MAXIMUM SOCIAL IMPACT, MINIMUM LINES OF CODE: Software Development as Direct Action


You don’t have to be a big bad hacker, cracking Evil Corp passwords or doxxing killer cops, to make an impact online. A few lines of code can go a long way toward social and political change.

Online activism is trivial. We’ve all heard it. “Clicktivism!” White people sitting at home in their jammies tweeting in to the Daily Show. A never-ending shower of spam from MoveOn.org. Who cares? But with Internet infrastructure becoming just as integral to our daily lives as roads or the phone system, it’s nonsense to claim that political action in the digital realm doesn’t matter. A more realistic perspective might be that, both online and off, most political activism winds up being pretty trivial.

But not all. Consider the SOPA/PIPA blackout of 2012, when over 115,000 websites “went dark” in a coordinated protest against draconian “anti-piracy” legislation. That action resulted in more than 10 million voters contacting their congress members and the proposed bills being shelved. The New York Times called it “a political coming of age for the tech industry.” The protest was clever, attention-grabbing, novel, and effective. And it only worked once. As with most instances of PR-campaign-as-political-action, most viewers get the message and then get bored quickly. Subsequent efforts to light a fire of democratic fervor under the “sleeping giant” of the Internet seemed to sputter.

Digital activism as a whole, however, still matters. I believe we’ve only begun to see its potential. And I’ve been thinking lately about the use of software development as a form of direct action. Direct action software development is only one of many ways to approach activism online, but it’s one that I haven’t yet seen articulated elsewhere. We hear about “hacktivism” when Anonymous makes videos threatening the police. Meanwhile, “civic coding” efforts such as Greenhouse aim to inform voters and facilitate the democratic process. And the Internet has, of course, been used as a fantastic megaphone for traditional forms of political organizing such as petitions, awareness raising, and getting out the vote. But we don’t hear much about software development, itself, as a “hacktivist” strategy. So, I’m going to talk about it.

What is direct action software development? In short, “direct action” refers to political activism that immediately targets the perceived source of a problem, rather than trying to resolve the problem through standard channels for negotiating with authorities. Similar to civil disobedience, direct action strategies subvert established political processes (e.g. voting, petition writing, running for office, filing a complaint) in favor of more efficient and often more dramatic means of making social change.

For example: Say your issue is de-segregating gendered bathrooms. Gender-segregated public restrooms are dangerous for transgender people. So, using the established democratic process, you might call your senator, write a petition, hire a lobbyist, or draft legislation about the issue. Ideally, your bill requiring gender-neutral public restroom facilities will eventually be brought to a vote, passed into law, and then hopefully enforced.
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Civil disobedience around the same issue might involve staging a high-profile event where protestors gather at a busy public building and insist on using the “wrong” restroom/s until the police show up to arrest them. Meanwhile, one direct action tactic would be to run around the city pulling down “MALE” and “FEMALE” restroom signs and replacing them with “ALIENS” and “ROBOTS.”

Ultimately, all of these political tactics can be used together, although sometimes (if the people deploying them don’t coordinate well with each other) they can work at cross-purposes.  

Direct action tactics are often associated with a cartoonish image of anarchism, so the public may imagine “direct action” as nothing more than men in black masks smashing windows and kicking over trashcans — or, at best, sit-ins, strikes, occupations, blockades, and other ways of disrupting business as usual. Even in the online realm of “hacktivism,” digital direct action is typically associated with breaking and leaking stuff: DDoS attacks on the FBI website, doxxing the Steubenville rapists, Chelsea Manning’s release of classified documents to WikiLeaks. But the key feature of direct action is not destruction; it’s not asking permission from authority before making needed changes. Gender-segregated restrooms aren’t safe for trans folks? De-segregate them. Today. The “Designated Free Speech Zone” is so far away from the Evil Oil Billionaires Convention that nobody can hear you chant? Get closer. Fight the cops to get there if you have to. Your favorite social network censors rape survivors who name their rapists? Build a browser tool that lets users subvert administrative silencing.

The key feature of direct action is not destruction; it’s not asking permission from authority before making needed changes.

There are other forms of online action besides “hacktivism.” Blogging about political issues, signing digital petitions, meme-based awareness campaigns (e.g. changing your Facebook profile pic to support marriage equality or decry child abuse), these tactics are widespread and accessible to the general public. The average Internet user can work out how to tweet at their senator. But the most impactful online protest actions often require advanced technical skill alongside your commitment to a political or social cause.

