On 19 January 2022, Camille from CoLET joined Njera Keith of 400 + 1 and Liz Barry of Public Lab in conversation with Rayya El Zein of the Digital Infrastructure Incubator of Code for Science & Society in "Visions of Mutual Power", a wide-ranging and illuminating conversation about radical visions for building and holding power.
For those of us, the fortunate ones in the western world, the pandemic propelled us online in a major way in order to maintain some level of livelihood and connection.
Whether over Teams or Zoom, Jitsi or BlueJeans, our touches become imprints of bits and bytes over the wire.
For many of us in the tech workforce, the video work meetings were nothing new even when we worked in physical offices, It was the everything else beside work that was eerie — familiar but not. From church to school to therapy to educational seminars, it all started to map uncomfortably onto each other and in some ways become too much.
Though there are at this point lots of articles about videocall burnout, little of them point to what’s been gained in terms of connection and accessibility to various populations as well as where we need the technology to go next. How do we squarely and fairly think about this move to port all of our previous fleshspace contacts to digital space? And how do those of us who are radicals connect it to a longer radical history of meeting spaces, meeting practice, and our evolving political and social praxis?
What follows are a few questions to chew on with your people.
- What are the origins and meanings of the fleshspace spaces we already inhabited? What are we/ have we been saying intentionally and unintentionally with the spaces we create?
- What were the flaws and benefits of the fleshspace spaces we already inhabited?
3. What positives did we carry over from those spaces into digital space?
4. What flaws did we simply port over into digital space?
5. What does digital space offer beyond fleshspace?
6. What are the narratives, guidelines, and ceremony — both conscious and unconscious— of our current spaces?
Things To Read
Anarchism, Geography, and Queer Space-Making: Building Bridges Over Chasms We Create by Farhang Rouhani
Haudenosaunee narrative, constitution, and ceremony
What Is Candomblé? Beliefs and History
Worship takes place in temples which have indoor and outdoor spaces as well as special spaces for the gods. Prior to entering, worshippers must wear clean clothes and ritually wash. While worshippers may come to the temple to have their fortunes told, to share a meal, or for other reasons, they typically go for ritual worship services.
The worship service starts with a period during which priests and initiates prepare for the event. Preparation includes washing costumes, decorating the temple in the colors of the Orixa to be honored, preparing food, conducting divinations, and (in some cases) making animal sacrifices to the Orixas.
Since the lockdown/”PAUSE” order was issued here in so-called New York nearly a month ago, a group of friends have come together to discuss the current collapse/failure of the state and what we radicals might make in and of it. For our first session, we discussed technologist Vinay Gupta‘s concept of resilience maps (video below) and were lucky enough to be joined in discussion by Vinay Gupta himself. In one of the many fortuitious moments that have been sparked by the global pandemic, afriend tweeted at him and he just happened to be awake, quarantined at his home across the pond, and happy to walk us through the finer points of his SCIM threat modelling framework.
We quickly noted that this model could likely be spiffed up and fashioned as a response to (or furthering of — to be less of a shadethrower here) the current mostly-grassroots and largely apolitical disaster charity efforts that have been posing as “mutual aid”. By creating groups of actual mutuals and doing regular wellness check-ins, maybe we could identify gaps and quickly help each other address them. Rather than wasting tons of food when what people might actually need is medicine or masks or bandages, maybe we could take the time to talk through needs and identify if there even were any for that particular day.
The basic ideas that we have boiled it down to are twofold.
- A daily checkin with 6 discreet questions: – Is anyone in your home too cold? – Is anyone in your home too hot? – Is anyone in your home hungry? – Is anyone in your home thirsty/needing water? – Is anyone in your home injured? – Is anyone in your home ill?
- A regular cadence to do more extensive mapping and addressing of threats beyond the domestic sphere (infrastructure challenges, transportation and logistics, security)
We discussed this all for several weeks, and came up with many questions and few answers to how or if we wanted to proceed. So we figured a logical next step would be just to “open source” the thinking via this blog and see whether it would gain any traction. We will also share a few more resources unearthed during our brainstorming.
