AlgoMech Panel on Distributed Culture, 29th February 2020

A thread to collect responses to and host discussion around the AlgoMech panel on Distributed Culture, taking place 29th February 2020.

Some topics we could cover (work in progress):

  • Signpost some of the previous online / distributed events
  • Explore alternative approaches to ‘traditional’ festivals and conferences - hub-based, online
  • Online and networked/distributed performance
  • Intimacy and boundaries online
  • Explore the many dimensions of accessibility, e.g.:
    • temporality (how to deal with timezones, etc)
    • disability
    • language - transcription, translation (automatic and by hand)
    • gender - how can discussion really welcome all?
  • Low-carbon servers - how green can video streaming get?

Hello! Amber here, from FoAM Kernow in the UK. Really brilliant talks and great to try this approach out - it feels like a different culture/intellectual experience could be emerging. It is particularly interesting that these systems/approaches are allowing a new micropolitical internationalism against growing nationalism elsewhere.

Relating to Julian’s and Marta’s talks:

Just before listening to the talks we were running a regular community climate group event in rural Cornwall in the UK - one of the things we spent some time on was trying to explain why the group should sign up to a mailing list, and to offer help for those who were having difficulties signing up. It is a very standard basic mailing list, but even this causes difficulties in an older group in a region with remarkably low digital literacy. The realities of older generations using e.g. mastodon or jitsi are questionable (partly simply because they are not familiar, so fear sets in), and I’m a bit concerned about a situation where groups are split just by technology. We already routinely come under fire from this climate group because they think only older people are doing anything - simply because they can not see what the younger people are doing or where/how they are communicating, and they don’t tend to want to go to meetings in cold drab community halls on their weekend. So - my question is how we get to a situation where this stuff works for rural areas and older populations and doesn’t result in communication rifts - at the moment, understandably, it’s possibly only really working for younger people, those who are relatively on top of how the world has changed, or those based in cities. Possibly there are some insights from Marta or Julian or others?

Related to this, and a step further - I’d be interested in whether anyone has any simple tried/tested ways to get people (who are not used to this type of discussion) to a position where they understand the need for better/encrypted systems, so that we can get more people using them, to protect those who really need it (e.g. to protect those trying to arrange abortions where it is illegal).

Relating to Richard’s talk:

For all the people concerned about how their conference experience is diminished by the semi-virtual approach, there will be a load of people for whom it is improved – I’m particularly thinking of people who have social anxieties, chronic illnesses, disabilities, or just personality types who do better online. Standard conferences can be horrible for most of these groups, and the standard design sometimes feels like a gatekeeping exercise (designed by certain types of people, for their own type of people). So just an additional level of social justice reasoning to back up the need for these newer more interesting approaches that Richard and others are brilliantly pursuing.

Thanks all - I’ll check back in at some point, and look forward to reading the discussion!


Just jumping in to link to the stream archive:
In terms of the stream itself, we had some glitches:

  • lack of translation - but we’ll get together transcripts and look at translating them, or at least making them available for automatic translation
  • the panellists couldn’t hear my microphone for the majority of the stream, although youtube-watchers could.
  • some technical glitches meant that the final network performance didn’t work out, but we’ll arrange another one in the next day or two!

But still, the talks were excellent, thanks to everyone for holding it together and making it a great event!

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Thanks very much for your reflections @AmberGriffiths!

I agree mailing lists are difficult - you’re just sending text to each other and to work properly you have to have a sense of ‘netiquette’ for it to work as a social interface. I remember reading this document when I first found the internet in the 90s (and started running bulletin boards): - well that’s not a perfect document, but I think demonstrates that involving people in social technology (like a mailing list) is more than learning technology but learning a new mode for interacting with people. Facebook manages who you interact with and how, and maybe people find that easy/comforting… But it’s also deeply worrying!

Communication rifts are a real issue I agree, also with different kinds of people clustering around different services and not interacting between them. I really enjoyed Julian’s answer to my question where he talked about ‘presence privilege’ too, where people who are able to reply first ‘keep the microphone’. The live chat system in the live coding community often end up feeling like a very male space, which is probably related to this…

and yes changing the way we run conferences and other events so people don’t have to travel is a huge opportunity for making them more accessible. The people who are currently able to travel and participate shouldn’t have the loudest voice!

Will post some more thoughts tomorrow…

Hi Alex, that document on BB netiquette that you posted brought back a lot of memories … ASCII plain text screens :slightly_smiling_face: … lovely! I still have some artworks done in response to calls from events put on in those halcyon, far-off days!

