Discussion: Polity (November 2020)

Jan 23, 2021

Kelsey Breseman, Data Together

Who are the groups of people to whom we are connected in systems of governance? To whom do we owe allegiance?


Other material:

A wall of round pebbles

Photo by Zdeněk Macháček on Unsplash

Understanding the polity of Data Together

STEFAN: What’s the origin of Data Together? What’s the overlap between EDGI and Data Together? What defines this group?

KELSEY: Dawn, this is your brainchild originally, right? I feel like I took it over from you.

DAWN: Yeah, but I would say I don’t actually totally know the answer anymore. When it started, it grew out of mostly EDGI facilitator energy. That would have been like three years ago. It was originally an active engagement that also involves software development, and a lot of time and energy with Qri and Protocol Labs. It was imagined as a tri-partnership.

We had imagined always splitting that coordinating work, and tried to set up a very loose governance approach around that, and planned to have an annual meeting once a year to check in on the various projects both within this group and within the partner entities.

By the second year, Data Together really focused in on what I would say were EDGI strengths, which are creating this as a space for a certain type of conversation that wasn’t happening, I think. It drew a lot from conversations that EDGI has facilitated, and that maybe weren’t happening around Protocol Labs and Qri at the time.

But I don’t have a strong handle on how things are now or how much this feels like it overlaps with EDGI.

KELSEY: Yeah, it has this history, like Dawn was saying, of intending to be a technical challenge that people take on together. And even through last year, we would generally have somebody from Protocol Labs and Qri and EDGI at every session.

EDGI originally started as a big data saving archiving operation, but over the same time period, it stopped serving that role. So there’s less direct overlap in the work of EDGI, Protocol Labs, and Qri. But there’s still a lot of overlap in the theoretical space.

A big part of the original intention was to have a more ethical and more citizen-controlled way to save data than we had. My understanding is that Brendan actually made Qri, a decentralized dataset software company that he started, based on some of the EDGI work and the Data Together conversations. And then, Protocol Labs makes IPFS, this protocol for the decentralized web. They’re very engaged with us sometimes, and other times, not. They just had their big Filecoin launch in September, and reached out to me to say, hey, we’re ready for your data, EDGI. All that data you have, we want to put it on the DWeb. That’s the dream we had originally, so it would be cool to say yes to it—but it’s not exactly the space we’re in anymore.

EDGI comes in with this very strong environmental data justice angle. With Data Together, EDGI holds space for other people to come in and bring their perspectives. So we have folks like you, Stefan, and Dawn, working on understanding collectivist spaces, and bringing these really strong experiences in community organizing. We have people coming in from citizen science backgrounds. We have people coming in, who maybe have no background in justice issues or community organizing at all, who are building protocols. And they’ve maybe never had a time or space to think about, if I make this technical decision, how does that play out in terms of who’s able to use it and how they’re able to use it? It’s this really cool intersection.

At EDGI, when we have data conversations. I’m usually the technical one in the room. And outside of the EDGI sphere, in technical spaces, I feel like more of a representative for the justice issues. I bring the real use case for data decentralization, which comes from EDGI.

STEFAN: If you’ll allow me, I’d like to interrogate the two of you using Nine Whys, which is a helpful liberating structure. Maybe we can get to some bedrock material for why Data Together. I heard a lot of context there that was super helpful in understanding the overlap of these different spaces and also early intentions that were held by Dawn and then passed on to Kelsey. I feel like getting at your guys’s shared why would be really helpful.

DAWN: Sounds great.

KELSEY: Always good to have a facilitator in the room.

STEFAN: So let’s start. Why Data Together? Why the purpose around Data Together?

KELSEY: A very basic thing for me is that I really like it. I feel the most intellectually stimulated in this space that I get to be, because I’m talking to all these people who are working on really tangible things and have all this theoretical background. It’s perspectives that I haven’t heard, and I can watch participants hear perspectives that they’ve never heard. I can feel concepts unlocking and shifting in my head during these conversations.

DAWN: It’s similar for me. When we started Data Together, it felt like there was a gap between the promise we could see in these decentralizing and peer technologies, and the rich and careful and nuanced ways that we were thinking about justice around data from an EDGI side. It was a way for me to have conversations that helped demystify the technology, and also have the people who build that tech connect into understanding some of these critical framings that inform action. It’s a way to have disparate expertises meet and commingle.