- Are these the right questions?
- Is computerized technology an appropriate way to address this?
- Should this be an app or an SMS bot or something else?
- Where should the data live?
- How should the data be shared? (For my part, I liked the idea of anonymized time series data)
- Who should be able to join?
- Should it be a community of folks that know each other or just a geofenced open community?
- What about privacy?
- If privacy was coupled with anonymity, how do we meet needs? A centralized drop off point? A dating app-like mutual reveal and chat?
- Are frameworks developed for state purposes appropriate for autonomous mutual aid?
- How to design a questionnaire for needs assessments in humanitarian emergencies by Sandie Walton-Ellery
- For older people living alone, daily automated calls can mean safety (2017 – Washington Post)
- Assessment Instruments (University of Washington Behavioral Research and Therapy Clinics)
- Mutual Aid Disaster Relief – A People’s Framework for Disaster Response: Rewriting the Rules of Recovery after Climate Disasters
- Planning and Anarchy by Jasper Bernes
I was recently asked by my son’s teacher to talk about work, or rather my personal approach to paid work. I started out by looking at the whiteboarding the class had already done. Money and basic needs were amongst the emerging themes tied to work. Explaining work and labor to 7 year olds from an anti-capitalist lens is difficult for me, so if anyone has suggestions on how to do so, please let me know!
"Nature does not produce on the one side owners of money or commodities, and on the other men possessing nothing but their own labour-power. This relation has no natural basis, neither is its social basis one that is common to all historical periods. It is clearly the result of a past historical development, the product of many economic revolutions, of the extinction of a whole series of older forms of social production." Marx, Capital, Vol.1.
I'm experimenting with alternative social reproduction for as long as possible given the forces of capitalism. As far as my son's class is concerned, this is about choosing to decenter work. To help demystify, these are my main sources of income. I waitress 1-2 times a week for a steady paycheck. I'm a developer, which grants me the privilege of earning a relatively high wage for freelance gigs. I have a practice of trying to "walk the walk," so I do work with folks with similarly aligned values, which means I earn a below market, but fair, wage. My baby daddy contributes what the state requires of him, which covers half of my child's basic needs (rent, clothes, food, etc) and not a penny more, but I digress! A wild guess, but on average, I spend 60 hours a month dedicated to paid labor.
Selling my labor "full-time" would put paid work at the center of my life, which is not at all important to me. My relationships to people and the natural world matter to me most. Being a mom is the most important thing I do and requires the most labor. It’s the hum of my everyday life. It’s unpaid, grossly undervalued work. I simply could not dedicate the time required to be a mother while meeting the demands of full-time work. I choose to minimize how much time I spend producing wage labor as an act of self-preservation. I work enough to get some of my basic needs met. I hustle for the others.
Choosing to do minimal paid work also means I can heal and play instead of survive, self-medicate and distract myself with consumption. I daydream. I desire. I study. I've taken ceramics, Mandarin and now I'm learning design. I read! Read! Read! (Pleasure Activism is giving me life right now) I make things like sweet potato pies and Halloween costumes. I can be more physically and mentally present with the people I love. I exercise. I chaperone school trips. I can wear the clothes I want to wear and speak a language I want to speak. I can stand, sit, speak, REST and masturbate when I want to. I can go to other parts of the world and learn new-to-me perspectives.
Choosing not to work has harsh realities. I have shitty healthcare. I'm late on bills and penalized for that. DEBT. Raising a child and caring for oneself often requires more work than I can can surmise day-to-day. I don't have the money to pay careworkers. "I'm tired," is every third sentence I say. I have many future goals, but they can feel elusive because I can't finance them. My life is unsustainable. I am poor and poverty is violent and traumatic.
