Preoccupying: Eleanor Saitta

November 26, 2013


Eleanor Saitta makes a living and a vocation of understanding how complex systems operate and redesigning them to work, or at least fail, better.  Her focuses include the seamless integration of technology into the lived experience, the humanity of objects and the built environment, and systemic resilience and conviviality. Eleanor undertakes a number of roles across a variety of projects which aim to promote, produce and disseminate greater freedom of information. She regularly speaks at events and conferences, including the CCC Congress, SigInt, Uncivilization, ToorCon, Knutepunk, and Arse Elektronika.

Occupied Times: The story of the ’digitally networked society’, mythologised by many of its users and owners as one in which people are more connected to each other’s concerns and welcoming of free expression has in fact often been a tale of surveillance, marketing and the extraction of personal data to serve capital and empire. Is it possible to rewrite the story of this network – most notably manifest in the Internet – or does its current manifestation as an increasingly enclosed source of revenue hinder the possibility of ever reconfiguring it as a part of the commons?

Eleanor Saitta: It’s important, when thinking about the future of network culture, to recognise that both sides of this story have always been true. The development of computing has been from the very beginning closely tied to surveillance – even Turing’s original work was done under the direct auspices of GCHQ during WW2. That said, the culture of the Internet is already one of connection and free expression. It will be a fight, but it is entirely within our means to properly decentralise the Internet and free it in meaningful ways – to make it impossibly expensive to perform true mass surveillance and to make free communication a true default. It’ll require a lot of different efforts to be coordinated, everything from peer production of open source hardware to give us machines that aren’t built in slavery through municipal broadband collectives to liberate fibre plants from the hands of monopolists.

The software that runs on top of all of this is incredibly important – code is law – but it’s still only part of the picture. The Internet is both virtual and very, very material; the optical fibre of our liberated, borderless space runs through Westphalian dirt to mortgaged data centres.  Software can buy us some freedom from all of this, but it is dependent on being able to somehow bring all of this into being, wherever it sits.

Centralised systems are somewhat easier to build now, but that’s partially a question of our current technical culture and which branches we’ve chosen to explore. Snowden’s revelations about the nature of the surveillance state may be a blessing here as they may provide us with the impetus to change that technical culture and to explore the new business models that we’ll need to pay for this shift. Open source development is a prerequisite for any meaningfully free Internet, but software development, done well and to the standards of ease-of-use required for mass adoption, is stunningly expensive. The Internet is the most complicated thing the human race has ever built, by far.

Free and open source software projects like the Linux kernel are actually supported by the efforts of hundreds of companies which pay the full-time salaries of the engineers working on the kernel, because they use it for work. We need to figure out how to make this kind of model scale to entirely different categories of software.

Those projects are unlikely to give the kind of return that centralised value-extraction systems like Facebook provide, but the advertising model of revenue for the Internet was already starting to fall apart even before current events pointed a very sharp spotlight on privacy. The beauty of the network model is that we don’t necessarily even need to make more money than the centralisers, just enough to pay for our own tools and infrastructure.  However, we do need to be better than the centralisers – shock or not, to win over the world, our tools have to be the things that everyone wants to use.

OT: With the use of advanced technology often treated as a specialist concern, how can we hope to achieve a greater collective understanding whilst emphasising the importance of these issues to the ‘layman’? Would you agree that sometimes those who already possess the technical skills have often been less than successful when it comes to sharing and disseminating that knowledge?

ES: The story of the logic of the network and of centralisation and decentralisation is not one that’s been well told so far, when told explicitly. It’s been pretty well lived though by plenty of ordinary folks who’ve either felt its promise online or participated in decentralised movements like Occupy. While I absolutely agree that the democratisation of technical knowledge is critical to the success of the project of decentralisation, that’s really just a small part of the story.

In the end, centralisation is going to lose, because we have their children.  The promise of decentralisation is taught through the tools, imperfect as they are, that make up our daily lives.  Every leak, every failed promise that a centralised organisation makes repeats that story. We do need to reinforce those stories, to take that truth in the world and make it louder, make its reach broader, but it’s already out there.