All my contact with this ‘old style’ CMC (Computer Mediated Communication) was from an education-based perspective based at the UK Open University … all of the issues that you mentioned: getting people to take part, accessibility, strident voices etc were part and parcel of the way the university was delivering it’s courses. I find it rather sad that we don’t seem to have learned any lessons over the last 20+ years, that we haven’t developed any off-the-shelf systems that could afford a trouble-free event linking countries with musical interludes like DISTCULT: AlgoMech Panel on Distributed Culture promised to be. To make the environmental savings that one of the speakers spoke of (less air travel) don’t we need to embrace some of the technological affordencies offered by, for example, Microsoft Teams?

Having said that, I understand the concerns for security and privacy that the first speaker alluded to … :frowning:

Looking forward to hearing the rescheduled musical event sometime :slightly_smiling_face:

We’re not even at the stage of using the mailing list, it’s just signing up that the group is struggling with (put your email address in this box, receive an email, click on the link in the email, confirm - just like the toplap forum registration system). The barriers are so low, but still problematic - we’ve gone from a group of ~45 to ~13 just by trying to switch from regular emails to a mailing list, so we’re losing voices even with this level of technology use. There likely isn’t any easy all-encompassing answer but it’s worth thinking about those who will likely never be included when we’re here discussing relatively sophisticated systems for remote/realtime communications/events.

Yes true. A while back I went to a local digital inclusion event with certain ideas about what I could contribute, but everyone was mostly only worried about the roll out of ‘universal credit’ in Sheffield, i.e. giving people the skills and access to technology necessary so they could continue receiving benefits and not starve…

It’s definitely worth being honest about who can really engage online and lower barriers where possible. E.g. is a free event really accessible to all if you have to go through an eventbrite signup process? Then again there are plenty of poorer and older people able to use the internet and rich young people unable to do anything… So maybe we should get too distracted by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. :wink:

Thanks for putting this discussion together everyone.

As someone who works for an all-remote company all the time, one of the things I noticed watching these talks is how much I have learned from the way we do things every day. There are small things that I would love to see in future iterations: vocalizing questions if the person asking them cannot; keeping notes and questions in a separate document that anyone watching can toggle between; keeping faces in gallery view instead of “person speaking is one giant face” view; and having everyone in a room be on their own machine.

Even with all that, though, I still really struggle with the idea that distributed conferences are anything other than a slightly wilted substitute for the real thing. As I said, I work remotely with folks every day and while I have reasonably strong relationships with them, the company still gets together once a year or so to really cement ties in a way that seems only possible in person. You can build a decent amount of closeness with informal video calls and shared goals, but I still feel closer to people I’ve seen once a year at ICLC than I do to some coworkers I see on the phone every day, just for the power of informal presence.

For someone who doesn’t have children, or drive, who lives in energy-efficient apartments, who makes other lower-carbon choices, I feel as though being able to prioritize real-time relationships with my carbon expenditure is a valid choice.

I also have concerns over the way distributed conferences seem to privilege the European experience. In many communities the European members already have large amounts of power and privilege. As was mentioned, most attendees outside Europe even with hubs are going to have to fly to the hub. But then, when they get there, it is half the people, and maybe not the half with the most effect on the community.

To try to end this long complaint on a positive note, I would love to see more investigation of other options that don’t overlook the value of presence-based relationships. Maybe that’s longer exchanges over shorter conferences. Maybe it’s looking at conference location to reduce flight distance, but keeping it in one location. Maybe it’s alternating types of conference. Maybe it is considering formats that suffer less by diverging more: say weekly streams. Maybe it’s burning down the internet entirely and only communicating via postal text. :smiley:

But thank you again everyone for your presentations. They were super interesting.

I watched the Youtube recording of the talk on the panel. In each talk, the issues and the structure of the topics were clear, and I was inspired a lot. The privacy of online communication, the issues of feminism and minority, and the openness of academism were seemed to be closely related each other.

When I heard the talk, I remembered the text of viznat’s “We need a Pan-Hacker movement”.

Three mottos in this text:

  • everyone can be a hacker,
  • everything can be hacked,
  • all hackers together,

were still important. Where hacker = indeterminate.

Online communication has suddenly become important because of the new coronavirus. In Japan, elementary, junior high and high schools have been closed from today. Many people try to start online co-learning (not MOOCs).

Thanks Sarah, I think these thoughts really underline that it’s important to discuss these issues. I hadn’t thought about the privilege of the European experience, where a lot of relatively small and rich countries are clustered together. It’s super easy for me to jump on the train to Paris or boat to Rotterdam, and it’s actually difficult for me to think about things from people who live in more remote places, or countries that operate on much larger scales.

I think it is important not to focus on individual action of consumer choice. If one person chooses to take longer to travel by a more expensive route that’s great, but they can only do that because they can afford the money and the extra time away from home. This is about clean conscience as a luxury for the privileged, and is not the answer.

I agree that face-to-face meetings have certain qualities, and systems that try to replicate them perhaps miss the point. If people who live in different countries stopped meeting each other completely then that would be a dark future. However I’m personally interested in exploring new cultural events that are sustainable at scale, accessible to people who can’t travel (which I think is most people, even without considering COVID-19), and do things that face-to-face meetings can’t.

