An interview with Dr. Alex Lambert of Monash University for an academic research project “combining interviews with alternative social media developers with the managers of alternative urban creative spaces, bringing their perspectives on challenging entrenched power – be it in the form of business-focused urban planning or web platforms such as Facebook – into dialogue. In doing this, the study hopes to create practical new knowledge that will assist in the key challenges faced by both communities.”
Alex Lambert: Talk about what motivated you to develop your concepts of stigmergic action and decentralisation? Feel free to explore the ideologies / values that drive your work.
Heather Marsh: I wrote Binding Chaos and subsequent work in order to articulate what was not working and where I saw potential in various regional and global horizontal movements I was involved in over the last decade. Wikileaks had quickly become a personality focused, hierarchical organization and was both limited and ultimately derailed as a movement by that structure. The horizontal movements such as 15M and Occupy proved all of the problems with direct democracy and group affiliation outlined in the book. Many of these attempts at horizontal movements were easily derailed and dissolved; the rest became smaller, co-operative working groups and have enjoyed specific local success that has not easily scaled. The movements which set specific goals had far more success, at least in the short term achievement of those goals, as they were action based instead of personality based and could use stigmergy instead of hierarchy or cooperation. I used Anonymous to further an action based, stigmergic method of collaboration which followed ideas and it was very obvious that this was by far the most resilient and scaleable method of mass collaboration I had encountered.
In order to create movements which follow ideas, it is necessary to have access to and trust in information. An uninformed vote is a coerced vote; without access to and trust in information we have no alternative in mass movements but to blindly follow demagogues or ideologies or be completely immobilized. We are increasingly seeing all three of the latter situations as our access to and trust in information is increasingly eroded. A framework for developing open, collaborative information which can be transparently audited and receive feedback from everyone is essential for us to proceed in creating participatory governance. Democracy requires informed choice. The form of democracy we are currently governed by is increasingly built with patriarchy (the Robert Filmer kind), tyranny and secrecy, which is why it is giving way to populism and fascism all over the world. If democracy is to survive, it is essential that we create open epistemic communities and knowledge bridges to regain our trust, access and participation in knowledge. The survival of democracy in the face of growing fascism is a very big motivator for me.
AL: How do you see your work interacting with established, powerful platforms such as Facebook?
HM: There is currently a push in the EU and North America to hold tech corporations accountable for the dialogue and social networks built on their architecture. The current ‘quick fix’ to increasing sectarianism and lack of trust in information is to demand that CEOs of social media platforms take on the social responsibility not only of deciding official ‘Truth’ but also for forming our societies. Societies are formed by shunning and inclusion. Using tools ranging from permanent bans to blue check marks, a very few disinterested and unqualified CEOs are now expected to form our societies, to decide who to shun, who to include and who to amplify, by algorithm instead of dialogue. This is an abdication of responsibility by governments who should be providing the framework for societies to create themselves and it is an abdication of responsibility by societies who should never have delegated that responsibility to anyone, governments or corporations.
My goal is to remove both the burden and the authority of deciding official ‘Truth’ and facilitating shunning and inclusion of ideas or people from tech platforms. The responsibility and power of creating communal knowledge and society needs to be returned to our communities. Knowledge should be created by epistemic communities in open collaboration with affected user groups. The architecture of social media platforms is itself wrong for building knowledge. It is personality centred instead of information centred. In stigmergic movements, a personality centred platform will encourage people to follow demagogues and celebrities instead of ideas. Serious discussion needs to happen in information centred platforms. Societies should also have the power and fluidity to associate freely with the groups and individuals they choose which is the only way to avoid thought bubbles and increasing sectarianism. Allowing (or forcing) tech CEOs to replace these fundamental rights with an algorithmic dictatorship violates our basic freedoms in a democracy.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
(2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.
AL: I am interested in the relationship between network design and culture. In your mind, what kind of culture does your work foster?
HM: Hopefully, open and collaborative culture! I want the right to access, use and modify information to be recognized as a human right, as necessary to attain our full potential or participate in our societies. Our societies are already far too complex and require far too much information processing for individual comprehension of any big topic. We now require mass collaboration to understand any aspect of society or to be able to rationally govern ourselves. I am trying to create a framework for a societal singularity, where expertise can be transparently audited and shared so we can regain not only access but also trust in information. To be trustworthy, the ability to create a body of knowledge must not be restricted to closed groups and the entire interested group must have the ability to audit and contribute feedback. An information centred platform can break the rigidity of social media thought bubbles to allow overlaying and cross-sectioning of different societies and belief systems. Horizontal governance means we can have democratic, regional choice, but transparent epistemic communities allow all of our choices to be informed by all of the information available.
