During a cold week in December of 2014, a group of cyberfeminist researchers, composed of artists, engineers, hackers, writers, and theorists, huddled together in a studio at Carnegie Mellon University for a weeklong residency. The group, dubbed “Deep Lab”, aimed to develop new works around themes of particular interest to women in digital culture, including privacy, anonymity, security, and big data aggregation.
“I set out to find the smartest people I knew and put us all in a room to start a movement, knowing that we’d be more effective as a group than as individuals,” explains Deep Lab founder Addie Wagenknecht. “I realized that to change a course, you’d likely also have to change the people who were representing and doing that work. Futures do not change when history is repeated.”
The name Deep Lab is a nod to the Deep Web, the mysterious, hidden portion of the internet beyond the reach of standard search engines, and estimated to be many orders of magnitude greater in size. The Deep Web is often compared to the enormous submerged mass of an iceberg, lurking beneath the tiny visible tip of the Surface Web.
Modeled after a mini-conference or hackathon, the Deep Lab collaboration proved remarkably prolific, producing a 240-page book, lecture series, and an 18-minute documentary film which premiered recently on Motherboard.
Topical Cream Magazine spoke with Addie Wagenknecht, as well as artist and activist Maddy Varner, software developer Harlo Holmes, and curator Lindsay Howard.
Topical Cream: The documentary starts with the line “Something about the internet isn’t working”, and goes on to cite corporate dominance, data mining, government surveillance, and the male-dominated tech field. The book is introduced with the idea that “the web is largely void of a female presence”. How are these related, and will increasing female presence affect these other problems?
Maddy: Women are on the Internet, but their voices are so often dismissed and minimized. Just look at how Shanley Kane, who’s the CEO/Editor of Model View Culture, constantly has her position reduced to “activist” or “performance artist” when Silicon Valley-centric media outlets report on her. I think in a lot of ways the tech field is nervous to take a critical look at itself and its history.
I go to one of the US’s top schools for computer science. There is maybe one guy in the Robotics department that doesn’t take government (military) funding. There’s no required course dedicated solely to the history of computing; there’s no ethics in computing course required. If we expect these students to become our country’s top defense researchers, or the founders or employees of the biggest social infrastructures, we’re setting ourselves up for the sorts of ethical issues we’re experiencing by not forcing them to sit down and think critically about the skills they’re learning.
Marginalized people are some of the most affected by unwanted corporate, academic and government surveillance. I don’t think every woman should have to put herself out there to critique these invasive injustices, nor do I think anyone else who is marginalized should have to take the role of teacher. But when we unite our voices and speak loud enough we can collectively take on these injustices and force these institutions to listen and change.
Topical Cream: Violations of privacy on the Internet have different ramifications for women versus men, from the mass dissemination of private iPhone photos of women celebrities to violent threats against activist women on Twitter. What has to happen to make companies understand privacy from a woman’s perspective?
Addie: Big businesses have no interest in making privacy easy, whether for a woman or anyone else. A person’s value is a measure of corporate metrics. Our data is their dollars. They have no reason to change until we divorce them, and seek alternatives.
Topical Cream: The gender gap in STEM degrees is finally being recognized as a serious issue by universities and companies alike. Is reaching gender parity in Computer Science and Engineering degrees on its own enough to move us towards a more woman friendly Internet, or is there a larger issue at hand?
Addie: A lot of computing pioneers, the people who programmed or developed the first computers, code or systems were women. And for decades, the number of women studying computer science was equal to or higher than men who studied it. It wasn’t until the 1980s, when it shifted and the percentage of women in computer science began to decline to where we are today. The theory is that it had to do mostly with the early personal computers marketing being directed at boys and men. This is also true of the early game consoles. Parents were more likely to buy boys computers than girls. In the 80s, the notion that computers were for boys became a social narrative; it became part of pop culture. In the 90s, the boy was always the “hacker” in the movie, games were marketed for boys, it became a culture of men. It became a story we bought and believed. It was Bill Gates, not Ada Lovelace, who became the definition of computer history. The market saw dollars, and the misconceptions became a billion dollar industry. This shift defined to the world what a geek looked like, who belonged there, and it created a bro-tech niche around gaming and computers that hadn’t been there previously. It’s these structural inequalities that formed restricted access to education and patronage, that have precluded women’s full participation and autonomy that we are witnessing today.
