, it was but a blip on their activist radar. As Dan said, the only mention of the word “anarchism” was in the hot tub, under the cover of night. Today, someone did call out “spokescouncil” when we were discussing tools for organizing. The facilitator had never heard of it, and asked for a definition. The spokescouncil, as you may know, was a key mode of on-the-spot group decision-making used in the middle of major actions, such as N30, A16, OAS, G8, FTAA etc. etc.

Some of the central points that arose from my session, in no particular order, were:

1. Directly supporting or engaging in social justice issues is important, but so is the broader context within which this happens e.g. the work around privacy done by the Electronic Freedom Frontier; the percolating debate around net neutrality; it is possible to develop code in the spirit of the General Public Licence, if not the letter.

2. Values that inform the free software movement – volunteerism, openness, collaboration, peer review – predate this movement and extend beyond it. The philosophy of free software informs progressive ways to make change, to take power from corporations and to create a more egalitarian society.

3. Open source is an immature movement; it’s relatively new in the public and corporate consciousness. Technical developments remain complex, developer-focused in a way that makes them unmanageable by users. The o.s. community is insular and hostile to critique, despite the fact that usability, upgrading and documentation “suck”. If discussion remains healthy and open [no pun intended, surely – ed.], these problems will be solved.

4. People generally have a hard time solving complex problems collaboratively. You can’t make progress solely by having millions of people talk to each other [e.g. social software phenomenon]; you have to structure the problem… The current tools we have, for example, blogging software, tend to polarize issues into Left-Right, progressive-fundamentalist etc. We need to expose this problem, make it more visible. We need more than just fond memories of conversation.

5. Although the open source community doesn’t necessarily identify with the politics of the free software movement, or embrace Richard Stallman’s notions of free – either in the anarchist or libertarian sense – there’s more commonality between the two than appears at first glance. The working values are identical; for people engaged in software development there is no distinction.

6. There’s a fundamental problem w/current technologies connecting everyone to everything. Everyone has a certain reservoir of good will, to causes not affecting their own life; there’s a personal reservoir and collective global reservoir. Before the internet, only the local community would tap into the reservoir; now there’s a gazillion causes, and the ones who get most attention are ones who manipulate technologies best.

7. You need a theory of change; you build that process [of change] out of short term targets. You need a theory that connects what you to a vision of the world you want to see. The ongoing goal is to make a world that operates by different means.

8. Open source vs. free software: In the short term, short term, day to day, it doesn’t matter [about the philosophy of free software], as long as you have access to source code. But if one of things you want to change in world is huge corporate power patents, the reduction of commons, the privatization of everything, it makes a huge difference. What that does [free software development] is create a new world, so that years from now, you don’t have companies like MS that totally dominate the industry. When we talk about the tools of oppressor, are we feeding into system or are we creating a new system? It’s important to think about in terms of our goal? If, as a developers, we’re thinking in terms of what can we do to create a commons and ensure t hat commons sticks around, free software is extremely important.

Hot damn, that’s enough of that (for now)!

The technical code: how hard?

Tuesday, September 19th, 2006

So I’m revising my chapter for the ACT Lab book. Feenberg flagged me down while I was walking by his office the other day. He asked if I had time to go over his comments on my paper. As if I didn’t. Anyway, the comments/revisions were not few, but not drastic, so it’s a lot of picky work, but not too difficult. There were some mistakes in my application of the theory, which is embarassing, but to be expected, no doubt, from a student. Feenberg seemed fine with the work overall – happy enough, no major disturbances in the force detected. I’m having trouble with my rendition of his concept of the technical code. From what I can gather, there is the technical code of capitalism, which I didn’t know about till I read Transforming Technology. In the index, it is found under “code, defined”. It goes a little something like this:

“Capitalist social and technical requirements are condensed in a ‘technological ratonality’ or a ‘regime of truth’ [as Foucault would say – ed.] that brings the construction and interpretation of technical systems into conformity with the requirements of a system of domination. I will call this phenomenon the social code of technology or, more briefly, the technical code of capitalism. Capitalsit hegemony, on this account, is an effect of its code” (p. 76).

OK, sounds good so far, but I thought that this was *the* technical code. Apparently, though, it is different from the plain old technical code. According to Questioning Technology, the technical code is part of a technological regime; this, in turn, is the “technology-specific context of a technology…a structure that both enables and constrains certain changes” (Rip & Kemp, in Feenberg, 1999). Integrated into these regimes are numerous social factors expressed in “purely technical language and practices. I call those aspects of technological regimes which can best be interpreted as direct reflections of significant soical values the ‘technical code’ of the technology. Technical codes define the object in strictly technical terms in accordance with the soical meaning it has acquired” (Feenberg, p.88).