STEFAN: Dawn mentioned this notion that there’s a gap that’s been filled. And Kelsey, I think a lot of what you said around just this diverse group of folk coming together to think together about these questions, there’s a lot in line with what Dawn was just saying. So, why is that important?

KELSEY: I think this technology is interesting enough that it’s going to get built, and I’m afraid that it’s going to be built without all of the perspectives that it needs. One of the things that makes the space cool is that a lot of the people building the base technologists are dreaming the same dreams that I am in terms of what our society can be if we treat each other differently, if we hold things differently. There’s this deep interest that’s held in having this other world made possible by technology, but Dawn had this exactly right, there’s also this big gap. They want the right things, but they don’t have all the people who need to be in the room to make those things happen. We don’t have all the people in our room either, but we try to bring it in at least through text.

DAWN: In order to meet the potential that I think the creators desire for them, and the users and those who are in this decentralized and political space want, I worry that the existing norms and paradigms are insufficient— norms from Silicon Valley, or even from open source and open culture.

There are a rich array of ways of imagining otherwise, and alternatives that have existed for a long time. Many of these are being actively enacted in grassroots movements, activist spaces, and that tie into areas in academia that are not often in conversation with the technical. For me, it’s about trying to attach those conversations.

I think you see certain of these ideas come into vogue. Something like the “digital commons”, I think that concept of the commons is now present enough that I think it is engaged with. I want to also draw in things like abolition and abolitionist tools, or data sovereignty, drawing from Indigenous sovereignty, and that as an understanding, or anticolonial and decolonial ways of thinking. We can draw from Just Transition, more of a transformation approach, from sustainability, and just sustainability spaces. There’s so many of those that I think offer something really rewarding, and I would like to see those ideas circulate.

STEFAN: Why is this important?

KELSEY: There are a lot of historical reasons why these perspectives aren’t in the room. Ultimately, the people building our new decentralized internet are not fundamentally that different from the people who built the current one. This is the difference between not racist and antiracist. You have to do a lot of conscious work, if you’re looking to actually address and not have inequity in a system that starts not equitable. That’s the concern with letting that gap exist, letting the people who are building it decide what to do.

In open source, there’s this beautiful feeling that anyone could contribute. And in a technical sense, it’s true. But I’ve spent a lot of time building open source software, and it turns out that “anyone” means anyone who’s able to make a GitHub commit in the source code. That is really a small “anyone”. You can’t even have a designer say, hey, this should look like this, and then do it; that designer is still reliant on the people who write the code to implement the design.

The people who write the code, we already know, is a small and skewed demographic. If that’s who builds the technology, especially if they build it as unpaid open source, they’re going to build it around what they want, what they need, what their passions are, unless they have a really good reason not to.

DAWN: We’re at multiple moments of pressing need. There’s no going back to normal in those domains. To take that seriously, we have to rethink the ways that we produce knowledge, the ways that we produce these systems, the ways that we produce these technologies. Building these technologies is maybe an attempt to think about a pluralistic future we could live in. We have to build in ways that escape techno-determinism, and I don’t think we can do that with the existing tools. So we have to do that horrible, messy process of working with the tools we’ve got, which kind of suck and building new tools, all at the same time that we’re trying to make this new world that we want.

We have to try. What’s the alternative, not trying? I’m not prepared to do that.

STEFAN: You said we have to rethink the ways we produce knowledge and technologies to build a pluralistic future away from techno-determinism. Why is that important?

DAWN: At this point, we have heartbreaking and overly documented evidence of the damage that these systems have caused. I don’t know if the way out is to abandon everything, I don’t think we can just critique our way out of this situation. I think what we’ve developed is an extremely robust set of ways to critique these system. I am super indebted to those as ways of seeing, but I am committed to also thinking about how to make it so those critiques don’t have to be used, because we aren’t in that world anymore.

KELSEY: I have a sort of personal dichotomy that I’ve probably mentioned in this group before: in work to change the world, I use the dichotomy of frontliners and utopians. You need both. You need people fighting, actively engaged with the world as it is and seeking change. They’re out there saying, something else must be better, and we should work for it. And then there’s also this other set of people, utopians, in the space of saying, I think that we can try it. Let’s make an assumption that the world we want is possible. How do we live it, right now? And how do we iterate on those systems so that there is something specific and proven that we’re aiming for?

