Category Archives: information freedom

Keeping the ball rolling: In memory of Özgür Uçkan and Caspar Bowden

It is hard to keep floating when two people who have inspired you in life pass away within days from each other. I owe it to these two troublemakers to thank them for their great work and for the paths that they have opened to many of us.

Today the news came that we lost Özgür Uçkan. Özgür was a digital rights activist, as well as a professor, philosopher, artist, economist, and one of the founding members of Alternatif Bilisim, an association based in Turkey working on digital rights and freedoms. I have had the fortune of meeting a number of polymaths in my life, but few of them sustain an equal passion for working with people, as they do for their intellectual endeavors like Özgür did. The picture below from an anti-censorhip protest in Istanbul that Ismail Hakki Polat used in his eulogy says it all.

Ozgur Uckan Sansure Karsi

Özgür, in the brown t-shirt, is standing tall and proud, and most probably having some good fun at the front-line. Most importantly, he is surrounded by peers and some of the many young people he inspired, many of whom continue to be part of the struggle for digital rights and freedoms in Turkey. Within a year from the time that picture was taken, the same networks would organize large protests that would come to attract 60.000 people in over 30 cities within and outside of Turkey. People have argued that these series of actions were some of the stepping stones that led to the Gezi Park protests. After all, ruptures like Gezi are often the product of widely felt frustration as well as the accumulation of years of organizing. From where I stand, Özgür Uçkan belonged to the group of people who understand what it takes to create a collective vision, and then to organize and mobilize people around it. He worked relentlessly to capture the spirit of our times, to resist infringements upon our fundamental freedoms, and to do so in a way that inspired action and change.

There is another detail in that same picture which will bring me to Caspar Bowden, the other person who passed away this week. Next to Özgür Uçkan stands Yaman Akdeniz, yet another important academic, activist, and free-speech advocate. Caspar Bowden was the first person to mention Yaman’s name and work to me. Yaman Akdeniz and Caspar Bowden went way back. Here is a chapter in a book the two wrote together titled “Cryptography and Democracy: Dilemmas for Freedom” in 1999. The piece was written during Caspar’s time at the Foundation for Information Policy Research. While Yaman Akdeniz moved onto fighting government censorship as his prime area of activity, Caspar Bowden switched to Microsoft where he would later become the Chief Privacy Adviser. I met him during this time and was surprised by his commitment to promoting Privacy Enhancing Technologies given the title he was holding. Throughout the years, I witnessed how he leveraged all the powers and connections he had to push forward technical architectures and designs that would serve to protect privacy. He would encourage those of us working on such systems to continue our line of work, while also pulling us into rooms with policy makers and parliamentarians so that we could demonstrate the powers of encryption and distributed computation in the service of protecting privacy. When he parted paths with Microsoft and returned to his advocacy work, I saw him at first struggle with the legacy of his association with the company. But this being Caspar, he just held on to his grounds and pushed every channel possible to make it known to the public what Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA and GCHQ surveillance programs would eventually confirm.

Today, the loss of Özgür Uçkan and Caspar Bowden feels like two hard punches. Tomorrow, I can imagine gaining courage from the many inspiring memories we have of them and to dream futures informed by the principles they held true. As one wise community activist from NYC once said, “they rolled the ball over to us, it is now our turn to keep it rolling”.

For a collection of videos of interventions by and about Özgür Uçkan see Erkan Saka’s compilation.

For a sweet farewell to Caspar Bowden, see Malavika Jayaram’s post.

And, here is a video of Caspar’s talk at 31C3 which will allow you to enjoy his talk _and_ his infamous slides.

summer 2014: “thinking together” in times of mediated politics and politicized technologies

How can we live together? This is the very simple and fun (if not challenging) question that the participants of the Osthang Architecture Summer School will be asking this Summer in Darmstadt, Germany. The program will come to a closure with a nine day(!) public forum titled “thinking together” curated by Berno Odo Polzer. As Berno writes:

“«Thinking Together» is focused on rethinking future modes of living together in a pluricentric world, so it is a transdisciplinary platform for political imagination: ‘political’ because it is concerned with the way in which we organize the spaces, practices and lives that we share, locally as well as globally – ‘imagination’ because it is aimed at forming new ideas and imaginaries about how to do so.”