Please. How hard?

But, again, please, do not the two terms differ, yet purport to be describing the same phenomenon?

Where I erred, however, was in here: I thought that the technical code was always a reflection of domination. That is, the technical code necessarily embodied and reproduced the core values of the ruling elite – in contemporary society, capitalist maagers and their state counterparts. However, Feenberg nuances the definition by stating that the technical code reflects the values that “win out” in the design process. Typically, these would mirror those of the status quo; but this is not always the case, as Feenberg’s concept of “democratic rationalization” illustrates. When technologies are subject to democratic rationalization (vs. Marcuse’s technological rationalization), the technical design is opened up to users, and necessarily becomes more responsive to a broader range social of needs and values. My working example of this is the Internet, and free software development. Much more to come…

Writing-intensive learning – Session 1

Tuesday, September 12th, 2006

Today I had to go to this training session for the “W” course I’m TAing, Communication 253, at SFU. I was late – waited for 3 buses at the loop for the express up Burnaby Mountain. All summer, there have been buses idling in the bay, with not a student in sight; all of a sudden, it’s “back to school” and there’s a small bus every 6 minutes. The line-up literally went back into the SkyTrain station. Incredible.

What is writing-intensive learning? Good question – and one that has been answered for me as this interesting session, led by the engaging and erudite Kathryn Alexander draws to a close. In a nutshell:

Writing to learn: learning through writing, engaging with disciplinary course content, congnitive emphasis.

Learning to write: learning specific writing skills in disciplinary contexts, improving through increased writing, skills-oriented.

Assumptions about writing and learning: Students tend to
*see writing as communication vs a tool for thinking
*see writing as recording process vs a process of finding out, figuring out what they know and think
*see writing as test of knowlege, not a tool for learning
*don’t see writing as generative e.g. a process through which new ideas are generated

In a “W” course:
1. Students use writing as a way of learning course content, are taught to write in forms and for the purposes typical of their discipline;
2. Examples of writing are used as means of instruction about typical structures, modes of reasoning, styles of address and use of technical language;
3. Students receive feedback, response to their writing based on explicit criteria directed at improving quality of their writing.
4. Revision is built into process of writing for formal assignemtns;
5. At least half course grade is based on writen work

We also discussed things you might not automatically think of, like how a “newcomer” would look at a text e.g. how to read an academic article. For example, what are the functions of the parts of a text – title, abstract, methodology, thesis. Also important, but not obvious, was setting the foci for reading e.g. what should students get from the reading, what is the relevance of the reading ot other course materials, advice on pre-reading preparation (e.g. vocabulary), setting an outcome for reading (synopsis, critical summary, margin notes etc.). Also, the technique of “demonstrated reading” was highlighted as important e.g. modelling how to read a difficult text, time required to get through it etc.

One of the hallmarks of WIL is the one-minute essay, writing that doesn’t count, so it will when it does. This is “exploratory, informal writing [that] emphasizes thinking and invites reflection” (Werder, 2002). Also called quickrites or freewriting, these one-minute essays are supposed to generate ideas and discussion, provide a chance to situate responses in the disciplinary framework of the course, and give feedback on student uptake. It also, obviously, promotes an active classroom dynamic. There are different approaches: “framed” (open ended or structured around an issue) or concept maps (visual representations).

I’ll see how all this pans out in class…

Delimiting the field of study (or how many tech activists does it take to…)

Wednesday, September 6th, 2006

I came across a small write-up that Aaron Pettigrew did on my BarCamp presentation. He seems like an interesting cat (I checked out his site, natch) and he made a good point about my talk, which was that, while I did include Indymedia and EZLN in my round up of tech activism, “there weren’t really any examples of tech activist movements outside North America.” This is true, and with any study, you need to delimit it – e.g. I research cats, not cats and dogs, or all animals in god’s kingdom. While it lacks any imagination or creativity, I think that example illustrates my conundrum (if you will) rather plainly.

But… If I am truly using the Global Justice Movement as the context within which I study tech activism, then maybe I need some more global casestudies, or at least examples. I sent Aaron a little note; we’ll see what he has to say.

Web of Change

Monday, September 4th, 2006

Well, I should write a line or two about Web of Change. Now I would certainly like to upload the “website badge” to promote the event, as well as to provide a sharp graphic, but I can’t because all the permissions on my (whatever whatever insert geeky knowlege here) belong to “root” who is the boss, and I have no say in what I want to do with my own blog. Or at least that’s my non-geek interpretation after breakfasting with My Tech Friend (as I like to refer to him), Michael Felczak. We were supposed to install a couple of plugins and customize my blog a bit more in ways that I can’t yet do on my own because although I read English, when I look at WordPress’ “really awesome documentation” I don’t know what’s happening.

