Special Edition: [Feminist] Digital Futures
This blog is part of a series about the conferences and retreats I attended in August and September.
The Digital Futures gathering was organised by Chayn’s friends at Superr Labs — a civil society organisation set up to explore and develop the potentials of new technologies for society and diversity, with a feminist framework. It was founded by Elisa Lindinger and Julia Kloiber in 2019.
Julia is a friend of mine and I’ve known her since her time at Open Knowledge Foundation. It’s so exciting to see her found and grow Superr Labs, which is becoming a force to be reckoned with not just in Germany but across Europe. And this gathering by Superr saw 60ish activists come together to discuss what the future of Digital technology could look like and how we get there.
The conference was supported by two funders. It was facilitated by the legendary Allen Gunn, and there was a “devices at ease” (I find this expression is not very clear and can be understood to be the opposite of what is intended) policy which meant we were asked not to use our devices and not to share anything about what is discussed or who is there on social media. Hence, this blog will be short.
What I did
Day 0: Boat Tour
Superr Labs had booked a city tour boat for all the delegates and it was such a nice and relaxing way to start the gathering. I really recommend other organisers to do the same.
There were many session formats. There was almost nothing in plenary. We did world-cafe type set up spaces to learn about new areas, peer support and collective mapping sessions.
Here are some themes we explored:
- Practicing feminist grassroots organizing
- Centering marginalized knowledge
- Organising for climate justice
- Organizing content moderation workers
- Countering misinformation online
- Exploring the Intersections of Our Work
- Building the Digital Futures We Want
- Technological Cartographies: Digital colonialism in the internet territories
- Green Futures?! Climate Justice and Digital Rights
- Digital Identities: Our future selves on the internet
- The future of political advertising on tech platforms
- The future of organising tech workers
- Collaboratively building the narratives for the digital futures we want
- How to develop citizen driven futures through participatory design
I decided to attend sessions on topics I wasn’t actively working on so I could explore how Chayn could express solidarity and vice versa. I really enjoyed learning more about decolonising climate justice, the tech workers rights movement, AI auditing, and pleasure activism.
You’ll see me talk about this in a few other blogs but I’ll repeat it here in case this is the firs time you are reading this. Since I burned out so significantly this summer, I promised myself to not get too involved at conferences and new communities. My goal was to listen more, talk less. That’s exactly what I did, though I did host a little group about trauma-informed design and shared what Chayn has learned about creating safe spaces online. This was a new mode for me and this was the first conference where I got to try out this motto.
What I learned
- I’ve been part of so many conversations on decolonisation and people talk about it as it if it’s a fixed thing. While the purpose of decolonisation might be agreed on, what the outcome and process look like cannot be the same. Decolonised people are different and so is the kind of harm they faced, and the worldview that was distorted. In the West, most of the conversations around decolonisation, understandably, come from the second and third generations of immigrant or forcibly displaced communities. Their experience is very specific to the intergenerational trauma they experienced, the culture and heritage that were lost and the micro and macro aggression they face every day in mostly White countries. As someone who grew up in Pakistan, my experience is quite different. Many things reduced to “this is what people do” sounds super offensive to me because people in my country and region do those things too and don’t attribute it to white people. So this kind of generalisation can both annoy and offend me. Someone explained to me that the context in which some comments like this are given has to be considered which I will take more care in accepting but at the same time, I don’t want to invisibl-ise regions of the world because they are not in the room and what we are talking about has global implications. This sits very heavily in my heart. It reminds me of all the times women of colour who grew up in the US tell me “women in the Global South don’t want technology, they only experience harm from it” when I see the diversity of experience in my family, friends and communities Chayn reaches. I feel like there’s a bigger piece in here which I will give time to writing later.
- I had a fascinating discussion with someone about fundraising in the US which really opened my eyes. They told me that fundraising especially if seeking higher amounts, is like a game of fashion. You need to be on trend for people to want to invest in your organisation. Rather than telling funders how much we need money, we need to tell them how they would miss out on an opportunity to be seen to be giving money to the hottest ‘non-profit’ in town. It’s cringe and depressing but makes sense why the same organisations (often big, flashy and cash-y with large communications departments) keep getting large grants. Something for the rest of us to think about. How do we achieve the same result (funding for life-saving work) without the same resources?
- In hushed whispers between sessions and coffee breaks, I got the chance to share with other feminist CEOs and leaders what it is like to be running a feminist organisation and trying to do the right thing as a manager but sometimes it feels like you’re fighting a losing battle. Sometimes it feels like nothing is good enough. Or that the expectation is so unreasonably high that it sets us up to fail. And you’re not allowed to point that out because you’re in a position of leadership.
- The facilitators suggested at one point we don’t use hierarchal language like “manager” and “lead” for breakout groups and instead use “bottom liners” and I don’t think it translated well from American English to the rest of us ;). It did make a few of us laugh though!
- I learned about workers rights, strategic litigation and how cartography can be used to track the intermeshing of land and digital rights.
- I had a fascinating chat one evening and the next morning on the train to the airport with someone who has spent two decades on the feminist action front, especially on the intersection with technology. She used the phrase “tyranny of binary” to describe something I had been struggling with in the activism space: the expectation of performative perfection. That there is one way of doing something good and if you don’t do it and you’re not seen to be doing it, you’re obviously Bad and with the System. This binary of what is good and is not, what is usual or unusual and what is disruptive or conductive has been driving me up the wall. And it was so nice to get advice from her about tuning out those who worship the tyranny of the binary and instead focus on feminist values.
This was my first activist retreat after 2.5 years of Covid restrictions. It was nourishing for the soul. I met people who I had never met before. People who had been aware of my work and admired it but had never told me. Hearing that in person was the kind of motivation you cannot get from a tweet. It was very heartening. I also ended up having the most random conversation with a fellow feminist I met there and we bonded over things that had nothing to do with digital futures. We laughed for hours. How special!