Sheltering in place is not a gift any of us would have asked for, but we are making use of it. CoLET was started in a moment of political crisis so we know that while there is pain and suffering (far more now than that time) in crisis, these inflection points can be times of great creativity and fertility. When we are fortunate/privileged enough to be secure and safe during a crisis such as this, we can use the time to evaluate our lives. We can renew our commitment to nurturing those efforts and relationships that are working….or muster the strength to sever ties with all that weighs us down.
We can cultivate comfort and courage in uncertainty.
We can care for ourselves and each other. Checking in on neighbors and old friends.
We can discover our needs and let them be known.
We can study and dream.
And we can ready ourselves for the world that will be.
Because there is no more “going back to normal”. We can only take brave and shaky steps forward.
Here are some things we have been doing and reading in this time of relative hibernation:
DOING: gardening, fermenting, canning, cooking and cooking and cooking, learning Portuguese, taking singing lessons, working, caring for our kids, exercising — alone and across screens, checking in on our neighbors, budgeting, looking at more open and secure alternatives to Zoom (Jami, Jitsi, Nextcloud Talk), resilience mapping, washing our hands….over and over and over again.
After an earthquake in late 2017 destroyed their outdoor kitchens, Tehuantepec locals in Mexico opted to rebuild themselves rather than relying on state support. Sometimes embracing technology means going and back and doing it the old way!
Something that has guided our thinking since the very inception of CoLET is the idea that just as the last 10 years or so have brought people greater awareness about the provenance of their food, we believe this is the moment to move people towards a greater understanding of their technology.
The past decade or two has been marked by a rise in farmer’s markets, organic offerings in the supermarket, and CSAs (community supported agriculture schemes that find farmers bringing down large shares of fruits, vegetables, and meat for members of the CSA to divvy up). In addition, CSA and cooperative farmers welcome members up for visits; while WWOOFs have long enabled people to do longer stints working on farms, getting their hands dirty and learning how to cultivate produce. While there is undoubtedly lots more to be done, people are more aware than they have been in over a half-century about what they consume and have been more demanding of the market as a result.
Here in CoLET, we’ve been thinking about what would be the tech equivalent of going to an organic farm or picking up one’s CSA share? A tour of a server farm or an internship at Google? Likely not. That’d be more the equivalent of touring a slaughterhouse or some sort of Big Ag facility.
In some ways, the distance and mystique surrounding the provenance of our hardware and software applications is part of the service. We don’t want to know how the sausage is made, but we do so love that sausage. More please. Perhaps studying something like the rise of McDonald’s or the TV dinner might be instructive in helping us understand how we got to now. Both proprietary tech and fast food play on the same themes of speed and convenience. In an interview on The Splendid Table, Michael Pollan shared the following:
We were at this very interesting post-Betty Friedan moment where there was a very uncomfortable conversation unfolding: Women were going back to work; women’s liberation was very much in the air and there was tension over who would do the housework. It had to be renegotiated.
Before that conversation could be completely played out and resolved, the food industry very self-consciously stepped in and said, “We’ll take care of it; we’ve got you covered.” They came forward with fast food and processed food, and it was a very deliberate effort on their part to hitch their agenda to that of feminism.
There’s a wonderful billboard that I can remember from the ’70s. Kentucky Fried Chicken had this billboard all over the country — a giant bucket of fried chicken with just two words above it: “Women’s Liberation.”
As Anand Giridharadas so eloquently describes in his new book Winners Take All, capitalism keeps offering us “solutions” to the problems that it caused in the first place. However, just as the #MeToo has helped to surface the unfinished business of the women’s liberation movement, a day of reckoning is coming around the myriad ways that social media — intoxicating convenience capitalism that took hold during an “uncomfortable conversation” moment in neoliberalism — exploits people and their data for ever greater profit. We’d like to believe that when the moment of crisis comes, a movement agitating for tech justice by way of open source, decentralization, inclusive communities of producers, and expanded access to tools will be at the ready.
Unfortunately, hope alone cannot build such a movement. So what can we tangibly do now to help people adopt practices and build greater intimacy with technology that, in some ways, is closer to them than even the food they put in their mouths? Our phones are often the first things we pick up in the morning and the last things we put down at night. We can’t just scare people into what we paternally deem “healthier” practices. There has to be a sea-change from both the production and distribution side. Alternatives need to be available and they need to be good.
With CoLET and our burgeoning Merkalie project, we are experimenting with solidarity economy principles by nudging folks in our community to host their sites with us rather than one of the big, faceless corporations. But at the same time, we want them to know that when they host with us, things will work differently — sometimes good and fast, but sometimes buggy and slow.
On a recent episode of Recode, Nicole Wang (formerly of Twitter, Google, and the office of the CTO of the USA) suggests that it may be time for a “slow food movement for the internet”.