In early 2014, Creative Commons founder and anti-censorship advocate Larry Lessig gave a talk imploring technologists to get involved in politics:

I get it. As technologists, it’s not your field. But as citizens? [T]here is a movement out there that has ENORMOUS needs which you, uniquely, can provide. The obvious ones, the technical needs. This is a movement that will only succeed if we find a way to knit together people in a different model from the television advertising model of politics today. […] This movement is STARVED for people with your skill who can figure out how to make this work. It desperately needs this type of skill offered by people who genuinely believe in the cause as opposed to people who are just trying to get rich.

He’s not the only one who thinks so. Over the past several years, there has been an explosion of “civic hacking” efforts such as Code for America, data-driven government transparency initiatives, hackathons like CreateAthon and the Coder Day of Service to help non-profit organizations, etc. These projects are different from Anonymous-style “hacktivism” in that their goal is to build, not break. civichackingThey are largely geared toward technologically supporting the democratic process. However, they are plagued by many of the same issues as other policy-oriented activism: they are slow; they are overwrought with funding issues and procedural hangups; they are typically dependent on approval, information, or resources from some governmental or corporate authority; and access to such necessities is often unreliable because, to be blunt, governments and corporations rarely have their constituents’ best interests at heart. As a friend of mine says, “civic hacking is basically a way for the government to get a bunch of free tech labor.”

This is where direct action software development comes in. Unlike other hacktivism, the point of direct action development is not strategic destruction; it is to build, develop, create, and “design for good.” It differs from civic hacking, however, by building for good without waiting for permission. Direct action developers design software, websites, and other tools with the intent to make immediate political and social change. These technologies are “disruptive” in the most literal sense of the word. Much like physical-world actions which violate unjust ordinances, trigger conflict with authorities, and inconvenience passersby, direct action technologies often ignore online standards of etiquette, upset site administrators, and even violate the CFAA or other laws. Both online and off, the key to direct action is refusing to cooperate with any authorities who obstruct change. (If you are contemplating potentially-illegal online activism of any form, I encourage you to make a safety plan. That discussion is out of scope for this post, but consider contacting a tech-knowledgeable lawyer or the EFF for more information.)

Here are some concrete examples of software development as direct action:

PROJECT: WikiLeaks

WHAT DOES IT DO: WikiLeaks is an international, non-profit, journalistic organization that publishes secret information, news leaks, and classified media from anonymous sources. Some of its best known publications include 250,000+ classified diplomatic cables sent to the U.S. State Department, and the “Collateral Murder” video and other incriminating materials leaked by Chelsea Manning.

WHAT PROBLEMS DOES IT ADDRESS: Lack of government, military, and corporate accountability worldwide. Prosecution and persecution of whistleblowers and journalists who report on high-level corruption.

HOW POLICY MIGHT DO IT: International initiatives requiring increased transparency, open data, and opportunities for public participation in governments and corporate entities such as banks. Stronger legislation to support whistleblowers and investigative journalism.

HOW CODE DOES IT: Okay, so technically WikiLeaks itself isn’t software; it’s a website and an organization. Founder Julian Assange describes himself as an “information activist.” But the project does require a significant technical backbone in order to stay live on a distributed network of servers despite constant hostilities, and to provide a secure, anonymous, online drop box that allows sources to leak information to the site in relative safety.

WHO LOVES IT: Journalists. Activists. People who use the Internet. Pretty much everyone.

WHO HATES IT: Big businesses. Big banks. Corrupt diplomats. Murderous military personnel. All governments everywhere.

PROJECT: TextSecure, Signal, and RedPhone

WHAT DOES IT DO: These user-friendly apps provide end-to-end encryption for iOS and Android communications. lockedenvelopeMade by Open Whisper Systems, an open source non-profit software development group with a mission to “make private communication simple,” these apps are free and allow smartphone users to communicate securely via text or voice with any other user of the app.

WHAT PROBLEMS DOES IT ADDRESS: Government surveillance and mass data collection. (Also helps protect against subpoena of your text messages.)

HOW POLICY MIGHT DO IT: Stronger data privacy protections in the law, and the ability and willingness of government agencies to enforce them. (Remember that the NSA knew their spying programs were illegal and did it anyway.)

HOW CODE DOES IT: The apps use public-key encryption, the strongest and most reliable encryption protocol currently known, to ensure that texts are unreadable to anybody but the intended recipient and that voice calls cannot be listened in on by outside parties. Most importantly, the encryption is built into the apps in a way that make secure communications accessible to relatively non-technical users.

