Media Art, User Experience Design, and Interface Development

Black Lives Matter

Posted on 2020-06-01

Protester holding his fist up in front of an Arby's on fire
Protester holding his fist up in front of an Arby’s on fire

Let’s me start by being crystal clear: Black lives matter. Indigenous lives matter. Oppressed people lives matter. If the fact that these statements do not include you makes you feel the need to yell “but what about me?”, check your privilege. I am trying to take the time to check mine.

In the past few days, much has been written—and much remains to be written—about how police behaviour is appalling and life threatening if you are not a WASP or WASP-like. I am WASP-like in a relatively safe city, Montréal, so I must admit to my privilege. But even I have not felt safe around police officers, so I can’t imagine what it is if you are their target.

As a technologist and media artist, I am not certain what I can contribute to the discourse, except sharing some ideas and strategies.

In the 1990s, Critical Art Ensemble published Electronic Civil Disobedience & Other Unpopular Ideas in which they declare

Out of [sentimentality for the 60s activism] has arisen the belief that the “take to the streets” strategy worked then, and will work now on current issues. Meanwhile, as wealth and education continue to be increasingly distributed in favor of the wealthy, as the security state continues to invade private life, as the AIDS crisis still meets with government inaction, and as the homeless population continues to expand, CAE is willing to go out on a limb and say that perhaps an error in judgment has occurred. This claim is not intended to undermine what has been accomplished on local levels; it is intended only to point out that contemporary activism has had very little effect on military/corporate policy.

They continue by arguing that capital has moved away from the streets (e.g. when money actually needed to transit through the streets) into the digital world.

They point out that taking to the streets is pointless because the representatives of power will leave them be, but on that point they were wrong. Politicians and the police want the oppressed to take to the streets with their rage and their anger so that it can be easy to demonize and other them. “Look at how they disrupt social peace, we can’t negociate with these people!”

Colin Kaepernick (7) kneels before an NFL game in 2016
Colin Kaepernick (7) kneels before an NFL game in 2016. Kyle Terada, USA Today Sports.
'Hamilton' cast call on Pence, 2016.
‘Hamilton’ cast call on Pence, 2016. Jeffrey S. Ravel.

But as I have read from quite a few people in the last few days: if peaceful protests did nothing, if oppression and murders continued, then it’s time to take action.

If peaceful protests and taking to the streets are not going to change anything, what will? Here also, CAE has an interesting take:

As in [civil disobedience], the primary tactics in [electronic civil disobedience] are trespass and blockage. Exits, entrances, conduits, and other key spaces must be occupied by the contestational force in order to bring pressure on legitimized institutions engaged in unethical or criminal actions. Blocking information conduits is analogous to blocking physical locations; however, electronic blockage can cause financial stress that physical blockage cannot, and it can be used beyond the local level.

Anonymous, the ironically famous and well-known hacker collective, did just that. In one case, they took down the website of the Minneapolis police—where the officer who killed George Floyd worked.

In another case, Anonymous hacked the Chicago police radios and broadcasted the appropriate NWA’s Fuck tha Police.

These are hindrances and frustrations well in-line with CAE’s ideology, however these acts will not affect policy unless they are sustained. And herein lies a big part of the issue: protesting via digital means requires a level of knowledge that is quite complex for the common person. CAE, also: “If technical education continues to be distributed as it is today, the attack on authority will be horribly skewed in favor of a select group of issue.”

I have written previously about how academic organizations and others push us to use big tech without knowing how it works, without questioning it. To a certain extent, I also do so. It’s tiring to always be the one questioning the use of those tools, I understand, but moving away from those tools would be a good step. Social networks may have been useful in organizing protests, but they still belong to corporations who may work in collusion with governments. While it may seem like tin-foil-hat-wearing, the potential misuse of sometimes well-intended tools can become risky for oppressed people protesting.

As I mentioned earlier, I am a technologist and media artist. I will keep pushing for inclusion of POC and accessibility in the projects and tools onto which I work. I will not work on anything that can cause harm to oppressed people, in fact, if presented with the opportunity, I will degrade such a project.

My heart goes out to the black women and men fighting the good fight. I do not presume to talk for them or to tell them what to do. I felt it was necessary to state clearly what I believe.

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