Interview by Héctor Beltrán
Héctor Beltrán: In your ethnographic work with voluntaristic open technology communities across hacker and maker spaces, you’re careful not to characterize “hacking” as a single set of practices or cultural ethos. You also make clear that the “diversity work” enacted within these spaces borrows from a range of motivations and strategies.
How did you arrive at “borders of care” as a way to develop the conceptual work related to analyzing these overlapping, contingent collectives without necessarily essentializing them or reproducing stereotypes about them?
Christina Dunbar-Hester: In a way, this was one of the bigger challenges of the book. I did ask myself whether I was sampling “representative” groups and practices, though I also knew that my story would always be partial and particular. The research process was organically following leads, paying attention to what was happening in cities I happened to be in over the course of several years, traveling to other sites for conferences and meetups, and listening to what folks in sites told me about present-day activities and histories of activism around these issues in their communities. I also of course wound up in a lot of events and settings that don’t appear in the book—sometimes because they were too dissimilar to the phenomena that I center in the book, and other times because you can’t include everything. But this triangulation and iteration is of course informing the analysis. I found Anselm Straus’s “social worlds” analytic useful for thinking about social meaning in distributed, large-scale encounters. It is more important to be conceptually careful about the things I can group together than to try to “sample” everything, which is of course impossible with a distributed phenomenon anyway.
Fundamentally, though, there is a shared impulse here, seeking individual and collective emancipation through engagement with technology. I conceive of the geek impulse to critique and remake their social world as a form of hacking. I write of “borders of care” to illuminate how communities are constituted by their priorities, their care and energies around “diversity” topics. But of course borders suggest limits, and there is a tension here: if the border were drawn elsewhere, these communities would look significantly different (perhaps more like a social movement), and the social world that is the topic of this book might cease to exist or shade into something else entirely.
Héctor Beltrán: By tracing these dynamic communities, you highlight how strategies, politics, and subjectivities move from one domain to another. In particular, open-technology diversity advocates are always close to the profit-oriented pursuit of techno-entrepreneurial development and growth. In this case, market logics and racialized capitalism become the basis for emphasizing diversity.
At the same time, you identify scale as a challenge for voluntaristic spaces. Perhaps a community can develop democratic ideals and corresponding codes of conduct that work in their intimate, carefully cultivated spaces, but scaling these practices to redress overarching structural inequity or promote restorative justice is another story.
Coincidentally, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have established methods for scaling their projects; they combine iterative software methodologies with business acumen to launch their ideas onto the global stage. Are there any practices or strategies that open-technology cultures can appropriate/reconfigure from these techno-entrepreneurs in order to scale their resistant politics, without resorting to product-driven solutions or for-profit ventures?
Christina Dunbar-Hester: Well, I’m not sure how well I can speak to the practices of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, but it occurs to me that one of the main strategies they employ is naming and bounding problems discursively such that their versions of reality are accepted by users and by policymakers. For example, one that has clearly been very successful for them is calling companies like Uber, Facebook, and AirBnB “tech” companies rather than transportation, media, and hospitality companies, respectively. This has massive implications for regulation in particular, as they use these strategies to evade scrutiny and accountability. But these framings also have implications for how we think collectively about our society and the modes of intervention that are possible and desirable. One of the things activists can do is to zoom back out when they are naming problems: rather than centering “tech”, articulate social aims people wish to fulfill. This is important for a few reasons. It considers social good (and harm) in its own right, decoupled from “tech” as the be-all, end-all goal, or yardstick for “progress”.
Also, activists can redefine what engaging with technology is. It can be slow, deliberative, resistant to scaling up, ambivalent about “progress” narratives. It doesn’t have to be something that is happening in sprints, or chasing venture capital or intellectual property claims. If slowed down, we can deliberately foreground sociality and power rather than gadgets. From there, it’s a relatively short distance to define social problems in familiar terms for social intervention: militarism, and racial, gender, and economic inequ(al)ity are some of the social issues that advocates for diversity in tech care about and are wrestling with. Personally (and as a scholarly analyst) I think it would be useful to foreground those concepts and articulate them out loud, to bound care differently than it is when phrased as “diversity in tech”. One effect of this may be to have some forms of social intervention by techies break away from being corporate-workplace-friendly, but I think we are at a point where it may be useful to draw some new lines. (Some feminist techies reacted with dismay to Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” feminism, for example.)
Héctor Beltrán: You describe a meeting organized by feminist hackers who explicitly attempted to connect open technology culture to decolonial social movements. They’re left wondering why it turned out to be a mostly white gathering. In fact, many of the spaces marked as radical, genderqueer, and/or feminist many times turn out to be permeated by unmarked whiteness.
On the flip side, around the same time when you were conducting research, my colleagues and I organized a series of events as part of our “Latinxs and Tech Initiative” at U.C. Berkeley, where we were also left wondering, where are all of the white activists? This is truly unfortunate, as we were similarly interrogating the “diversity in tech” discourse, such as the limitations of “technology” as an orientating framework and the drawbacks of focusing solely on increased representation. We even came to similar tensions, negotiations, and conclusions (published in our policy brief) that you identified with your research participants. Needless to say, it might be a lot more productive and enriching for all involved if these different initiatives joined forces.
What can we do to avoid activist fatigue and to get communities to cultivate meaningful relationships across difference?