Harlo: Take Facebook’s FWD.us campaign, a lobbying effort to expand the number of H-1B visas the US can offer. I have no problem with increasing the number of visas, but it’s sad that this is the answer to what Facebook, and a lot of companies, call the “talent shortage” in our country. If young women are encouraged to complete their degrees, go on to grad school, and most importantly, given greater access to the job-placement pipeline when they graduate, then everyone benefits, not just women. Our native workforce is increased, our workplace culture changes to be more inclusive, and in an ideal world, these products get better. I realize this can be read as quite Pollyanna-ish, but why not try?
Topical Cream: What would be the characteristics of a woman friendly internet?
Maddy: A woman-friendly Internet is one that embraces everyone. I think in some ways the old cyber-feminists’ ideals of a genderless/raceless/___-less space are problematic and reductive. We have radically different experiences and too often when people idealize a world without things like racism and sexism separating us they disregard the fact that these forms of institutional oppression affect us and shape who we are as people. There are currently places on the Internet where we can have conversations about our experiences and examine the intersections between them, but I wish there was more of that. I wish there was less hostility from those who have institutional power, and more respect and support between everyone.
Topical Cream: Women are powerful as consumers on the web, if not in other ways. Is it possible to leverage that power?
Harlo: I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. I’ve been hearing little bits of info here and there about a number of women-lead, women-focused ventures in wearables, and I’m really excited. Naturally, wearables, smart watches, IoT stuff is just about to catch its big wave; we’re ~this~ close to the tipping point. So, on one side of the spectrum, we have the big players like Google, Nike, Jawbone, Fitbit; on the other side we have the maker movement; and somewhere in the middle, we have the fashion industry and design (i.e. Opening Ceremony x IBM). From my view of the NYC scene alone: the design industry, groups like Eyebeam, Rhizome, New INC, and makers from schools like ITP at NYU, New School, Parsons, and SVA, are going to be leading this revolution. There’s a lot more gender parity here, and introspection on the technology from a more leftist and humanist point of view. I think this movement will take off, and the products and practices that come out of it will move the market. I kind of hope to join them!
This is important because the laws (technical/algorithmic and political) around wearables and IoT will be crafted by those with a seat at the table. It’s kind of alarming, but search for “fitbit subpoena” online and you’ll get the idea. We need people at the table writing APIs, specs, and user design that counters the pull from the folks on the other side of the spectrum.
Topical Cream: Deep Lab proposes subverting power with technology? What are the tactics? How did you decide upon them?
Maddy: When people create new technologies as a form of institutional critique, it can often mimic what the government or corporations are already doing to us, but on a more transparent level. That only serves to propagate these forms of surveillance, especially when it’s done non-consensually and with the intent of instilling fear. People already have enough problems they face in their daily lives because of institutions, they don’t really need to be shown that what’s happening to them is more fucked up than they thought.
Because of this we try to create software that addresses our needs and the needs of people who are in similar situations––like Harlo’s project to counter being harassed online, which is too often an issue with people who are critical and loud. We’re defensive, and we try to make things that present solutions to actual problems, as opposed to simply pointing those problems out. We’re also very careful about being explicit about what our tech does, and how safe it is for people to use––the reliability of security software is so, so important and usually needs extensive peer review for it too be deemed up to standard.
Topical Cream: The book and movie often refer to data and technology as weapons, and call for women hackers to be “ninja, not geisha.” How do you “become more dangerous” as you propose?
Addie: I keep saying that we’re in a time of information warfare, but I’m not sure we can call it war – yet. When a person attacks a person, it’s a crime. When a country attacks itself, its own citizens, it’s called a civil war – even if it’s asymmetrical. When an individual retaliates, it’s dubbed terrorism. So, when the government calls someone a hacker, the assumption is that the individual’s motives could only be destructive. It’s assumed that there’s no legitimate political, moral or just argument and concern.
The most important way a woman, or anyone, can become dangerous is to become educated. Learn to code with Code Liberation. Learn about how to hack hardware with Adafruit tutorials. Reach out to other women in the field. Ask questions. Break things in order to understand how they’re made. Don’t rely on ‘read only’ platforms – make yourself ineditable. Attend hacker conferences. Encrypt your hard drive, emails, and use secure chat channels. Share your knowledge with others and remove the taboos.
Topical Cream: On the flip side, you also propose creating spaces of sanctuary, refuge. Are the problems with the internet structural? Do we need female owned and operated data centers?
Harlo: HELL YES. ABSOLUTELY. Not for the sake of female ownership, but because every group, who fights any fight, should be given the tools to maintain, store, and proffer their own data. And also, in this political climate, data often espouses the ideologies of their owner(s). Take groups like Riseup or Greenhost – they exercise data-ownership as a political act. We all should.