WHO LOVES IT: Private citizens who want to remain private. Political organizers and dissidents working under oppressive regimes. Information Security professionals. Math nerds. Your drug dealer. Edward Snowden.

WHO HATES IT: David Cameron. The NSA. The FBI.

PROJECT: Peacekeeper

WHAT DOES IT DO: The Peacekeeper App facilitates community-based emergency response. It allows users to quickly send and receive detailed emergency alerts among everyone in a geographically local network. The ultimate goal of the project is to develop networks of trained and trusted community responders for a range of emergencies including fires, break-ins, medical emergencies, and interpersonal violence — ultimately serving as a replacement for dialing 911.

WHAT PROBLEMS DOES IT ADDRESS: Government emergency services (paramedics, fire departments, the police) are at best underfunded and inefficient and, especially in the case of the police, frequently discriminatory and even brutally violent in their responses to 911 calls.

HOW POLICY MIGHT DO IT: Dramatically increase funding for all established emergency services. Develop and mandate provably effective anti-discrimination training for all police officers and other emergency responders. Require local police forces to reflect the demographics of the communities they police. Improve legal protections for citizens who document police abuses.

HOW CODE DOES IT: Peacekeeper takes the connective power of a social networking app and focuses it on creating a real-world social network — specifically, one made up of people who the user knows and trusts to come to their aid in an emergency. The app provides communities who use it with an immediate alternative to calling the police. (After encouragement from other direct action software developers, the app is now free and open source.)

WHO LOVES IT: Anarchists. Libertarians. (Peacekeeper branding skews extremely Right Libertarian. They partner with “The Pulse O2DA Battle Academy” to offer combat training modules.) People who live in rural areas. Anybody who feels unsafe or uncomfortable dealing with the police.

WHO HATES IT: Criminals. Cops. (We also think it’s a great technology that desperately needs a political makeover.)

PROJECT: Predator Alert Tool

WHAT DOES IT DO: The Predator Alert Tools are a suite of browser add-ons focused on preventing sexual violence. They allow users of social network and dating sites to share information about site members who have committed rape or sexual abuse, and to be informed about people in their communities who are potential threats. Predator Alert Tools are currently available for seven social websites including OkCupid, Facebook, and the fetish dating site FetLife.

WHAT PROBLEMS DOES IT ADDRESS: Censorship by site administrators that prevents survivors of sexual violence from publicly naming their perpetrator. Community silencing and siloing of information about known sexual predators.

HOW POLICY MIGHT DO IT: Site owners could amend Terms of Use agreements to allow naming abusers, build pro-survivor reporting mechanisms into their sites, and task administrators to encourage online cultures that prioritize the voices of survivors and the safety of vulnerable users. Unlikely, given that many sites, especially dating sites, have a financial incentive not to acknowledge the risk of sexual violence. (It’s a buzzkill.)

HOW CODE DOES IT: The Predator Alert Tools depends on a number of public repositories where data about consent violations can be shared anonymously. Depending on the site, the tools also provide a range of other mechanisms for sharing either anonymously, non-anonymously, publicly, or with a limited group of friends. Browser-side extensions then put that information at the “point of need” by e.g. placing a “red flag” on the reported user’s profile picture with a link to more information. Because these extensions run locally, site admins have no control over what the user reports or sees.

WHO LOVES IT: Survivor advocates. Feminist activists. Prison abolitionists. (Community-centered accountability processes are important alternatives to the prison-industrial complex.) Fifty-five thousand Tumblr users. Survivors of sexual violence, and their family members, friends, and loved ones.

WHO HATES IT: Rapists.

PROJECT: Falling Fruit

WHAT DOES IT DO: In their own words, “Falling Fruit is a massive, collaborative map of the urban harvest. By uniting the efforts of foragers, freegans, and foresters everywhere, the map already points to over a half million food sources around the world (from plants and fungi to water wells and dumpsters). Our rapidly growing user community is actively edumpsterfoodxploring, editing, and adding to the map.”

WHAT PROBLEMS DOES IT ADDRESS: Food insecurity. Corporate food waste.

HOW POLICY MIGHT DO IT: More funding to government benefits like food stamps. Improving any government or non-profit program intended to fight hunger. Legislation or corporate policies requiring restaurants and grocery stores to donate leftover food rather than trashing it. Major international shifts in the nature of agri-business and food distribution.

HOW CODE DOES IT: Distributes information about where free food and water are available near you right now. Certainly no substitute for major international shifts in the nature of agri-business and food distribution, but it’s a start.