So Michael agreed to help me out, goddess bless him, apparently out of the goodness of his heart, or his activist spirit or who knows. But I’m grateful, and I bought him eggs to prove it. We couldn’t do much more than change my password, however, because of the whole “root” thing. He also taught me some lingo, or code, or some such thing – a few tricks, which I diligently wrote in my notebook, which may one day come in handy.

We were at Lugz , on Main, for the free wireless (after the eggs), when we bumped into Ted Hamilton. We’re all ACT Lab folk, or ACTors, as I refer to us. Ted was mightily surpised to see us, as Michael lives in the West End, and I, of the daycare set, chill in Commercial Dr. When he realized it was a “work” thing, it all seemed to make more sense. After all, it was 10ish on a Saturday morning…

I have wanted an excuse to talk about Ted; he’s in a band, The Battles, and he’s neither a retired, nor a closet activist. He was at FTAA in Quebec City, 2001, as was I. We had a discussion of whether there was snow then, at the end of April. But what I will recall, at least for awhile, was his summation of those heady days:

“I do remember it being quite cold and brightly sunny on the Saturday, and reminding me terribly of Act 2 scene 1 of Henry V, where Henry rouses the troops against the French at Reims or some such place, and where Fallstaff and the Cheapside gang hide out in a hole and argue the withertos and whyfores of bravery and combat…”

Now, this is a gentler critique than most I’ve read… One must always remember a sense of humour.

But I digress…

So I am going to Web of Change. “Web of Change is an annual summit connecting leaders at the convergence of online communications, technology, and social change. If you are passionate about building a better world and believe in the networked power of the web to help drive it, then you belong at Web of Change. Web of Change is not your average technology conference. It’s an opportunity to connect with the leaders in your field, track emerging trends and tools, renew your energy and passion for the work you do, and leave re-inspired by stories of hope from the amazing work of others.”

My mentor, friend and committee member, Richard Smith, is sponsoring me so it doesn’t cost over $1000. What about accessibility, queried one fellow activist? Indeed. I suppose the retreat locale, Hollyhock on Cortes Island, is supposed to account for the big bucks, what with it’s vegan meals, holistic approach and meditation classes. But what about us workin’ stiffs? Those with bills and kids and tuition fees, who still wanna change the world? I don’t know, I suppose I’ll find out. And what am I bitching about, it’s only gonna cost me about half a grand, and on my student wage (plus daycare etc.) that should be a snap… This is why My Friend says “Activists” with acidic bitterness, while shaking his head in disgust.

Richard Smith is a good man.

Things are going to change, I can feel it

Friday, September 1st, 2006

Oh there is shit going down on Burnaby Mountain! Simon Fraser University grad students are restless, agitated, and organizing like hell. Since I can rarely sit still when abuses of power are afoot – underfoot, really, as is the case with the Simon Fraser Student Society – I have gotten involved….again. It’s all too complicated and, frankly, boring in too much detail. But the important thing to note is that various and sundry “student politicians” in the SFSS are behaving in a largely autocratic, evidently undemocratic fashion, clearly unperturbed by such minor details as bylaws, policies and oh, I don’t know, human decency. They might be conspiring to ditch the grad health plan – and as uninteresting and apolitical as that might sound – you don’t fuck with a grad student’s health plan. Something the SFSS Exec is learning the hard way.

Grad caucuses from upwards of 10 departments have passed motions of non-confidence in the SFSS and there is a petition circulating to impeach members of the Executive Board. Suffice it to say, SFU grad students are not taking the apparent assault on their grad plan (the ultimate cause of this dog and pony show) lightly. You can get up to speed on the farily complex issue(s) at the blog SFSS Democracy Now. You can also read the Georgia Straight’s coverage. Matthew Burrows wrote the initial story, found here, and Charlie Smith followed it up last week with this article.

Another group has mobilized in order to force some accountability at the SFSS. Students for a Democratic University – and I didn’t know this till I googled it – was first started at SFU and McGill in 1968. Part of the radical student movement of the late ’60s, and a precursor of sorts to PIRGs, SDU played a prominent role in the Administration Occupation in ’68, and the student strike the next year. Read more here.

The recent incarnation of SDU is organizing to have a special AGM in order to begin the impeachment process. I’ll be helping out on that campaign, mainly on the media committee, as a contact person. So far I’ve written letters (unanswered by SFSS president Shawn Hunsdale to this date) and attended a meeting. I’ve gone from testing the waters with my toes (not too chilly) to stepping in ankle deep (a bit unsure about the water lapping up my legs). I’m supposed to be studying, among other things…

On a tech note, one of my committee members, Richard Smith, is sponsoring me to go to Web of Change. I’m excited; more later…