Do we need a deep web safe space? What would that look like?
Harlo: Socially speaking, I associate safe spaces with “watering holes”, which can be anywhere: a forum you frequent, a mailing list you engage with via your email inbox, Twitter, the comments section of your favorite show on hulu.com. I don’t think “deep web safe spaces” need to be created in code (i.e. let’s make a website!) but they need to be created in dialog across a multitude of platforms. Thank you, Topical Cream, for helping us do this
Maddy: I agree with Harlo so, so much. It’s definitely about finding social spaces, be they run by third parties or yourself, where you feel comfortable to engage with others and there’s a community of mutual respect and trust.
Topical Cream: An essay in the book states, “In the shadows, in anonymity, there is power.” Is it possible to be hackers if you’re not anonymous? Many of your members also work in media or institutional settings. How to do you balance the desire to remain anonymous with the desire to promote your work?
Harlo: This is a very interesting question. I’ve never considered myself a “hacker”, never self-identified as such, mostly because the term has a connotation and framing so eloquently described by Addie in a previous question. I’m a researcher. I perform experiments in software to prod the contours of social and political structures. I don’t do this to commit malice; I do this to answer what a lot of people in the world think are important questions. So, as a researcher, you’re not supposed to be anonymous. (And let’s not for a moment forget that forsaking anonymity does not equal forsaking one’s privacy. That is a human right.) I want to contribute; and my contributions should be attributed. It’s a shame the term “hacker” has such a controversial connotation, because it’s a fun term to wield.
“In the shadows, in anonymity, there is power.” I guess, but more accurately: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feminist_Theory:_From_Margin_to_Center
Topical Cream: What is the legacy of cyber feminism? The original cyber feminists saw technology as a way of breaking down sex and gender divisions, a tool of feminist liberation, but the internet didn’t fulfill that promise. What can we learn from them and their experiences? Their language was quite radical, referring to sabotage, infiltration, disruption, and the “future cunt”. Is it still possible to be that radical?
Harlo: I don’t actually believe sabotage is a useful act on the Internet, and generally dislike any project whose main aim is sabotage. The Internet is a commons and yields infinitely, so why would you want to do that? I’m a conservationist But that other stuff, yes, absolutely (again). It’s not like we aren’t already: we’re not waxing on how we’d like to start infiltrating and disrupting with the hopes that someday we’ll eventually do it. We’re doing this already.
Addie: We’re not descending into chaos, but into complexity. The Internet connects everything around us, and we’re uncovering infinite amounts of complexity by examining its infrastructure and rules as they are leaked, thanks to people like Snowden and Manning. We’re also finding ways to subvert and change how things are versioned or controlled. In that regard, Pirate Bay is a genius work of art as a decentralized method of sharing. Decentralized networks are pretty much impossible to surveil. So, in that regard, radicalism has shifted from being loud and outspoken, to a more poetic subversion – in ways they cannot detect until it’s been hashed and seeded beyond a point they can ever control or delete.
Topical Cream: What’s Deep Lab’s future?
Lindsay: Deep Lab started with the idea that creating a supportive environment for female experts in the fields of privacy, security, surveillance, and anonymity, would strengthen both our personal and community missions. We’ve certainly had that experience, and are continuing to develop new projects and research. We’re also laying the groundwork for satellite groups and events worldwide. Deep Lab doesn’t have an expiration date; we’re going to be advocates for the visibility of women and other marginalized groups for a very long time.
DEEP LAB MEMBERS:
Addie Wagenknecht (artist, director Deep Lab)
Allison Burtch (researcher, artist, activist)
Claire L. Evans (musician; writer, Futures Editor of Motherboard/Vice Magazine)
Denise Caruso (journalist; senior research scholar, CMU EPP)
Harlo Holmes (software developer, director of metadata for the Guardian Project)
Ingrid Burrington (independent researcher, artist)
Kate Crawford (principal researcher, Microsoft Research; visiting professor, MIT)
Jen Lowe (data scientist, researcher, writer)
Jillian C. York (director for international freedom of expression, EFF)
Lindsay Howard (independent curator)
Lorrie Cranor (director of the CyLab Usable Privacy and Security [CUPS] Laboratory, CMU)
Maddy Varner(artist, activist; undergraduate student, CMU School of Art)
Maral Pourkazemi (visualization designer, artist)
Runa Sandvik (privacy and security researcher, Tor Project)
Julia Kaganskiy (director, NEW Inc, New Museum)