Let’s make a scene and rebel against Big Tech
This is more or less what I meant to say at a talk I gave at Nerd Nite this week called “Can we occupy technology with love?”. It follows on from a short blog post I wrote last year with the same title.
Can we occupy technology with love?
What do I mean by occupying technology? I mean, roughly, bending it to our will; taking advantage of its adaptivity to do something different.
To show what I mean, I’ll start with a few examples of ways technology has been rebelliously adapted.
The first is curator Marie Foulston’s “party in a spreadsheet” — like the online equivalent of having a party in the accounting department, but much more fun. Full of people chatting in the cells where the numbers normally go, going to the disco tab to dance, drawing cheesy hedgehogs, and basically having a brilliant time.
The second is the fan-created TikTok Ratatouille musical, Ratatousical, possibly the best Off Off Off Broadway show of 2020.
The third are the K-Pop fans who — at the peak of the police violence and riots after George Floyd’s murder — shut down the Dallas Police Department’s surveillance app with footage of their favourite band members.
And the fourth is Gamestop Robin Hood, in which a bunch of Redditors took down a hedge fund. In an unexpected twist, they are now sponsoring endangered animals.
I’ve spent the last few years working out if it’s possible to rebel against Big Tech.
And I’ve tried a few different things: I’ve studied public attitudes to technology, proposed new regulatory systems, spoken with many of the big tech companies, and taken part in social-media strikes. I even ran an ad campaign once, but it wasn’t very effective.
It turns out it’s really difficult to get people to rebel against something if they can’t see it, don’t feel empowered to make choices about, and don’t really understand it.
And it’s not surprising, because what exactly are we rebelling against? Is it the unnecessary collection of data? The illusion that we have unlimited choice when — at least some of the time — we’re just doing what the algorithms tell us? Is it bad working conditions for gig workers, unjust algorithmic decisions, the environmental impact of emerging technologies, the erosion of democracy, or the appalling concentration of power and money by a few billionaires?
I mean, it’s all of those things, but you can’t really put that on a t-shirt or a protest sign.
And refusal isn’t really possible. Facebook still collects data about you even if you don’t have an account, and modern economies are so entangled with modern technologies that smashing the machines and walking away is only really an option if you’re independently wealthy or live alone on a desert island — and, let’s face it, they’re not the revolutionaries we need now.
So what can we do instead?
Well, this is where love comes in.
We can reclaim the technologies that are polarising us for the benefit of billionaires and work instead to create dense, warm ecosystems.
What I’m going to talk about tonight stems from a research project I worked on in the early stages of the pandemic, trying to understand how people were coming to terms with doing everything online.
And what particularly stood out from that work was adaptability.
Almost overnight, millions of people were using the Internet to do all sorts of things they had never considered doing virtually, and most of them were doing it using tools designed for something else.
Everything from comedy shows to counselling sessions to after-work drinks were taking place on Zoom and Teams and Google Meet, and the sight of dozens of faces stacked up on screens in little black-rimmed boxes became normal for everything from worship to workouts.
And to show just how possible it is, I’m going to talk a little bit about how digital product design works, and then go on a short historical tour.
But remember love. We’ll come back to that.
You know those annoying cookie notifications you get all the time? One of the things they’re telling you is that information is being collected about the way you are using a website or an app.
These are called analytics and are the beating heart of any digital product or service. For instance, you might have noticed in the early stages of the pandemic that Zoom changed the “Leave call” button, because new users couldn’t work out how to hang up at the end of a meeting. So, to make it easier, they made it into a big red button. That was the result of collecting user analytics.
Analytics are important for customer service: among other things, they show the pain points where people find it difficult to do things and they help services scale their hosting so they can manage capacity.
And they are one of the reasons most digital services don’t come with a How To manual. Most of the time, we’re not expected to use them the “right” way; most of the time there is no right way, because most digital services bend to meet our needs.
And this is important. The Government Digital Service, for instance, has a dashboard that shows how many people are actually registering to vote right now, and it shows how satisfied they were with the experience.