As part of “thinking together”, Femke Snelting, Miriyam Aouragh and myself will be organizing an afternoon with the title “Let’s First Get Things Done!”. In other words, how we can resist the divisions of labor between “activists” and “techies” that occur in those sneaky moments of moving forward?

Our experience is that the politics, values and practices of those activists heavily using networked technology for their struggles, and of techno-activists who struggle for progressive and alternative technologies do not always concur. Loyal to the utopia of a globally functioning interwebs, techno-activists usually organize around universal values: information must be “free”, secure, “privacy-preserving”, accessible, etc. In comparison, those who bring their political struggles to the interwebs may express political differences across a broader spectrum, situated in local and/or global contexts. Furthermore, “pragmatic decisions” due to time pressure and lack of resources often mean that these struggles integrate themselves into proprietary and conservative technical infrastructures. In the process, many organizational matters are delegated to techies or to technological platforms. Imagining our futures together, we may want to radically reconfigure these divisions of labor. But how? Where do we start? Well, it seems we will start in Darmstadt.

But, we are not the only ones asking these questions. This June members of some of the most successful alternative projects met at Backbone 409 in Calafou with the objective “to build infrastructures for a free Internet from an anti-capitalist point of view: autonomous servers, open networks, online services, platforms, open hardware, free software, etc.” . I am looking forward to hearing back from that meeting.

In August, Interference will take place in Amsterdam and also raise similar questions with respect to the politics of technology and infrastructures of politics. The organizers write:

“Interference is not a hacker conference. From a threat to the so-called national security, hacking has become an instrument for reinforcing the status quo. Fed up with yet another recuperation, the aim is to re/contextualize hacking as a conflictual praxis and release it from its technofetishist boundaries. Bypassing the cultural filters, Interference wants to take the technical expertise of the hacking scene out of its isolation to place it within the broader perspective of the societal structures it shapes and is part of.”

And surely, these discussions will show up at the TransHackFeminist Camp organized in collaboration with Calafou and the eclectic tech carnival people, and also at HOPE. It also seems that the topic has found interest among academics. See the call for papers for the next issue of the FibreCulture Journal titled: “Entanglements: activism and technology”.

Thanks to all these events, this will be a summer of collaboration and labor. I cannot wait to see what thoughts and actions we return with for the Autumn.

Let’s first get things done: on division of labor and practices of delegation in times of mediated politics and politicized technologies

4th of August, 2014
Osthang, Darmstadt, Germany

Be it in getting out the call for the next demonstration on some “cloud service”, or developing a progressive tech project in the name of an imagined user community, scarcity of resources and distribution of expertise makes short cuts inevitable. But do they really?

The current distance between those who organise their activism to develop “technical infrastructures” and those who bring their struggles to these infrastructures is remarkable. The paradoxical consequences can be baffling: (radical) activists organize and sustain themselves using “free” technical services provided by Fortune 500 companies. At the same time, “alternative tech practices”, like the Free Software Community, are sustained by a select (visionary and male) few, proposing crypto with 9-lives as the minimum infrastructure for any political undertaking.

The naturalization of this division of labor may be recognized in statements about activists having better things to do than to tinker with code or hardware, or in technological projects that locate their politics solely in the technology and infrastructures as if they are outside of the social and political domain. What may seem like a pragmatic solution actually re-iterates faultlines of race, gender, age and class. Through the convenient delegation of “tech matters” to the techies or to commercial services, collectives may experience a shift in the collective’s priorities and a reframing of their activist culture through technological decisions. The latter, however, are typically not open to a broader political discussion and contestation. Such separation also gets in the way of actively considering the way in which changes in our political realities are entangled with shifts in technological infrastructures.

We want to use this day to resist the reflex of “first getting things done” in order to start a long term collaboration that intersects those of us with a background in politics of society and politics of technology.