Sadly, centralisation losing isn’t the same as decentralisation winning, because centralisation won’t go down quietly. We need new narratives, new fictions, that give us all a positive vision of the future, give us a thing to build. Yes, we’ll communicate the technical knowledge eventually, but first we need to share the dream.

OT: Propaganda against cyberactivism has been working overtime with ex-NSA chief, Michael Hayden, and others of his ilk, describing hackers and transparency groups as “terrorists”. This kind of cyber scaremongering – which has recently gained traction since the NSA and GCHQ surveillance revelations – has previously fed into the kind of no-nonsense prosecutions of the likes of Aaron Swartz and Andrew Auernheimer, to name just a couple. As a hacker, what do you make of this state of affairs, and can you see a way of protecting yourself and your work from such heavy-handed punishment?

ES: I don’t think the “cyber scaremongering” is gaining ground with Snowden’s leaks – the opposite, I think. It’s showing the world that the folks who are rattling their sabres are cowards who can’t be trusted. We have a very good idea of what a monomaniacal “cyber-terrorist” who destroys the fabric of nation states and compromises critical civilian infrastructure with no regard for ethics, human lives, or the rule of law looks like now – his name is General Keith Brian Alexander, DIRNSA.

That said, yes, this is a real problem and will continue to be one. The powerful aren’t real fond of anyone whose work runs counter to their plans, unsurprisingly. The propaganda war will continue, with both sides spinning out their narratives. In the end, they’re going to lose, because they’re going to lose the larger fight, but it’s not clear if that means we’re going to win.

When the full force of the state decides that you’re a threat and comes down on you, there’s not necessarily a lot to be done. Jurisdictional arbitrage only goes so far, as does keeping your hands clean – neither Aaron nor Weev committed any crime (or rather, in the latter case, any crimes he might have committed were unrelated to what he was tried for). Being a public figure helps a little bit, but not that much. Wars have casualties.

OT: Open Source software development, with its refusal of enclosure and its emphasis on sharing, is regularly highlighted as an example of a model of development which could be applied to a broader context in society. How practical do you think it could be to apply the open source method, or other forms of software development (such as the agile approach) to the development of grassroots democratic practices?

ES: It’s already happening, to some degree — look at the notion of delegatory democracy, where anyone can propose a law and everyone votes on every issue, with the situation being made tractable by a system of topic- and time-limited delegations. This is democracy as made tractable by a digital intermediary, a democratic structure much less subject to the kind of legal and illegal bribery that plagues representative democracy.

OT: Along a similar vein: how applicable, if at all, do you think the institutional model provided by Communication Protocols is for providing a framework with which to develop a more universal and community-driven democratic structure, such as through their implementation in decision-making bodies? Could a comprehensive system of governance be developed along similar lines and do you think it would have a beneficial capacity?

ES: Protocols, and protocol-driven governance structures, are not institutions. That said, one of the two functions of an institution of governance, that of executing some process in the world, can generally be replaced by a protocol — for instance, transmuting the water board of a community into a set of sensor systems, reporters, approvers, fixers, and verifiers, a combination of human and programmatic elements working together to perform a task.  There is still a role for institutional structures in a system like this (and, likewise, market structures), in that networks operate in the present tense — they’re not good at introspecting on their own history — stop passing packets and you’re no longer online. Institutions are much better than networks at preserving tacit knowledge over time.

We’re still figuring out what post-institutional governance systems will look like, and we don’t know where all of the pitfalls are yet. The invention of the election was the invention of the rigged vote and the invention of the political party was the invention of machine politics; we will find new disasters within the protocoletariat. Hopefully, they’ll be better ones we’re more able to deal with.

Of specific note here is the problem of justice. There is nothing inherent in the nature of network politics that makes it just. It has the potential to be radically liberating, but this is no guarantee. We must be very careful about the politics that emerge from the systems we build.  For instance, many of the delegatory democracy systems currently implemented suffer from the lack of any kind of secret ballot, meaning that those with a minority identity or minority opinions may find themselves with more agency but less freedom to use that agency in accordance with their true desires.