Still, I’m grateful for the risks I've taken in choosing to decenter paid work. I am able to exist in liberatory spaces from time to time, which is a tremendous privilege. I'm learning a lot, deepened my values and relationships, set goals and developed healthy practices. I'm seeking to maintain and build upon these liberatory spaces in the hopes of creating a sustainable path for myself and my son. These spaces are highly collaborative, and I'm learning that accountability really motivates me. It helps structure my time. If I know that I'm accountable to others that I trust and love, I'm motivated to get shit done as acts of love and care that give me pleasure. I know I can't do this work alone and I don't want to. I know that needing others is not a weakness or a threat to my autonomy. There are ways to meet our intrinsic need for other humans that aren't based on dependency models.
CoLET is a manifestation of such space. We are committed to creating human-scale liberatory practices that not only get our basic needs met, but incubate and fulfill our dreams. I’m so so grateful to Camille and Dana for feeding me and loving me. I’m so lucky to have such brilliant thinkers committed to transcending oppression with me! They are brave enough to use their radical imaginations to not only think of what it looks like outside the cage, but build it and try it with me!
It's been 3+ years since I've chosen to decenter work and my time may be up… because Capitalism... and those future goals I mentioned. I need money to buy the tropical land for the house for the POC intentional living community, where I can study food anthropology and furniture design and open a drive-in independent theater and the hot tub. I'm always looking for folks committed to this effort - friends, lovers, partners, commrades. In partnership, we can minimize our engagement with the oppressive forces of capitalism, build new systems and new ways of relating to each other, and maybe one utopian day abolish work.
Happy 20 mothafuckin 20, ya'll!
We're into our second year of being/doing CoLET and we've been using these cold, slow, winter days to take stock (aaaand also make stock! Because food is one of our thangs, y'know.). We're still simmering on a lot of what we're sharing here, but wanted to share a little about where we are and what we've done so far. In part to stay accountable and also to just chronicle this journey for ourselves and those that come after us.
The Good Stuff
CoLET is not the main source of income for any of us, so we couldn't devote a lot of time to it week in and week out, but we still were able to maintain momentum despite only seeing each other every other week or so. We still manage to talk nearly every day either over Signal, email (we are enthusiastic users of NextCloud!), and (more recently) via Issues in our Gitea instance.
We have a good line of communication and can easily move from business concerns to talking about our personal lives to sharing recipes and back again. We have inside jokes and a good sense of each other's quirks. We laugh a lot, we stress very little, and have a lot of genuine love and respect for each other.
After much chewing on the issue, we decided to incorporate as an LLC. It took longer than some of us expected, but we are grateful to the wonderful young women and Dr. Michael Haber of the Community and Economic Development Clinic at Hofstra University for skillfully (and cheaply!) getting us over the finish line. We hope to share our operating guidelines with you soon as we think they could be of service to the greater community.
Building Our Network
Continued study on the intersection of socieconomic justice and climate justice is a priority for us, and in our first year we were able to organize many lively reading groups and dinners. We have archived much of what we read and discussed here on the blog. Over the past year or so, Camille (our unofficial spokesperson!) also made the effort to reach out to and start growing our network by connecting to many likeminded groups. We've made friends with folks via:
- Institute of Social Ecology
- Collective for Community, Culture, and Environment (a collective of expert women advocating for community self-determination in planning)
- Minka Brooklyn (a WOC-run, community-focused wellness space)
- Brooklyn Movement Center
- Agaric (a tech worker coop);
- and more!
Dana maintained close ties to the NYC coop and solidarity economy community, participating in a group for women and non-binary folks confronting patriarchy within that movement. There is a brilliant write-up of their efforts here. From this community, we were also able to get our feet wet, doing small projects for Hopewell Care Cooperative and Dollars &Sense. Laura, who came into this with little WordPress experience, was a quick study on these projects and started styling themes like a pro in no time.