I’m much more of a utopian. What Dawn was saying about rethinking the technologies that are imperfect, and having to use them while we rebuild, that’s exactly that. That’s saying, okay, if this were perfect, what would it be? How do we get to that as soon as we possibly can? How can we actually live our values?

STEFAN: I think we’re getting deeper into some layers here. There’s a lot going on around avoiding the damages and harm caused by the previous system, but also being trapped, having to use those same tools from the previous system to build the new one. And then this interesting notion of the frontliners and the utopians.

I think there’s a lot of fruitful play space in these ideas here. I want to go a little deeper. So in the context of all of these things, what is the role of Data Together?

DAWN: Data Together started as a place where there was a confluence of those things. We were building the bridge two steps in front of us. We were doing like eight other things, and we were trying to grapple with what it all meant. That’s how it started. We were building this tech, and we needed a place to understand how we built it.

There’s these dusty GitHub repos kicking around, and at the same time as we were building those, there was the realization that even what could appear to be pretty innocuous concepts, are not innocuous at all. Defining “data”, for example. There’s so much to unpack there. That is a rich and fruitful conversation. So we needed to have those conversations, too.

It was a way to think, to be in that shared space together and think and do together.

KELSEY: That confluence is the crux of it. There are all these amazing concepts. I don’t think we’re inventing new philosophy here. But I think that in our modern context, we have to find the ideas that we need in the moment. And I think that these ideas are often unavailable in technology spaces.

People who do a lot of tech spend a lot of time learning how to do it. I’ve personally spent all day trying to figure out how to fix one line of code, or even just trying to understand the documentation on one function within one line of code. It’s very hard, and you are seldom invited to zoom out and say, what is the context of my work? What is the purpose of this? And am I building something for a world that I want?

Most people spend all of their work in busyness, without ever saying, this thing that I’m spending the majority of my energy on, do I care what it does? It makes me money, is that what I’m looking for?

This Data Together space, it’s that invitation that says, whatever it is you’re doing, have you thought about it on a grand scale? Have you looked at what it’s for, recently? It’s an invitation to see ideas that maybe nobody ever showed to you, because you were a code monkey. Or maybe it’s you actually getting to talk to technologists about the thing you’ve been fighting for on the streets for years. Maybe you’ve protested Google or Facebook with a picket sign, but never talked to the engineer and said, hey, why didn’t you do this thing better?

I want this to be the kind of space where you can say, hey, you really can’t make that decision, because it’ll impact my life, and I need you to know that.

I think that in general, intersectionality of backgrounds, when they can be focused productively on a topic, can be really, really fruitful for everyone involved, because it’s often new for each person in some way.

DAWN: There’s two things in there which really resonated. The first one is this idea of meeting ideas for the moment. I think sometimes we’ve under-resourced certain forms of production with all of the ideas that could give them the space for things to be better. So it’s a lot of work for folks who are in those spaces to search out and engage with those ideas.

People do that work on their own, but it’s tough work. They have to do it as individuals, or they have to build that community around them to do that work. My dream would be a way to make those ideas more ready to hand. And if not, a way that we can hand off ideas to each other at the right moment, when it’s a good time.

It’s not one sided. Technologists have to learn from people who are really theoretical or people who are activists, but also, activists and theorists need to grapple with why things are built the ways they are. That’s so important to thinking about how to build them better.

That putting-into-practice moment is a question for Data Together. If we’re not doing the putting into practice in Data Together now, how do we support people as they take things back to their own place where they’re putting it into practice?

Data Together is a community of people imagining a better future for data. We engage in a monthly Reading Group on themes relevant to information and ethics. Participants’ backgrounds range decentralized web protocols, data archiving, ethical frameworks, and citizen science.

This reading group is something your own collective can do too! We encourage you to draw on our notes for this month’s topic. Our notes list readings, call out themes, and suggest discussion questions.

This blog post is derived from our conversation, but is not a replica of it; we rearrange and paraphrase throughout. You can view the recorded call here.