Thank you for linking to this great text @hemokosa ! It reminds me also of the critical engineering manifesto, written by one of our speakers Julian Oliver:

My thoughts are with you and others during the COVID-19 outbreak, it is having impacts in Europe now too.

Interesting that you separate online co-learning from MOOCs. I’ve seen MOOCs jokingly being referred to as VLRCs - Very Low teacher/student Ratio Courses :slight_smile:

Hello everyone!
Thanks for organising this. I think it’s very important and relevant for the near future of cultural events such as conferences, gigs and others.
I would tend to think it is necessary to get a major development and sharing of both, the topics and concrete tools to run this online connections, I mean software and skills to use them.
I’ll be back on the discussion soon!
Alejandro Albornoz

Thanks to the panelists Julian, Marta, and Richard, to Iris and Alex for making this initiative happen, and to those who have given responses already here in this forum! There are so many directions I could go in, in responding - for the sake of time and focus, I think I will try to stay mostly around the distributed conference idea, for which this panel represents a productive experiment and consciousness-raising exercise.

@Simon_Rae points above to the, perhaps “surprising”, lack of off-the-shelf systems for distributing conferences. I think this observation is connected also with Julian’s detailed list of alternative platform choices necessary for the safety of Extinction Rebellion and its members - the “obvious” platforms are just not that oriented to uses beyond media consumption and routine administrative functions (paying bills, taxes, letting big brother know what we are up to, etc). For activism, the “security” issues of the platforms are perhaps the primary concern, while for the academic and/or artistic conference, the nature of the “intimacies” offered by the platform is more likely to be the stumbling block. Although at some level intimacy and security are not distinct issues - “who gets to be where and how in relation to where others are?”.

Why are our (mainstream) platforms so good for watching things and checking in with the state? Perhaps because there is so much embodied labour in them, not only in the code that makes the platforms run on the servers, but also in the “code” that makes the platforms run on the users (ie. the users’ expectations and behaviours when faced with the platform). Going off the beaten track here means having to reinvent a lot of things, including bodily practices, expectations of behaviour, expectations about how things get inscribed and given cultural value, etc. Because having to reinvent so much all at once is potentially an unbearable cost, organizers end up making all kinds of compromises, repurposing platforms, practices, and then kind of “incrementally” moving towards new forms of dialogue.

The “traditional” conference serves lots of different functions and involves (at different moments) distinct intimacies (listening together to a speaker or musician in the unified acoustics of an “auditorium” - chatting with people in crowded rooms over coffee - seeing who people are and what they are like in person, etc etc etc). Some of these are at best awkward and at worst just plain meaningless in the online space, and this makes me think about the possibilities of thinking of online distributed conferences not as a chance to replace the functionality of the “traditional” conference but rather as an opportunity to conduct “medium-scale” experiments in proposing new forms of online intimacy and exchange. (“Medium-scale” here means not needing to be generalizable over populations, but big enough that people participating don’t really enjoy relationships with each other outside of the framework of the experiment.)

Going back to Julian’s comment/slide “When openness is enforced, it excludes” and redirecting it towards the distributed artistic/academic conference - lots of academic conferences are actively negotiating tensions around this these days. On the one hand, there is a tendency to valorize livestreaming, complete archiving, etc as measures that give more access to what happens at the conference. On the other hand there are serious concerns about types of conversations, including but not limited to more politically sensitive conversations, that might be shut down if “everything” has to be assumed to occur on a global stage. For this reason also, I think it is useful to approach the distribution of conferences not as an exercise in the revolutionary replacement of one model (the non-distributed one) with a new one (the distributed one) but rather as a proliferation of new forms of encounter, some of which might be labelled “conferences” while others maybe need new labels.

Anyway, there are some quick thoughts. Looking forward to following the rest of the conversation,

PS - I think massively multi-player online games are interesting counter-examples to my excessively dour view of what people do with the Internet, above.

PPS - my repeated use of the word “intimacies” above is inflected by my recent reading of Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s book Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media, which we have been reading cover to cover as part of the software studies reading group here at McMaster. Definitely recommend this book to others thinking about the structuring of online life!

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I would say that a big issue limiting the expansion of open software culture and hacker culture is not the complexities involved in the implementation of a system vs the easy way of commercial technologies, but the lack of good teaching practices and learning information. I just comment this based on the opinions provided by my personal circles, including professionals, students and non-related people.

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Yes, the “THE CRITICAL ENGINEERING MANIFESTO” is my most favorite and stimulating text. I love it :grinning:

I think “learning” should be reversible. Last month, we had an exhibition with students called “Tama Reversible Art University”.