The Tough Stuff
While we had a lot of success making new friends, we sometimes over-reached and tried to participate in events and groups that had a more global scope than we could handle. For example, Camille pitched a workshop to RightsCon and the Black Farmers and Urban Growers Conference and while it was accepted at both, without any funding and a clear sense of what we were trying to accomplish there, it didn't quite make sense for us to participate. As the saying goes, "You have to crawl before you walk."
Another mistake we made last year was starting to work on a project before we fully understood the scope or the budget. By the time we realized that the group we were working with had little money and a LOT of requirements, we were in too deep. This was a big learning experience, and something we have now taken steps to rectify. We know that the groups we want to work with are often going to be cash-strapped, but we think the solution to this is finding the cash to pay for the work rather than trying to get people to work for free. As we implement new systems, we want to also try to root out the exploitative dynamics that have characterized the old ways (e.g. expecting women and people of color to do thankless unpaid labor).
Equity and Expenses
Though we intentionally decided not to be a cooperative, we do want to have an equitable (though not necessarily equal) split. Right now, members get paid based on the work hours they put into a given project. Since nearly all the work hours we've been paid for so far have been for WordPress development, any work that isn't paid client development/training work currently goes unpaid -- no matter how much time gets put into other aspects of the collective. As a new formation, we are still thinking through how to compensate everyone for the time they put into keeping this ship on course.
Of course, as a fledgling organization, we are squarely focused on covering our monthly overhead. Right now that's been a challenge. Once we have more income coming in and all our costs are covered, we will be better able to spread the income around.
We genuinely wanted to host more dinners, but finding cheap/free space in Brooklyn has proven tough. We also sometimes struggle to figure out where to meet with just the three of us, but our apartments work OK and we sometimes like to go grab a slice of pie at Pel's.
We did have consistent good luck hosting the reading group in the private rooms in the library and moving from the Crown Heights library to the main library was an upgrade (though they don't allow food in the meeting room in the main library's Infocommons 🙁 ) . A lot of people swore they wanted to come to the reading group's but people consistently failed to show up for the last few so we've put them on hold for the foreseeable future. We still want to do dinners though. Let us know if you happen to have (or know of) a cozy space in or around the Crown Heights/PLG/Flatbush area!
(The featured image on this post is from Larry Luckham's image set from his time at Bell Labs. He worked in their Oakland, California data center in the late 60s and early 70s. Click above to see them all. They are great!)
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.
In the past few years, there has been an discussion in various communities about the value of offering/having a community or cooperative platform and how we can own it. The idea of such a platform is central to what we are trying to accomplish here at CoLET and as such we have discussed it extensively. However, we have more questions than answers.
These questions include:
- What is meant when the word “platform” is used?
- Will/should one platform suffice for all the needs that we have?
- How many applications do we each use on a daily basis for our personal and organizational needs?
- If multiple applications, does that mean we need multiple platforms?
- How are these platforms sustainable? Meaning, are the people working on them able to meet their basic needs?
The questions could go on an on. But instead we want to outline in a bit more detail the hosted services and various applications we support and continue improving integration points between them, so as to provide a platform to support the needs you have with technical tools.
Our hosted services are built using open source software that has strong software community support. The software applications extend the features available, providing a series of tools to help you or your organization work in “the cloud” in the solidarity economy.
As of now the applications we are using to provide an online tools for your organization include:
- WordPress: web software you can use to create a beautiful website, blog, or app.
- CiviCRM: a contact/constituent relationship management (CRM) software for non-profit and other civic-sector organizations.
- Piwik: web analytics platform, that gives every user full control of their data.
- NextCloud: file sharing, shared calendars, contact management, communication & more
As we evolve more could be added, but for now this is a healthy starting point.
Building the Ecosystem
Each of these applications provide a set of tools for you to connect on the cloud. However, integration between these applications is still very young and by providing a hosted service that works very specifically to support these tools we can focus on building integration points between applications so that the experience of using them is much more fluid.
