by alex cruse
While in New York for the CUNY conference, I visited the MOMA PS1 gallery. On display was an exhibition by multimedia artist Simon Denny — “The Innovator’s Dilemma” — for which he had détourned the language and imagery of tech corporations and the New Media economy. On a posterboard within one installation, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is quoted thusly: “A lot of the new rules are being written by people who don’t even know they’re writing them…Everyone now has the power of voice.”
Without really even deconstructing the blatant contradiction of her imagined society of networked individuals who are intellectually divorced from their own generative powers as “prosumers” — while ostensibly still being “empowered” by the highly regulated social media network that she oversees — i offer her comments here as representations of dominant conceptions of networks, labor, and the erosion of boundaries between social and political work online. Put differently: tasks that were once functions of the communicative or social become layered with additional meanings for the market; subsequently, the primary ways in which networks become conceptualized are similarly dictated by market values.
An objective of FemTechNet has been to recuperate online methods of communication, to connect self-directed-learners and course facilitators in the development of educational praxes based on feminist principles — to actually negotiate a network around the politics of a multitude, as opposed to authoritatively administering a “voice” from a homogenized platform.
As cyber-feminists, we take an interest in how a given network’s topology and architecture shape discourse, and how questions of access are addressed by a decentralized, digital pedagogy. What might be useful, inclusive tactics for broadening and diversifying our network? How do we conceptualize it, and its potential for advancing a more radical, non-hetero/patriarchal pedagogy — despite these systems having been designed and maintained from inside dominant paradigms? These question have been useful in navigating the expansion of FTN and the DOCC into a more international project, while remaining sensitive to neoliberal connotations of “globalization.”
Possibly the most basic and reasonable explanation of a network is: a model of communications between myriad nodes, which may or may not feature an informational center. Theorist Kevin Kelly defined the network as “the least structured organization that can be said to have any structure at all,” and also is “one of the few structures that incorporates the dimension of time.” He writes, “we should expect to see networks wherever we see constant, irregular change, and we do.”¹ A grand mesh, the network exists as a form that supports and enables variations and mutations–an ‘abstract machine’ that transcends the model as such, and comes to constitute the real territory on which complex behaviors are enacted.
Yet, “sociability-as-proprietary-ethic” has somewhat dislodged the revolutionary capacity for this model. As we know, “social media” and its constitutive networks are used as metonymic shorthand for the processes of Self-production/curation within the digital commons. The logics of consumer-capitalism inhere in this space — users are anchored on a plane of selective autobiography, surrounded by ad copy algorithmically generated by and for themselves, as micro-economic entities. Moreover, current efforts on the part of NGOs and tech firms to expand and strengthen ICT infrastructure within the Global South — for example, Facebook’s deployment of an app through which users in these regions may access the internet² — exemplify a drive towards globalization and the privatization of this utility and its functions, which is abetted by a hegemonic and classist theory of the network.
It follows, then, that the language of “networks” is currently in vogue within mainstream academia and the realm of advertising, because it displaces and disperses informational accountability from a structural perspective (i.e. virality without an immediately identifiable origin), while it paradoxically heightens the individuated and nodal quality of information dissemination, thereby complementing neoliberal frameworks of interpersonal relations. It is an intractable problem that — regardless of the political affiliation of a given actor-network — feminists are subject to the corporate ethos endemic to the interface, the hardware; to the capitalist infrastructure that a priori determines the valence of oral and graphical communication. I cite the aforementioned lack of an informational center as being crucial to the installment of sociocultural and aesthetic regimes, wherein images and texts appear immersive and total: the participant becomes decentered, as the mode of transfer is the thing on display, as opposed to the content itself. The spectacular politics of many contemporary network practices preclude subversion or innovation, as they rely on ICT fetishism rather than user-empowerment.