Christina Dunbar-Hester: I love this question, and I think it cuts to the heart of what is at stake with this kind of activism. I would love your thoughts on it too. I hope it is not an either/or for regroupment in enclaves versus coalition building, but rather a both/and. It is pretty clear that our present moment demands trust and solidarity across difference. And yet I understand that this is a moment where some people feel that additional burdens of trust (and vulnerability) are too much to take on.
Something you touch on in your report and I return to in the book is that markers of social difference are dynamic—shifting both situationally and across time. This might be more readily apparent to people steeped in anthropological traditions than a lot of people running tech meetups. Of course I do not mean to paper over difference—and real material matters are at stake, experienced differentially. But it can be useful to recall that some of the categories of difference that divide us are doing so in service of a system that harms us (if not all equally), so naming, understanding, and pushing back on that can be to collective benefit. I like where you land with “productive tensions” between cultural scripts; many things can be true or partially true, even when they almost contradict each other—it’s very important to strive to not be reductionist or essentialist.
I quote in the book an activist who says that she thinks hacking communities should be unafraid of tension (which, she specifies, is different from fear). Ultimately I have a lot of sympathy for the challenges that people in elective/affinity groups who operate on volunteered time face in confronting what is ultimately a segregated, stratified society. It is not easy. The word “ally” gets thrown around a lot, but how do people join forces in practice?
Héctor Beltrán: I like that you identified the shock of vibrantly colored hair as a common geek identifier. Several of your research participants commented that this was a strategy for others to comment on their appearance in a respectful way without resorting to “harass-y” comments. The hair also serves as a way for members in this community to self-identify.
The irony is that any self-identifying community marker can also serve as a way to inadvertently exclude. Perhaps if I don’t have a shock of vibrantly colored I hair I might feel like I am not the right type of “geek” to participate in this space. Can you tell us more about the dynamics of self-othering and being othered that you witnessed across your research spaces?
Christina Dunbar-Hester: Does one have to do the things that are normed within the subculture? Is this (ironically) another form of gatekeeping? It could be. I felt this tension with my interlocutors sometimes. I had one person I was interviewing ask me about which comics I read, which I think was a friendly effort to “place” me. The answer is none. I don’t know that she actually thought less of me, but I think she was somewhat mystified and even perhaps sad for me.
I also witnessed moments where geeks themselves drew attention to how nerd humor, for example, is potentially elitist, so they’re not fully unaware of these phenomena. Even so, it can be hard to see how the norms that are utterly naturalized for an individual or a group are markers of belonging that can feel exclusionary to people who aren’t acculturated in that way. I quote another interviewee who vividly described how she felt that as a self-identified bicultural Latina, she had to modulate both her cultures of origin and the femininity they emphasized to enter hacking spaces that were more “Anglo or German.” She was laughing about some of this when she relayed it to me, calling the other hackers “goth” and even “emo”! And yet these norms do real work, even to the point of presenting potential barriers or forms of subcultural policing.
Héctor Beltrán: Part of extending the genealogy of hacking is giving recognition to voices and groups who have been historically silenced and marginalized. You make the point, however, that more than just failing to be recognized, the creative and expressive technological tinkering of these groups is often criminalized.
Drawing from the work of Rayvon Fouché and Ben Chappell, you point to the horse hay rake and the lowrider car as examples of “hacks” by members of racialized populations that had to be defended in the face of mainstream ingenuity; these inventions were rarely portrayed as hacking in a positive, agentic sense. I like the lowrider example because Chappell also claims that the hydraulic suspension was not only for show but was a pragmatic modification that allowed cars to ride lower than the California legal limit, but then to be lifted in an encounter with a police officer. It shows how recognition, visibility, and “hacking” are closely interconnected.
What might coding be able to offer marginalized communities along the lines of recognition and visibility?
Christina Dunbar-Hester: This is key. A lot of what we hear is a push to “diversify” tech, as if that in itself will promote social transformation, though the “how” (and to some degree even the “why”) is usually inchoate. I don’t think the critiques I am making about the ambiguity of diversity work in general are especially pathbreaking (I’m leaning hard on a lot of excellent work by, for example, Sara Ahmed, Herman Gray, and others). But how this gets hitched to tech is worthy of consideration in its own right. And here I think it is worth really breaking down the dynamics into their discrete parts.
If “tech” is assumed to be the seat of progress, an incredibly ubiquitous and frankly banal cultural script we encounter every day, that is already importing ideas about who the bearers of said progress are (and aren’t). An uninterrogated “progress” laid on top of the priorities of the U.S. can mean new forms of encoding old traditions of racist policing, for example. But also technology being vested with this power is contingent; there was a time when the term itself meant something like “mechanic techniques and artifacts” and wasn’t vested with progressive power. Social progress wasn’t automatically enfolded into it. My belief is that we could once again decouple these concepts, and we would be richer for it.
At the very least, as long as technology occupies a central role in how we imagine power and progress, we need to do the work to understand how power structures have shaped technological development, counting some groups of people as automatic agents of that power and viewing others with suspicion or hostility. There needs to be sustained attention to power structures and not just a hope that “add X and stir” will fundamentally change technoscientific practices and institutions. In addition, a flip side to recognition and visibility is leaving space for, as you note by way of Chappell, strategically blending in or going unnoticed—and retaining the power to choose when pop up as “visible” versus when to stay more submerged or camouflaged. In a way, this perhaps returns us to the preceding question: to what degree is an “outsider” element necessary for hacking, and for whom does that aggregate or multiply advantages?