Monitoring and sharing this information publicly is important in a democracy, and it means the team running the service can anticipate when demand will spike, who will and won’t engage with it, and where it can be made easier to use. (Note: on the day I gave this talk, the service was taken down, hence the historic screengrab above.)
Karen Hao’s recent exposé about Facebook’s engagement algorithms offers an insight into another way analytics are used.
Like a lot of social media companies, Facebook’s holy grail is engagement — which is usually measured by the length and frequency of people’s interactions. And, according to Hao, Mark Zuckerberg wants to increase the number of people who log into Facebook six days a week. I’m not going to get into whether this is good or bad here, but it certainly shows that what you are doing, and how you are doing it, is very important to Facebook.
And it’s important to them because it’s how they make their money.
We can make change by disturbing the flow of capital. But, to be effective, we need to do it together.
Delinquent Telephone Activities
Back in 1987, Cheris Kramarae wrote in Technology and Women’s Voices: Keeping in Touch:
“Technological processes developed by men for men are nearly always interpreted by women in ways other than those intended by men.”
And Margaret Lowe Benston added in the same volume, “technique is often overlooked as a major component of technology”.
And technique is really at the heart of occupation. It’s not so much what you do, as how you’re doing it.
From its early days in the 1870s, the telephone was intended as a business tool for business men — albeit one powered almost entirely by women switchboard operators.
Claude Fischer’s book America Calling details how the C19th ‘telegram men’ — the businessmen and investors who ran the telegram system — became ‘telephone men’, and how the early uses of the phone were limited by the things those men could imagine.
This meant that when telephone lines started being offered in (mostly white, mostly urban) residential neighbourhoods, the Telegram Men imagined the need was to improve household management — to make it easier for the housewife, or the “domestic executive”, to call the store or the plumber or act as her husband’s social secretary — but it wasn’t thought of as a machine for sociability.
But, as Michèle Martin documents in her paper “The Rulers of the Wires”, middle-class women’s “‘delinquent’ telephone activities” took the Telegram Men by surprise. This delinquency included not just social telephone calls in the afternoon, but planned and impromptu meet-ups on party lines where isolated women could dial in and get an update from their community. This was damned at the time by the Telegram Men as futile and frivolous, but that didn’t stop it from happening.
And although the party lines didn’t stay, the Telegram Men’s strategies changed when they realised the opportunities of domestic connectivity.
Now of course, women didn’t have direct control of the phone lines or the business plans; whether or not this was an overall empowering experience could be argued either way, but they certainly changed the course of history by speaking to one another in the afternoon.
Another good example is the SMS message, which started life as a way for Nokia engineers to keep in touch when they were out mending phone lines in the countryside.
Now, I don’t know if this is apocryphal — the closest I can get to a source is the musician Thomas Dolby’s memoir, The Speed of Sound, but I have heard the story a few times. Nokia made the protocol available on one or two phone models, so — of course — some teenagers worked out how to use it and started sending each other messages.
Because, while engineers absolutely do need to talk to one another while climbing up and down towers, no one has ever needed to communicate quite so badly as two teenagers stuck in their bedrooms, not allowed to go out till they’ve finished their homework.
And in doing so, these kids accidentally paved the way for the smartphone.
Finding new ways to hang out with your friends when you’re meant to be doing something else is an age-old form of innovation. It doesn’t tend to get celebrated with government grants or academic prizes, but working out how to spend more time with people who are — or who could be — your friends has driven the rise of social networks over the last twenty years. And now lots of other products and services are becoming social by default too.
Google Calendars are used to organise families and communities in ways that defy the default one-hour time slots and the set patterns of a working day. Shared PayPal accounts are used by people who can’t get bank accounts. And people who play multi-player games are sending little pings to one another, all over the world, all of the time. My dad isn’t one for long conversations, but most days lately we keep in touch by playing Words with Friends.
So finally, I get to love.
What has love got to do with any of this?
Claude Fischer describes the Telegraph Men’s attachment to using technology for economically rational purposes. Looking at the Internet today, it’s clear that’s still happening.
Karen Hao’s article about Facebook algorithms (which you must read), talks about one of the consequences of Mark Zuckerberg’s economically rational commitment to growth:
A former Facebook AI researcher who joined in 2018 says he and his team conducted “study after study” confirming the same basic idea: models that maximize engagement increase polarization… Regardless of the issue, the models learned to feed users increasingly extreme viewpoints. “Over time they measurably become more polarized,” he says.