However, such technologies have the potential to undergo vital transformations — and thusly, transform their operants — via a systems theory inoculated by egalitarian, feminist ideology. New ICTs have allowed transnational feminist networks (of which FTN could be considered apart) to retain robustly adaptive features while also ensuring efficiency in our operations, without the necessity of formal or bureaucratic organization. These distributed and horizontal pathways suggest a form that may be more conductive to our organization’s goals of “inclusive, participatory, decentralized, and nonhierarchical structures and processes.”³
From a historical perspective, the conservative bias of early sociologists practicing systems-thinking necessarily meant that this bias became entrenched in systems theory, and set the pattern for how it is currently utilized in the humanities. Systems-theorist Barbara Hanson posits that, given this view, it is “not surprising” that feminists in the social sciences would not immediately identify routes for mobilization within this field. Hanson continues:
Feminist analysis with its strong component of praxis, political action, and change would seem antithetic to status quo ideology. However, systems theory can be usefully considered by feminist scholars in its broader range. This means looking at work done on social work and pan-disciplinary theory, chaos theory, and peace and conflict studies. Within this broader view of systems theory it is possible to see an epistemological alternative to traditional theory that is based on mechanism, linear cause or ideological assumptions in use of relational units, cybernetic causality and a non-assumption approach.4
This syncretic methodology greatly informs my work as a facilitator of the DOCC (Distributed, Open, Collaborative Course) “Dialectics of Feminism and Technology,” initiated in summer of last year. The class itself serves as an example of Hanson’s “epistemological alternatives,” in that the open and collaborative nature of the course and its larger support network of FemTechNet was nested in yet another networked alternative to top-down, bureaucratic educational structures: the Bay Area Public School.
The Public School is an expressly anti-capitalist project that began in 2007 in Los Angeles, and expanded to New York, the Bay Area, Berlin, and beyond. Essentially a ‘free school’ — one with no agenda, curricula, or Regents — TPS’s main goal is to collectivize people around shared resources and intellectual experimentalism. Anyone can propose a course and facilitate classes, and each course’s structure is determined on an individuated basis. Freed from the constraints of awarding credentials or meeting Statist criteria, TPS is able to expand definitions of ‘higher learning,’ and this model results in a liberation of academic space. Because it is run as an extra-institutional node, i feel the siting of this DOCC reflects the diversity of pedagogical strategies deployed by our larger organization. We are all composed of interacting layers enmeshed between physical and digital space; while our topographies are generally isomorphic, each can be considered dynamic, as well.
In closing, I concur with Rodrigo Nunes when he writes: “Network-systems…allow us to look beyond explicitly or self-identified political expressions, as well as any suggestions of shared goals, practices etc., and to picture a broader moving of social relations. It is, so to speak, a movement as it exists in-itself, its capacity to produce effects existing independently from its being consciously registered by all who belong to it.”5
1. Kelly, Kevin. Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, & the Economic World. New York: Perseus Books Group, 1995.
2. Murphy, Helen; Acosta, Luis Jaime. “Facebook’s Zuckerberg brings free Internet to Colombia, mute on China.” Reuters. 15 Jan 2015.
3. Moghadam, Valentine M. Globalizing Women: Transnational Feminist Networks. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2005.
4. Hanson, B. (2001), Systems theory and the spirit of feminism: grounds for a connection. Systems Research, 18: 545–556. doi: 10.1002/sres.412
5. Nunes, Rodrigo. Organisation of the Organisationless: Collective Action After Networks. Post-Media Lab/Mute Books, 2014.
*FemTechNet Roadshow Blog Series – Over the past couple of months, about a dozen FemTechNet participants have presented work based on our research and teaching related to FemTechNet in a two-part FemTechNet Keywords Workshop at the CUNY Feminist Pedagogies Conference in April 2015, and at the Union for Democratic Communications Conference at the University of Toronto in May 2015. Since these gatherings brought together such divergent modes of FemTechNet engagement, we thought we’d collect and share this new work over the last two weeks of May, leading up to the deadline for our 2015 FTN Summer Workshop. For more information on this series, contact T.L. Cowan