“When I first started at Google, the pillars of design were: we want comprehensiveness, relevance, and speed? Those were the three pillars of search. When social came into play, there was a change in the principles and we weren’t focused on search anymore, and the dynamics were around personalization, engagement, and speed. What if we say, ‘That’s not the internet we want to live with?’ What if the pillars were accuracy, authenticity and context? Maybe that slows it down, but maybe that is the different world we ought to be trying to build.”
Something else we recently saw that also clicked for us and actually happens to be at the intersection of slow food and slow tech is this article from Low Tech magazine on the beauty of fermented food.
Unlike many high-tech proposals like ‘smart’ food recycling apps, highly efficient logistics systems, and food packaging innovations, fermentation is both low-tech and democratic—anyone can do it. What’s more, it has low energy inputs, brings people together, is hygienic and healthy, and can reduce food waste.
Low Tech magazine itself runs on a solar powered server located in Barcelona that can (and does!) go off-line during longer periods of cloudy weather. Low Tech and its sister publication NoTech question whether every problem has a tech solution, and Low Tech intentionally publishes no more than 12 articles a year. While this may be on the extreme end, it is a worthwhile provocation. Even Amazon servers aren’t up all day every day; despite all best efforts, outages happen. How can we begin to cultivate patience with digital technology and how do we deliver a payoff for that patience? Do we even need to?
Understanding the deleterious effects of big tech, we need to cultivate new ways of producing and consuming technology that are better for our society and our planet. Where are the projects that are already doing (or attempting to do) this and how can we promote them? Most importantly, how do we do this in a way that — unlike much of the “foodie movement” — is about a radical restructuring of relations between producer and consumer? Because in the end, we don’t just want capitalism that is “bursting with flavor”; we want fresh, juicy, and local…….liberation.
*Header image is of earthenware pots for fermenting kimchi
On January 18, 2018, CoLET gathered at the beautiful Brooklyn Community Foundation office with ecologist and technologist friends — old and new — to drink, eat, and talk as about the roles we do and can play in struggles for liberation.
CoLET was created less than a year ago after Camille Acey was introduced to Dana Skallman at an event organized by the Cooperative Economics Association of New York City (CEANYC) event. Dana and Camille were interested in carving out a greater space for technology in the mutually supportive economic institutions practices that are globally being referred to as the solidarity economy. They were both already talking to people in these spaces about the ways the devices we may hold in one hand are reproducing the very systems of oppression we are fighting with the other, and they were eager to move beyond that frustration.
Over time, CoLET expanded to start a monthly community of study with other technologists as well as artists, media makers, and activists where we have been exploring different perspectives on technology and the ways it can be/has been a help or hindrance to radical struggles for liberation and earth justice. We don’t view tech as a solution in and of itself but one potential tool in the toolbox. Camille informally refers to us as “the Radical IT department”.
Our work has three components at this moment:
1) practice- we are actively providing technical support to organizations that want to maintain their websites and tech infrastructure on our open source platform
2)study – a monthly reading/ discussion group held here in Crown Heights and open to all; and
3)service – trying to be more of a resource here between the neighborhoods of Bed-Stuy and Flatbush, operating at human scale in the neighborhoods and helping our friends and neighbors better understand, leverage, and enjoy technology.
The title of the event is inspired by this political moment when people are waking up to the often overlapping realities of race/class/gender, politics and power, ecological destruction, as well as surveillance and the potential dangers of technology, especially social media.
We at CoLET see this moment as ripe with possibility to begin forging new alliances as well as deepening and more clearly defining our bonds of solidarity, and we are excited to have you at the table to explore this with us.
What role does tech play in your work?
What challenges did you face last year?
What opportunities are you exploring this year and what help do you need?
What Came Up:
How do we share information between organizations and generations? There are many current and historical “wins”; where do we put them so everyone has a chance to see them?
People struggle with the idea of alternatives to mainstream commercial software. It seems neutral, almost like a public utility. How do we start planting seeds so people can think about making the transition?
Someone made the point that we are killing the planet, but in honesty we are killing ourselves (and taking out several species with us). The planet will go on. How do we think about that? How do we process not just growth but also death?
“If you’re gonna fight the good fight, you gotta know who you’re fighting.” – It’s important to know your enemies!
How concerned should we be about mass surveillance? Are our solutions particularly freeing? Even Signal’s servers are hosted by Amazon.
How are people and groups dealing with/combatting doxxing
How do we work at a human scale?
Many of us want to talk about black liberation, queer liberation, women’s liberation. How can we create spaces where people can come as their whole selves, representing all of their concerns?
Examples of how groups creating a nurturing space include: cooking together, group exercise, going dancing together, providing food and childcare at gatherings, providing translation services
People seemed to be divided along lines of “techie ” and “non-techie”; how do we bring down the barriers to tech literacy?
Some people rely on Facebook or Slack for vital resources like work or housing info, how do we begin to move these privileged networks off of proprietary platforms?
Camille mentioned that MACC has started a mutual aid network – link here
Does everything we share need to be permanently shared or can we embrace the temporary?
How do we regain our attention from these apps and devices?