WHO LOVES IT: People who like to eat food.

WHO HATES IT: Trader Joe’s.

These are just a handful of examples. Direct action software projects span a huge political and technical range, but tend to have a few qualities in common: The code is relatively lightweight. The project is primarily supported by donations and volunteer labor. It’s free to use and open source. And it serves parallel purposes of making a clear political statement while also providing a tangible, real world, immediate benefit to users right now, today. There are so many different, novel, clever, and powerful ways to write code that both makes a point and makes change. If you have other examples of direct action software, or ideas for direct action development projects, I’d love to hear about them! Please drop me a line: foxtale at riseup dot net.

Future History: Annotated

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On the rocky mossy shores of Antarctica, beyond the endless wisps of grass hovered over by faded red string that cut the landscape up into square meter boxes, the city of McMurdo still stands. It is a vast shantytown, starkly unassuming compared to the glittering carbon spires of St. Petersburg, but it is a clean shantytown. And in the EM spectrum, around the ten centimetre wavelength, the glittering wealth of humanity’s last hope runs in rivulets, through re-purposed trailers and TEUs, carrying the songs of a Noah’s Ark of rescued microchips. And before the eyes of every denizen streak a rainbow of overlays, the last frail library index. Kept alive by the scant beating hearts of a couple dozen thousand, the internet is cold with the chill of a thinning winter’s air.

The paint fades. The fusion reactor at the city’s center sputters out and the polymer baths strain to hold the charge another two days until it can be restarted. Data-death has come again, and we must decide what to triage. Our silent ward makes the choice no easier; its ecology remains verdant, supplying our bes4142160017_18d2761b29_bt weapons against the Bloc and the acid and the Balleny Fault and and and. But it remains turned inward to worlds we cannot glimpse, almost as unknowable to us as we are to it. The most beautiful child, lost to us while we still cradle it in our hands, in troubled compassionate awe. And silently we vote on whether to kill it this month or lose more unknowable history to the blackout, to keep it alive for ethics’ sake or in hope that this decade something will emerge.

We vote to buy another lottery ticket with the petabytes of our ancestors lives and dreams. To duck the harshness in the air all around us. Papers flicker and expand outward in jeweled strings of what those ancestors would have called game theory, sociology, neuroscience, and philosophy of ethics–our own haggard juvenile cry against our inevitable near-consensus. We trade links, shuffling obligatory commentary around the conceptual processing networks, sliding dependencies into place like glittering emeralds. Ritual play to stretch muscles laterally before we return to fitting another brilliant seventeen-year-old’s work on silicates in the North American desert into appropriate reclamation theories. Decay and rust is scraped away into jars for electrolysis as yet more chips go dead. The meagre replacement rate is analysed from all angles. And then again.

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Children play with kites
made from filaments once hoped to replace rapidly crumbling solar panels. Kerguelen is under siege. We believe our launch site near the Tropic of Cancer, hidden in the patterns between rot storms only we can see, will be exposed if we m6845310627_d033bb209f_bobilize. And so they die. The grass on our slopes goes white and sun-exposure is forbidden. Old women taste apricots for the first time. A spasm of further ecological collapse in South America sends nitrogen washing up into the Ross Delta marshlands. Three8571157732_190483fdcf_k refugees; the first in two years. A spring revolution deauthenticates the spokescouncil and a massive collaborative social engineering is undertaken to clean up the burgeoning proliferation of exclusive darknets. Our ward moves suddenly, like the cracking of glaciers of old, and then is silent. A loner cadre of young lover-collaborators discover Russian advances through the remains of shale processing plants in Marie Byrd and die together fighting them off.

4405828846_0c3633edcb_bWe must vote on whether to send a last stockpile of hydrogen to the launcher or supply the reactor, our capacity to process water finally traded away by the design optimism of a much earlier generation of McMurdo. We vote to send it to the launcher. Without Kerguelen we are forced to listen blind and near-mute as the automated lander’s ion engines — made in a clean room two centuries prior and sailed out of Florida on a badly patched fiberglass laser sailboat by our great great grandmothers — choke as it nears 3554 Amun. The pings of spectroscopy turned to the scratchy music of undying automated radio stations to avoid our enemies. The surface of the asteroid we meant to capture and mine is boiling. We have no idea why. We have eleven hours to decide before we must land Earth’s last mission.