Providing a hosted service requires many different areas of expertise and knowledge. The focus of these services, is to provide a suite of tools completely managed through the solidarity economy. In turn providing an alternative to the commercial applications we commonly use.
We are still working out the kinks and getting things setup. We hope you join us and in doing so provide us with the resources needed to continue working on enhancements while supporting your organizations needs in “the cloud”.
- The Tyranny of Structurelessness by Jo Freeman (article; one of our readings for October 2017)
- Community Accountability Process by BYP100 (blogposts; one of our readings for October 2017))
What came up for us:
- Greater Than Code episode 50: Open Source Anarchy – good discussion here about BDFL (Benevolent Dictator For Life model that’s found in many open source projects)
- Bus factor: We have this concept in tech already. How do we create awareness around it in our organizations? For example, we don’t want to have to keep a toxic person around because he is the only one who has the credentials to the server. Sometimes nothing can immediately be done, but it helps to have awareness around that imbalance of power.
- In the case of an incident, we should also use it as an opportunity to examine ourselves as an organization. We could do our version of a retrospective with actionables.
- Graph analysis might be a way to easily tease out people or groups that have too much power. See here – https://graphcommons.com/hubs/inquiry
- Malcolm London Dedicated Life to Activism: Now, He’s Accused of Sex Assault (related to BYP100 reading)
- Is technology needlessly complex? Mass literacy transformed the world. Could mass tech literacy have similar power?
- Is low tech literacy part of general neoliberal capitalist alienation? We don’t know where our food or our phone comes from either.
- “Degrowth? How About Some Dealienation?” – Terisa Turner, Leigh Brownhill, and Wahu Kaara (article)
- Interview with Peter Hudis author of Frantz Fanon: Philosopher at the Barricades (discussion of race, Marxism, and alienation)
- The Peer Production License (forcing functions on commercial use to remunerate the open commons)
- Freeman offers good suggestions. Dr. Elinor Ostrom also has good guidance about managing commons. Governing the Commons would be a good read, but her Nobel Prize lecture is a good place to start.
- Anton Pannekoek’s writing on Workers’ Councils might also be informative.
“Common ownership must not be confounded with public ownership. In public ownership, often advocated by notable social reformers, the State or another political body is master of the production. The workers are not masters of their work, they are commanded by the State officials, who are leading and directing the production. Whatever may be the conditions of labor, however human and considerate the treatment, the fundamental fact is that not the workers themselves, but the officials dispose of the means of production, dispose of the product, manage the entire process, decide what part of the produce shall be reserved for innovations, for wear, for improvements, for social expenses, what part has to fall to the workers what part to themselves. In short, the workers still receive wages, a share of the product determined by the masters. Under public ownership of the means of production, the workers are still subjected to and exploited by a ruling class. Public ownership is a middle-class program of a modernized and disguised form of capitalism. Common ownership by the producers can be the only goal of the working class.”
- What is fair punishment for assault? Who decides? How do we determine what is true?
- How do you deter assault in spaces?
- Should we/can we offer mediation?
- How do we build and maintain trust in a group?
Readings for Next Time:
- Technology & Ethos Vol. 2 Book of Life by Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones)
- GPL – The Gnu Public License (article
- Pull together a draft code of conduct and incident handling procedure
- Plan to do a projectinventory process. No actionables necessary; just identify current projects, challenges, and opportunities.
There are so many open source tools to explore and potentially use if you want to tackle your dependency on extractive corporate technology. Here are a few we want to try out:
Mastodon – microblogging tool
With Known – blogging and microblogging tool that allows cross-posting to corporate social media
Pump.io – microblogging tool
Open Collective – transparency and fundraising tools
Group Chat & Calling
Docs, File Sharing, Calendar
NextCloud (Dana uses and prefers this)
Riseup.net – must be referred by an existing user
What are you using? What have you tried? As we continue to build out CoLET, we will be sharing our experiences, advice, and favorite tools. In the meantime, check out Indieweb for more.