So what happens if we replace economic rationality with love?
If economic rationality is trying to polarise us, perhaps love can bring us together.
I said at the start that I was interested in warm, dense ecosystems, and I’m going to end by describing what those might be, and how we might make them.
In the Cyborg Manifesto, Donna Haraway talks about the possibility of networks. While the Facebook of 2021 strings us out along a spectrum and pushes us to either end, Haraway’s conception of a network in 1985 is “the profusion of space and identities and the permeability of boundaries in the personal body and the body politic.” It’s Geocities, basically. Everyone jostling together, constantly crossing the streams.
Writing a few years later in 1990, sociologist Nancy Fraser addressed the fact that — just like Telegram Man — the dominant minority often want to impose their norms on everyone and pretend we’re all the same when we are really a “a nexus of different publics”:
history records that members of subordinated social groups — women, workers, people of color, and gays and lesbians — have repeatedly found it advantageous to constitute alternative publics. I propose to call these subaltern counterpublics in order to signal that they are parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses [my bold]
Fraser gives second-wave feminism as an example: opening bookstores, making films, giving lectures and organising meet-ups as demonstrative ways to shift social reality, and show something completely different. Literally creating a scene, and inviting other people in.
Both descriptions remind me of those diagrams of liquid movement you had to draw in GCSE Physics. Particles moving around and against each other, ultimately flowing together, rather than apart.
Sociologist Michael Warner built on this some ten years later, saying:
Counterpublics are spaces of circulation in which it is hoped that the poiesis of scenemaking will be transformative, not replicative merely.
Poiesis is a fancy way of talking about the art and the act of creating, inventing — and it’s closely related to technique. Consciously making a scene that others can join in with.
Economist Kim Crayton’s antiracism programme, Cause a Scene speaks directly to this: she is bringing a clear set of principles to life through leadership training and sharing content to achieve “strategic disruption of the status quo in technical organizations”.
Making a scene is galvanising and welcoming, dynamic and inclusive by default.
Delinquent, frivolous scenemaking
And if the Internet is really very good for one thing, it is scenemaking. Delinquent, frivolous, scenemaking.
It is easy to think that important things look and behave like important things.
But, after a year when so many of us have been wearing sweatpants under the desk, maybe it’s time to realise that those distinctions are artificial. Perhaps the innovations that are sold with good Powerpoints and slick pitches are only really more important than sea shanties on TikTok because they are dressed up to look more important.
And it’s worth remembering that — in the early days of the Web — a lot of things that didn’t look at all important have ended up changing how we live.
The DIY culture of web rings, fan fiction, and Live Journal have been just as important in shaping our shared online lives as any of the emerging technologies that governments and investors pour billions of dollars into.
And it’s tempting for engineers to think decentralising the Web can be achieved with technology. But really, it’s people who will make it happen. Rather than staying put in our little filter bubbles, we can burst out of them — and be radically sociable, delinquent, and make a scene.
To end where I began, I interviewed the spreadsheet party genius Marie Foulston at the peak of the first lockdown. We were talking about how it’s tempting for digital commissioners and policy makers to think that every digital experience needs to be bigger and better and broadcastier than the last. Foulston said that, instead, she wanted to “put the dirt back in, so it’s messy and complicated” and “find presence and reverence in online spaces”.
Rather than sliding ever more apart on the shiny slipstream of algorithmically driven interfaces, we can come together, we can all choose instead to be warm, and messy, and bend technology to our will. Our delinquent telephone activity can help to shape the present and the future.
Thank you — and I hope you have fun occupying technology with love.
Claude Fischer, America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940 (University of California Press, 1994)
Cheris Kramarae (ed.), Technology and Women’s Voices: Keeping in Touch (Routledge, 1988)
Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy”, Social Text №25/26 (1990)
Michèle Martin, ‘“Rulers of the Wires?” Women’s Contribution to the Structure of the Means of Communication’, Journal of Communication Enquiry (July 1988)