AL: You mentioned your engagement with artistic projects, can you talk more about these?
HM: During breaks in my programming career I have been an artist in a variety of mediums. Artistic projects can sometimes express ideas in a far more more powerful and immediate fashion than words ever could. As a connoisseur of information with years of experience trying to amplify seldom heard voices, I believe art is an important and necessary facet of communication. Memes, cartoons, photographs and other work are extremely important as short information bursts that trigger an emotive or logical response in people, but they can also be used to manipulate people into responding contrary to the facts or their best interests. The use of memes to manipulate our responses has been extensively researched and refined by advertising and intelligence agencies for many decades. The use of memes cannot be avoided as no one has the ability, time, access or interest to research and analyze all information they encounter, so to avoid manipulation, memes must be easily linked to a body of knowledge that can be transparently and collaboratively audited. This is something I explored in information packages for Anonymous which would include a press release summary, collections of pre-made tweets with linked source information, short videos and memes, so people could choose their level of research before sharing the topic and it could be shared in any format. The powerful messages of work such as Ai Wei Wei’s Remembering, lies in the accuracy and facts of the numbers and history it represents. Art has the ability to instantly illuminate truth and make it easily accessible but the power of art is eroded and truth becomes propaganda if the audience cannot trust the underlying facts.
AL: What great challenges have you faced? What solutions have you developed?
HM: My ongoing challenge has been to amplify the most silenced voices in our societies. Atrocities happen in silence. Structures with power and secrecy at the top and fear and silence at the bottom have filled the world with atrocities against occupied people: those at the mercy of militaries, UN peacekeepers, churches or NGOs, those silenced by prisons, care facilities and criminal organizations, and those with no media access or respect. People are coerced by information far more than they are by military and empathy follows media exposure. Equal votes are meaningless without equal voices.
Lately the media has focused on ‘whistleblowers’ which are depicted almost exclusively as members of military or intelligence agencies reporting wrongdoing in their own organizations. This is despite the scarcity of such insider whistleblowers and the vast amount of victim whistleblowers who could and do also tell of the atrocities committed by these same organizations. Millions can be killed without leaving a paper trail or inspiring an insider whistleblower. While the imprisonment of John Kirakiou for reporting torture at Guantanamo was an abomination, the solution is not to create more places for CIA agents to inform their superiors or even the world of what they are doing. It is the people in Guantanamo and all the other CIA black sites that the world should never have left in silence. If we ensure no voices are ever silenced there will be no more need for institutional whistleblowers as intermediaries.
From 2010 until 2012 I was the administrator and editor in chief of Wikileaks Central, a global news site which was requested, announced, promoted, endorsed and hosted by Wikileaks but run autonomously and separately by myself. In 2010, mainstream news audiences and outlets largely refused to cover any news that was not focused on men with guns or interpreted by western male pundits and politicians discussing men with guns. Wikileaks was very useful as a vehicle to amplify voices and human rights stories that would normally be ignored. I could cover almost any human rights or protest topic by tying the news to information in the US state cables or other Wikileaks releases. Even the most tenuous connection would encourage journalists to pick up stories they would never normally touch so they could publish them with a picture of Julian Assange at the top and a quote from a US military source. After Wikileaks lost its usefulness for me, Anonymous became my preferred vehicle. Again, editors would publish human rights stories from around the world if they could use Anonymous in the headline and photo, allowing readers to project their assumptions onto the hooded silhouette and assume it was a story with an elite western man protagonist. The advantage to Anonymous is that anyone, from any demographic, could use it directly to obtain a platform.
In the last decade, the people and topics considered news worthy have undergone a transformation. Audiences are far more willing to listen to voices and stories they ignored ten years ago. Now the challenge is to move from personality-centric news amplification of social media to an information-centric framework and to move from a transient news cycle to the creation of permanent knowledge repositories. This will hopefully remove the focus on celebrities and trends and allow collaborative knowledge that can accommodate all voices and present a complete view of any topic.
