All posts tagged digital-culture

Berlin’s Media Art Community: A Female Perspective

Last month I was kindly invited by Supermarkt’s founder and curator, Ela Kagel, to speak about my perspective as a woman in Berlin’s media + tech scene. We were asked to share our influences, mentors and key life moments that shaped who we are.

The talk was part of an event called Berlin’s Media Art Community: A Female Perspective with ten female speakers.

Despite this large female contingent, and in a city where the workforce is generally evenly distributed, it is at odds that the theoretical discourse on media art and net activism, executive roles and directorships, as well panelists and participants at events and festivals, are still male-dominated. In a forward-thinking city like Berlin, this ongoing gap should be addressed so that the wider fields of media arts and activism are fully inclusive of the multitude of female skills and viewpoints on offer.

I quite enjoyed hearing the journeys of the fellow speakers, as well as the lively discussion afterwards. (What does feminism mean today? Is gender equality about an attitude or are there systemic forces that need changing? And “If I can’t dance it’s not my revolution!”)

In particular, it was interesting to reflect and share what moments I found pivotal in my life and to learn about the motivations in other women’s lives.

Here are the slides and notes from my talk.


We were asked to discuss what motivates us, who supported us and what were decisive moments in our career. I suppose like most journeys, mine started before my adult career. For me, the most influential activity growing up was playing soccer

From age 5 til now, I played a lot of soccer. And it’s biggest lessons to me were 1) team work and 2) confidence. Team work was hugely important in the adult world, and soccer helped you understand how each person plays their role, and how it comes together to something greater than it’s individual parts.

Soccer gave me that collaborative, psychological framework — and also physical confidence. A lot of young women have body issues. But what I loved about sports was how it made you feel confident and powerful in your body. Soccer showed me another kind of aesthetic. One that emphasized athleticism, strength and its own kind of sexiness.

This is Brandi Chastain, who scored the winning goal in the Women’s World Cup in 1999. There’s a beauty in her confidence, in her joy and accomplishment. Watching this moment live on TV made me want to be like her, to celebrate with her + her team.

So as I grew up, I kept playing. Even when I was the only woman on the team. I learned not to question why I was there. I learned that if I wanted to play, I had to be confident in who I was and that I belong on the field just as much as the guys.

Liberal Arts

Beyond just playing, I learned about encouraging other women to get on the field, and to celebrate them when they did well. I attended Mt. Holyoke College, a women’s liberal arts college in New England. It focuses on a generalist’s education, on interdisciplinary thinking. And socially, it really taught me about being supportive and inclusive.

It was a bit over the top, but the women there were so committed to helping each other. At every public event or class, you’d have someone shout “Go, girl!” and cheer each other. Of course there was competition, but the goal was not to discredit or undermine other women, but to celebrate each other’s successes. If felt like if we supported one another, there would be more successful women in the world. And that means there will be a better, more equal society.

Academically, at college there was one professor who was particularly inspiring. Prof. Hartley taught a survey course on the Great Books, reading things like Dante, Plato, and Descartes. We live in an era where the Western Canon is heavily criticized but the original works are seldom ever read. Prof. Hartley encouraged us to read the source material, to build up an historical foundation that we could respond to — and to understand how these thinkers shaped our world today.

The Great Books show us that we’re not the first generation to face deep change — be it technological, social or otherwise. And reading these books, freely and uninhibitedly, should not only be a right, but an intellectual need for humankind. And having access to source material is essential for our education, discourse and self-improvement.

Free Culture

From there, ideologically, it was an easy step to understand why Free Culture is necessary. Around the time I graduated, Lawrence Lessig, prof. at Standford, founded the non-profit Creative Commons. It’s a movement dedicated to making cultural works more accessible, more reusable with legal tools. Lessig was a philosophical mentor. And his arguments about Free Culture won me over so I began working for his organization, Creative Commons.

Working at CC was a huge opportunity to meet a tribe. A globally distributed group of people fighting for the same cause. A tribe that understood the value of collaboration and access to knowledge. But nevertheless, then as now, I would often find myself the only woman in the room.

That’s why I appreciate efforts like tonight’s event. Let’s get more women on the field and encourage them to keep playing. Let’s celebrate their successes together.

And especially here in Berlin, with people like you, we can make shape the world to our values. More free, more open, more participatory. More equal. I’m looking forward to learning from you all tonight and seeing what we can grow together. Thanks for listening!

Poetic Descriptive Camera

Sometimes half the fun of hatching an idea is thinking through all the silly things you’d do, even if you’re ultimately too lazy to dig in and actually do it.

In this spirit, I’d like to share a hack to playfully disrupt the Descriptive Camera, a project by ITP’s Matt Richardson.

@fascinated, @ProfessorPerl and I planned…but didn’t execute…our poetic intervention. But nevertheless, it’s fun to share the idea even if we didn’t do it.

Descriptive Camera

Matt Richardson’s Descriptive Camera looks like a regular camera. But rather than producing an image of the subject, the camera outputs a text description of metadata describing what’s in the scene.

Richardson’s project highlights an important hang up around information retrieval for images. Most metadata about photos focuses on where the images were taken, with what kind of camera, etc., but very little information is available about what’s actually in the photo. If we had more text descriptions of content, it would be much easier to search and parse images.

As Richardson points out, technology at the moment doesn’t offer affordable solutions for routinely-produced text descriptions yet.

(Although I did find an impressive example of a supermarket scanner that recognizes objects by their visible characteristics.)

Mechanical Turk

Alas, until that edgy Japanese technology is pervasive and recognizes objects beyond bananas and beer, we have to rely on human intelligence to provide text descriptions of photos.