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Words: William Gillis
Pictures: August Allen

No good excuse for not building sexual violence prevention tools into every social network on the Internet

This is a great post by Maymay, one of the developers of the Predator Alert Tool suite. Originally written 10.09.2013. [Crossposted from maybemaimed.com]

. . .

There is no good excuse for not building sexual violence prevention tools into every social network on the Internet.

Let me say that again, because this is important.

There is no good excuse for not building sexual violence prevention tools into every social network on the Internet.

The Internet industry is in a unique position to effect arguably the most sweeping resistance to systemic sexual violence in history. Moreover, it wouldn’t even be technologically complex, or expensive. And we’ve already proved it’s possible.

Getting information about sexual violence that occurs in your community is of utmost importance to keeping oneself safe and to stopping the cycle of abuse. According to the Rape and Incest National Network (RAINN), up to 85% of sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone the survivor already knows. And according to a recent PEW Research study, 70% of American adults use Facebook.

This means it’s likely that a survivor of sexual violence is Facebook friends, or friends-of-friends, with the person who attacked them.

I’m going to say that one more time, too, because I want to make sure it sinks in: most survivors of sexual violence are only one or two degrees away from their attacker, often for the rest of their lives. Ever try to avoid hearing a TV spoiler when all your friends are talking about the TV show? It’s hard to do, and it’s frustrating when you can’t get away from it. Imagine for a moment how painful it is for people for whom it’s not a “Game of Thrones” spoiler that appears on their screen, but the picture and words of the person who raped them.

Despite this commonplace experience, almost nobody talks about it. Discussions about this are rare. And that’s not an accident. Deafening silence around this topic is by design.

Just the other day, a student raped by another student at Emerson College was told by school administrators that she “shouldn’t be making a big deal with it.” Such stories are typical in schools, workplaces, governments, houses of worship, militaries (including the US military), and families across the world. This is and has long been the norm, not the exception.

Such silencing, which is part of isolating a survivor from support structures and preventing vitally important information about sexual violence from being shared, is also the norm online. Some online dating websites like FetLife.com go so far as to admit to actively censoring postings by survivors, despite being publicly shamed for the practice. And when some people do push back against this culture of abuse online, such as in the case of the inspirational “Predditors” project, it is often they, not the people who abused and bully them, who face violence and censorship anew.

One reason for this is because the infrastructures of commercial Internet social networking and dating websites are designed to maximize corporate profits at the expense of human decency. OkCupid, which has a treasure trove of highly personal information about its users, turns a blind eye to stories its users share about being assaulted and raped while on dates facilitated by the service. When their parent company, Match.com, was sued for facilitating just such an experience, they chose to pursue an obviously ineffective and privacy-degrading settlement. Instead, OkCupid could have empowered its users with information-sharing tools that do much more good with much less effort. But to do so, they’d have to admit they weren’t even doing literally the least they could do before.

In the United States alone, one in five women say they’ve been sexually assaulted. Internationally, one in three women say they’ve been physically abused by a boyfriend, husband, or partner, sexually or otherwise. At the risk of sounding like an alarmist, this rape epidemic is a gushing wound. The patient is bleeding out, and it seems nobody knows how to stop it.

Earlier, I said we’ve already proved building tools to help prevent sexual violence wouldn’t be technologically complex or expensive. The Predator Alert Tool for OkCupid is one such tool that helps fill the gaping, bleeding, festering rape culture wound left untended by the company. Its premise is simple: ask everyone on OkCupid whether they’ve committed rape. If they answer yes, warn anyone looking at their profile that this is so.

Screenshot of Predator Alert Tool for OkCupid sexual assault question.
Screenshot of Predator Alert Tool for OkCupid installation guide.

It sounds too simple to work, but it does. And according to study after study after study, simply asking people (and, technically, the studies are only about “men”) to describe their behavior indicates that an alarming 25% of them will admit to committing the crime. That’s one in four respondents who are admitted rapists or attempted rapists.

If the person whose dating profile you’re looking at is an admitted rapist, maybe you want to think twice about going on a date with them. At the very least, maybe you want to bring a friend along or only go out on a double-date? There is nothing particularly magical or difficult to understand about how the Predator Alert Tool for OkCupid works. Yet it appears that the people who build online social networking and dating websites simply haven’t given even the bare minimum of thought to the issue.

Then again, why would they? They’re often not, say, women of color. They’re almost exclusively white men. And it’s not currently in the business interests of the white, male, silicon valley C-level executives like Mark Zuckerberg to put any thought into how the ubiquitous communications infrastructure they’re profiting from could be used to support survivors of sexual assault and rape. After all, to do that, they’d first have to admit that up to a quarter of their male user base are admitted rapists.