AL: You critiqued the highly personal, ego-centric nature of social media, and this resonates with your point abut building epistemic bridges. What would social relations and identity look like in a non-ego centric or social group-centric network?
HM: The terminology I use is personality-centric vs idea-centric. An idea-centric knowledge structure would be built around points of knowledge: ideas, evidence, auditing, counter-analysis, etc., and the social relations, the people contributing ideas or research or the trust networks supporting their expertise, would be attached to the ideas and evidence as subsidiary information. In the personality-centric structures we have now, this is reversed. Ideas are promoted because they come from an official person or organization or celebrity. The source of the information, or the supporting facts and research, are subsidiary to the personality or unavailable to the public. We are being governed by ideas, and our access to ideas and information is currently controlled by those with social power. This creates an oligarchy instead of a democracy, as an uninformed or misinformed vote is a coerced vote.
In an idea-centric system the ideas and information receive the focus and those producing the best information (usually experts or those most affected) are promoted along with their ideas, without having to go through celebrity intermediaries or official channels. This freedom to bypass oligarchy is necessary in a democracy.
AL: My colleague who researches teen use of social media finds that young people call platforms like Instagram a ‘second home’. Can social media be both a home and a radical democratic epistemic community?
HM: No. An epistemic community should not in itself be a social grouping any more than any current scientific or journalist communities should be social groupings. Social groupings are personality-centric and somewhat closed; epistemic communities should be idea-centric and open. Social groupings are built around the need for social inclusion; epistemic communities must allow rejection of any work not deemed satisfactory. Ideas are not people; they have completely different requirements. One of the worst parts of platforms such as Twitter is this mixing of the two objectives so respect for a person leads to promotion of their ideas and rejection of a person results in rejection of their ideas.
From personal observation and the trend studies I have read, I don’t believe that young people currently still see social media such as Snapchat or Instagram as a second home – what year was your colleagues research? I think the current generation (Z?) is much more security conscious and bored or revolted by the Instagram-filtered, microcelebrity culture of their older peers. As advancements are made in collaborative education I believe we will see far more young people using social knowledge platforms (when we have one) for idea collaboration and secure messaging for their social interactions. Social media as a microcelebrity fame vehicle will hopefully become more specialized to the entertainment field it is suited to.
AL: You talk about the necessity of transparency. I have been thinking about this in terms of identity as well, as I feel anonymity can amplify trolling and other forms of ‘cyber-hate’ that negate democratic dialogues. Have you thought about this?
HM: Yes, of course! And I disagree, at least with the world as it currently is. As I mentioned earlier, the only way I could get editors and audiences to look at the stories I considered the most urgent in the world was by passing information through a western male avatar. Anonymity in the world today is the only way to bypass existing bigotries. A lack of anonymity in a personality-focused system will also very frequently inspire very misplaced trust based on reputation instead of work. As a woman and a career programmer, I can say with certainty that my work is judged in my field based on my reproductive organs and is far more accepted when they are assumed to be male. Or in the words of Alan Turing, “Turing believes machines think. Turing lies with men. Therefore, machines can’t think.”
The vast majority of hate in the world, from the Malleus Malleficarum forward, has been printed, published and promoted by powerful men under their own names. Anonymity is necessary to criticize the powerful, not to preach hate against those with less power. History and the fact that ’free speech’ is suddenly and for the first time since the printing press was invented taking a back seat to ‘fighting hate speech’ gives the following definitions for your terms:
cyber-hate: democratic speech
democratic dialogue: public discourse controlled by the powerful
AL: To answer your question, my colleague has actually been studying a group have been ‘growing up’ on social media for a while. Hence perhaps they are not the young generation anymore. Cultural context comes into these attitudes as well, I presume.
The cyber-hate (for lack of a better term) problem is by far the one that interests me the most. I agree that it is thoroughly gendered. These days in media and comms in Australia our classes are about 95% female.
HM: Wow!! Is that an anomaly? Where are the men? Are they not applying? How and when has this changed and why do you think? Do you feel this is temporary? How do you feel this has affected the classes, in terms of being a thought bubble, etc etc. How are your computer science classes?
AL: When #gamergate hit many students were writing about the fact that they felt silenced on platforms like Twitter.
