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.
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
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.
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?