OT: In the wake of Internet surveillance revelations, some communities have been reported to have created private, parallel internets. In Greece, a small group of people have set up a ‘mesh’ which can pass along data and signals by linking up rooftop wifi antennas; encouraging local community sharing of information and offering a cheap way to access the wider internet. These initiatives demonstrate one creative way of taking back control of digital social spaces, but do you believe a gulf exists between those who have the technology and are capable of implementing these types of practices and those in so-called ‘developing’ countries who don’t have access to these resources? How can we bridge the gap – in both knowledge and capability – between communities with the capacity to explore new, liberatory uses of technology, and those without?

ES: Mesh networks are interesting — they’re great for certain kinds of last-mile problems, for building out some specific kinds of infrastructure more cheaply and in a more democratic way, but they do not in any way provide a replacement for real fibre, nor do they make it practical for large groups to communicate in a dense area directly via mobile devices, or even to practically share a single gateway that only a subset of the devices can see — we’d love it if they did this kind of thing, but the math simply does not (and likely will never) work.

That said, those last-mile problems are not trivial and the political shift that even a system of limited infrastructural viability can produce is enormous. A few changes to the devices that are already being shipped in large numbers (enabling ad-hoc wifi in the firmware of smartphones and tablets) would make a huge difference, especially as smartphones start to spread in  majority-world communities. If the hardware’s there, we can do a lot with free software, within the limits of what’s possible.

The knowledge gap in part needs to be spoken to on the software side. Storymaker is an Android application intended for news gathering on phones and tablets that teaches you how to use the media capabilities of the phone and how to frame a reasonable story as you do the work — situated learning. It’s also well-designed and has a much shallower learning curve than many other toolkits for similar work. The “there’s an easy app for that” approach has a limit though — we need to make sure that the systems we build and teach with let people under the covers, let people take them apart, see how they work, change them, and explore, because this is how people learn. For all its flaws, the beauty of GNU/Linux in a desktop system is that you’ve got everything you need right there to build the system that you’re using. It may not make it easy, but you can just dive right in. This isn’t true on your phone or tablet, and efforts like Apple’s Mac App store are trying to bring that same narrow-minded, closed, exploration-hostile experience to the desktop.

OT: It may still be a novelty to some that women can successfully work in historically sexist environments, such as within the tech / computer industry. There can be an element of ‘quota’ and ‘tokenism’ in many professions, and attitudes and practices still exist which continue to challenge a woman’s place in many industries, especially in the more established sections of their professions. What have your experiences been in getting to where you are, and how would you say that your path, if taken by a man, would have been different?

ES: While there are clearly still problems with sexism in tech, I think your question, especially the implication of the degree to which things like tokenism drive hiring and promotion, is a little problematic. Moreover, it’s extremely problematic to ask a woman to justify her presence or tell “her unique story of adversity” when it’s completely irrelevant to the topic at hand. The fact that this question is in this interview (even here) is a symptom of the problem.

OT: We were led to believe that the development of more advanced technology would free us all from work, as gleaming robots performed the monotonous tasks that reproduce a society. Instead we face a kind of paradox, with technology increasingly automating both fordist and post-fordist production whilst simultaneously re-aligning work as an omnipresent condition. Can we snap out of this situation and truly unleash the liberatory potential that technology could offer? Do you believe that technological development alone has this capacity?

ES: There is no such thing as technological development alone. The concept is nonsensical.  Society creates technology and technology shapes society. In almost all cases, the liberation or lack thereof is not actually in the machine, it’s in the society that constructed and emerged from the machine. Yes, we can change things, we can move in a liberatory direction, but to do so we need to explicitly build technology with different politics and also practice different politics outside of it. There are no magic bullets, only a very long slog. These days, I’ll be happy if we can manage survival as a species.


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