Department of Inversion, Tama Reversible Art University

Normal classes are carried out in accordance with the syllabuses designed by the professors. They distribute class materials and give lectures on the contents they wish to deliver to the students. However, The Department of Inversion at Tama Reversible Art University has no such thing as an“assignment”in the ordinary sense. The contents of all lectures and exercises derive from the curiosities and interests of each student. Observing students’ independent research, fieldworks, discussions and experiments, professors create course structures and syllabuses that are most meaningful for the students. Rather than pushing students into the framework provided by the MEXT and the faculty of the universities, it is the activities of the students which make up the framework of the curriculum and the syllabuses. In reversible universities, the roles of the faculty and the students are reversible, that is, equivalent.




I agree, @hemokosa, the Critical Engineering Manifesto is a very stimulating text. It puts forward an openness, inclusiveness and collaborativeness that is to be fêted. Too often one comes across people who seem unable to see anything outside of their own particular (peculiar) experience and are content to confine their activities within their own silo … seldom does one meet people who are willing and/or able to recognise any merit in what others are doing in other silos/disciplines/subjects.

I love the sound of what the Tama Reversible Art University have done in terms of upsetting the normal curriculum-led teacher <> student relationship … it appears to go one step beyond the UK-fashionable ‘student-centred’ activities which always (to my mind anyway) seems to limit the student-centredness very firmly by the convention and precident of existing curriculum practice.

When you say that “the roles of the faculty and the students are reversible, that is, equivalent”, do the staff and students act as equals? Do they work together and critique each other’s work? And how (if I may refer to the ‘elephant in the room’) are assessment and accreditation handled?

Hi @Alejandro, I so agree about the lack of good teaching practices and learning information … and again I’m afraid, it makes me sad that things haven’t got better over the years. I wrote a paper in 2005, Where, When and How do University Students acquire their ICT Skills?* which suggested that, in 2005, most students had usually picked up their computing and information retrieval skills informally from friends and family rather than being taught how to do it properly, but I’m not sure that anything has changed since then. And certainly most of the people that I come into contact with now that I’m retired regard using the internet as something to be endured, not enjoyed! And it’s done with very little awareness of what IT processes, structures, protocols and formats are being stimulated by their activities, or, unfortunately, any of the implications of the data that they are giving away to Amazon or Google by (for example) using their Ring doorbell or their Alexa.

But having noted the problem, I’m not sure what to suggest to remedy the situation. My sense is that ‘big business’ will continue to utilise AI-hype to make their interfaces seem easier (and more useful to them in terms of big-data gathering) and that we will all continue to be seduced by ‘their’ HCI. One way forward I guess, would be for more of us to use the sort of systems that Julian spoke about, and subvert the status quo. Either that or be choosey about what system we use for what … ie, using WhatsApp is OK for video-calling grandchildren, and Gmail is OK for arranging luncheon club meetings … but perhaps we need to revert to snail-mail for sensitive communications?


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Thanks for your thoughts Simon. Yes, I agree. Probably a hybrid approach is the way to move forward, sort of Trojan horse, inserting these open ethos within the widespread established technologies.

This has been a very interesting discussion : ) Sorry I’m a bit late joining…
Last month Access Space co-hosted a small gathering of around 30, and I suppose we could have called it a mini conference, called Collective Economics an more anarchist ways of organising and helping each other in late capitalism. It was an event with presentations from artists and activists over two days. We used a number of methods for people to be present/not present, including travelling by aircraft from abroad, from nearby or not so close cities by train, recorded Skype interviews and live Skype. So it was kind of hybrid thing in terms of travel.
What came out in the end is that it worked well as an event for those physically present (and we didn’t have a live stream), but it would have needed a live stream for those not in the room to engage with it more.
So, one of the problems Access Space has is slow upload speed, and it limits what we can do no matter what software we might use. The Skype interviews had not so great audio and video quality.
But I suppose it worked because the participants all wanted to participate in what ever way they could in an event around the subject, and contacts were made, a mailing list created and there will be another event soon. I guess it got people together even though some never actually met.
Because we didn’t stream it, it means that what was said stayed in the room, but how people interact afterwards is really up to them.
I wonder whether future meetings of participants can be kept hybrid - the meetups move to different places so that only a small number have to travel long distances each time.

Thank you very much for your response!

The word “reversible” has many meanings. How do faculty members unlearn? If making strange things familiar is “study,” what can you call making familiar things strange? Today’s ICT education may make familiar ICT strange.

Teachers sometimes need to teach students knowledge. But more than that, I think it’s important to show students what teachers are (un)learning and how teachers (un)learn. Students (un)learn as well as teachers. Teachers (un)learn as well as students. In that sense, the relationship between them is reversible, which is different from being the same.

What used to be called “sharing” changed to “provided” (from Big Tech), but I would like to rethink the meaning and potential of “sharing” in university education.