HM: They were writing that they felt silenced … and you heard them …. and everyone heard all the other female journalists saying the same thing. I have been on twitter since it started and I have been a female journalist for many years and a woman offline all my life. Twitter is the first time I have ever been able to (if I wanted) say that I get daily messages from people who want to cut my head off and rape my neck, etc., etc. The messages aren’t new, I would get them in my desk at school even. This is just the first time there has been a platform I could say anything on or an audience who would listen. Twitter is the first predominantly female important media platform and created the audience for all those female journalism students you now have. Twitter forced Pax Dickinson, the Business Insider CTO, out of a job in 2013 for misogynist comments and many more since, including those on #ShittyMediaMen. (And that was when libertarian media men started suddenly being concerned about ‘the limits of free speech’ and paying women to write op-eds about awful bullying on Twitter. And ignoring the awful bullying of women in corporate media.) Twitter has also brought forward the #MeToo movement and many other campaigns such as #BringBackOurGirls #DelhiRape #TakeDownJulienBlanc or many I launched around 2013 such as #opRohingya, #opDeathEaters, and #opGabon. Michael Salter’s Crime, Justice and Social Media is worth a read on those campaigns.
I think using the fact that many women are saying they feel silenced on Twitter to blame Twitter is like using the fact that women are saying #MeToo on Twitter to blame Twitter. No one heard any of us say we were silenced for centuries by the printing press. Anonymity is a tool of the weak – women have used it for years online, as do any Rohingya activists giving evidence of the ongoing genocide. Monk Wirathu does not need or use anonymity to preach genocide and Putin / Trump / Kadyrov / Bannon do not need or use anonymity to preach misogyny.
AL: This seems to me to indicate democracy for men (at least in the gaming community), but not for women. Similar to your point about journalism.
HM: Of course, democracy everywhere was always for men (and includes race and class boundaries as well) but now we have platforms for talking about it.
There is another aspect to this topic though and it is a bit huge for this question, it would take books (some of which I am currently writing, will be posted on my blog eventually). Gamergate, and gaming in general, and social media, and for that matter the internet, has very strong ties with the intelligence communities of the world and the men’s rights movement which grew on the internet was probably the least organic or democratic social movement ever created. This is a huge topic but there is a bit of one aspect here and a bit of another aspect (specifically manufactured division around ‘white feminism’ and ‘trans rights activists’) alluded to in this quote from the Cambridge Analytica supergrass on Steve Bannon: “Smart. Interesting. Really interested in ideas. He’s the only straight man I’ve ever talked to about intersectional feminist theory. He saw its relevance straightaway to the oppressions that conservative, young white men feel.” There was also a very large push in the intelligence communities of the west for many decades to strengthen patriarchal religions (along with associated misogyny) in an effort to subvert communism. This is still happening even though it has already been overwhelmingly successful and even China is attempting to force women back into ‘traditional’ unpaid caregiver roles. A very large majority of the most extreme hatred I have experienced online and off contains biblical or other religious references, even from street drunks when I was a child in a very secular place. I don’t see that changing with the rise of Bannon types pushing end-times religious wars and terrified of the fall of patriarchy. . (The former head of the US DIA linked in the video earlier also believes in end times prophecy with a giant religious war between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ – these are the people steering online dialogue. The ‘cyber war’ budgets are allocated for them to steer online dialogue in the directions they choose.)
The tl;dr is that the gender divide has been initiated and promoted at every step of the way by very undemocratic forces (see Malleus Malleficarum), and ‘feminism’ has been regularly co-opted, at least from the 1970s forward, to work for its enemies. What you are seeing, especially on the internet, does not necessarily have anything to do with democracy or human nature or organic social tendencies. It has much more to do with allowing secretive governance to control our online dialogue and access to information. Re gamergate trolls.
AL: Are epistemic, idea-centric, annonymous networks enough to stem this ingrained sexism (as well as other forms of bigotry)? Can these networks be coupled with progressive forms of governance?
HM: Anonymous networks alone would never work, they would be spammed to death. Pseudonymous networks supported by a trust network would work, when necessary, and that can make it difficult for group affiliation bigotries to take precedence over information. Concentric circles of epistemic communities and knowledge bridges are a framework, they are not a solution. The solution must of course rely on the people using that framework. This framework of transparent, audited, open, permeable information is, in my opinion, essential for horizontal governance and to avoid rule by demagogues and ideology. Voting is a tool; we are governed by information and it is open, collaborative information that needs to be a human right in a democratic government.