The Descriptive Camera uses Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to process images into text. After the camera takes a photo, it sends the image to Mechanical Turk. Then a task is offered up to people who pseudonymously agree to write a short description of the photo in exchange for a few cents.

| |  Corner of a wood floored   | |
| |   room with a tool chest,   | |
| |  bike, stack of books, box  | |
| |  leaning against the wall,  | |
| |   an open door with a bag   | |
| |  hanging off the doorknob,  | |
| |     and a pair of closed    | |
| |  double doors with cables   | |
| |   hanging on the handles.   | |
| ------------------------------- |
|                                 |
|                                 |

Poetic Camera

But what if instead of these prosaic descriptions, you had poets writing responses on Mechanical Turk?

How fun would it be to gather some critical theorists, some real wordsmiths deep in the aesthetics of description, to sit on the other end of a Turk request.

They would pen beautiful, imaginative texts describing broom closets and discarded toolboxes.

What would it look like to have all these high-brow writers churned through a “dehumanizing” platform such as Mechanical Turk? A service of menial tasks that are cheaper for humans to do instead of machines.

What role would poetry play, and what would the words look like being printed out of that camera, conveying the sense of a human being on the other end, communicating with you.

| | To ponder workmanships      | |
| | In crayon or in wool,       | |
| | With “This was last         | |
| | her fingers did,”           | |
| | Industrious until           | |
| | The thimble weighed heavy,  | |
| | The stitches stopped,       | |
| | And was put among the dust  | |
| | Upon the closet shelves.    | |
| ------------------------------- |
|                                 |
|                                 |

Images: “Descriptive Camera” by Matt Richardson

Filter Failure

Clay Shirky suggests that there’s no such thing as information overload, only filter failure. This is a very modern response to an older question. Futurist Alvin Toffler warned us about information overload, popularizing the phrase. It’s an extension of the idea of sensory overload, the idea that too much input could overwhelm and paralyze you. This is based on the faulty assumption that brains are information processing machines, and that we can overwhelm and crash them. …

Knowledge is too big, messy and wildly unsettled, just like the internet. “For every fact on the internet, there is an equal and opposite fact.” David [Weinberger] warns that there is nothing we all agree on – you can find someone willing to argue that 2+2 is not 4 (and, indeed, a quick Google search shows this to be true.) We don’t agree about anything, and David warns, we never will. “This doesn’t mean there are no facts – but it does mean that people are going to insist on being wrong.”

“Networked knowledge may or may not be truer about the world, but is is truer about knowing… This crazy approach to knowledge feels familiar to us, because it’s how we tend to know.” [Weinberger] closes with an observation that’s both hopeful and unsettling: “What we have in common is a shared world about which we disagree, not a common knowledge we share and can collectively come to.”

— snippets from Ethan Zuckerman’s heroic liveblogging during the book launch of Too Big to Know by David Weinberger.

Internet Studies‽

As a lover of the interwebs and someone who’s followed the research from the likes of AOIR and the Berkman Center for Internet and Society (see Tim Hwang’s great piece on the Berkman school of thought),  a recent discussion about the merits of “internet studies” is quite provoking:

Maybe we should stop talking about “information and communication technologies” or “the Internet” or “new and social media” as a single constellation of technologies that have key characteristics in common (distinctively participatory, or distinctively intrusive, for example), and that are sufficiently different from other parts of the world that they need to be talked about separately. The Internet is still pretty new, so we tend to look at it as a definable thing, but digital technologies have now become so multifaceted and so enmeshed in other facets of our lives that such a broad brush obscures more than it reveals. — Tom Slee, Blogs and Bullets: Breaking Down Social Media

And Henry Farrell’s reply:

Instead of wanting to study ‘the Internet’ or ‘Facebook’ or whatever, we should investigate the possible existence or relative strength of various posited mechanisms which causally connect certain situations with certain kinds of interesting outcomes. Most technologies will potentially bundle a number of these mechanisms together – hence, the need to try to disentangle these mechanisms as much as is possible in specific instances. Instead of asking ‘does Facebook help protests in authoritarian regimes?,’ one would ask questions such as ‘does social influence from peers make individuals more likely to participate in demonstrations?,’ ‘does widely spread information about protester deaths make individuals more or less likely to participate?,’ ‘does government-provided information make citizens less likely to participate in anti-regime protests?’ and so on.

This is a helpful lens through which we can better focus on what we mean by “the web” and why it matters.  We tried to tackle some of these definitional challenges in An Open Web, outlining key “battlefields” which describe what’s at stake in terms of mechanisms (i.e. specific user freedoms and actions, rather than just threats to “the web” as such).

The above posts are timely reminders about the tendency to speak broadly about the internet as an umbrella term for the particular mechanisms, some of which are internet-dependent while others are only augmented or manifested online. This specificity is a hard discipline to enforce—I’m often too flippant or lazy to make clear distinctions, and moreover I assume that the audience picks up on my shorthand when I talked generally about the web.

But let’s strive be more specific about the mechanisms that are truly in play. This will not only make it easier for more people to understand why the web matters, in its many facets, but also inform a more nuanced discussion about how to accelerate meaningful initiatives and demarcate the real battlefields, which are immediate and important.

On Books

At this point the best thing the web and the book could do for one another would be to admit their essential difference. This would allow the web to develop as it wishes with a clear conscience, and for literature to do what it’s always done in periods of crisis: keep its eyes and ears open, take notes, and bide its time.

From a thoughtful essay on Internet as Social Movement in the magazine n + 1, apart from the author equating the book to literature, which is like saying newspapers are the necessary manifestation of journalism. Nevertheless, the overall sentiment is reassuring.