The Predator Alert Tool for OkCupid represents literally the least they could do. But OkCupid has done its best to pretend that the tool doesn’t exist. Similarly, Facebook’s track record on the issue is horrific. The recent #FBrape campaign, which highlighted Facebook’s policy of allowing content depicting violence against women, is an encouraging example of an awareness-raising campaign that had some positive effect.

But “raising awareness” is not a solution, merely an articulation of the problem. Facebook can and should do a lot more to prevent sexual violence than just deleting pro-rape pages when someone complains. As one of the most important telecommunication technologies on the planet, it should help connect survivors to one another.

The Predator Alert Tool for Facebook is designed to do exactly that. It’s the newest in the suite of Predator Alert Tools to come out. Like its predecessors, the Predator Alert Tool for Facebook also proves how technologically simple and inexpensive a system of survivor support can be to implement.

Released to the public domain as free software, the Predator Alert Tool for Facebook is a free Facebook app you can add to your Facebook account. Doing so lets you read what people are saying about your Facebook friends’ behavior with regards to their consent practices, and facilitates an introduction to those people if they’re willing to talk with you about their experience. Built by survivors for survivors, the Predator Alert Tool for Facebook helps survivors connect, stay safe, and stay informed.

With each new Predator Alert Tool, it’s ever more obvious that every social network on the Internet can and should have some mechanism to support survivors of sexual violence that puts control in the hands of survivors themselves, not some faceless, employed administrator or computer algorithm that activates when you click the “report” button. Moreover, with each new Predator Alert Tool’s release, it’s ever more obvious that if building and maintaining such tools can be accomplished by a rag-tag crew of volunteers in mere months, it can certainly be accomplished by the world’s largest and most influential technology companies.

Unfortunately, as headlines the world over these past few months are making clear, rather than fund efforts to build technologically augmented support structures for survivors of sexual violence, tech firms, defense contractors, and government agencies are spending financial capital and taxpayer money on unconstitutional spying campaigns. There’s no good excuse for this. There’s no good excuse for not building sexual violence prevention tools into every social network on the Internet.

There’s no good excuse for not building sexual violence prevention tools into every social network on the Internet.

Let’s continue raising awareness of the problem. But let’s also take action. I’ve been writing Predator Alert Tool computer code. What are you going to do?

Learn more about how you can help support the Predator Alert Tool suite.

The Technomadic Technomage, Mario, and Me

I’ve been meaning to get this post up for a while, but only just gotten a little time to catch up on some of my blogging backlog.

Once upon a time, I had this Nintendo Wii.

The author excitedly holding a newly-opened Wii Mario Kart steering wheel, surrounded by other Wii boxes and paraphernalia

I bought it a few years back to serve as my exercise and entertainment system during my last season in Antarctica. Then my roommate hacked it and downloaded an NES emulator for it, and we mostly used it to play Tetris all season instead.

In my most recent move, I rediscovered it at the bottom of a tub of Ice mementos and holiday clothes. Now I have a Wii again! Complete with controllers and those nifty steering wheels for playing Mario Kart.

What I don’t have is a television. (Because who owns a television in 2014?)

But Maymay was visiting when I made this discovery, and decided we were going to make the Wii work somehow anyway. We considered trying to use one of our laptop screens as a stand-in for a TV, but that seemed complicated and like it would require a bunch of adapters we didn’t want to pay for, so instead Maymay just downloaded a Wii emulator (complete with a whole bunch of new games — whee!)

Maymay wearing a green t-shirt and jeans sits on a couch holding a Wii controller set, and looks intently at a game screen (not pictured)

Fortunately, the Wii’s controllers use Bluetooth, so they were able to communicate with Maymay’s laptop the same way they would have with the Wii console itself. This is important, because I think the Wiimotes are really what makes the Wii experience fun. Trying to navigate a Wii game using a typical emulator’s keyboard commands just wouldn’t compare.

Only one thing was missing: The sensor bar. This is the little black bar that usually sits on top of your TV and tracks where the Wiimotes are in 3-dimensional space. (Otherwise, the only information the computer gets is how fast the controller is moving, via the gravitron, and which buttons you’re pressing.)

Unfortunately, the sensor bar plugs into the Wii using a proprietary attachment, so there was no way to connect it to the laptop without buying an expensive adapter. Since the idea was to do this project without spending a lot of (or, ideally, any) money, we figured we might just have to go without. But that ruled out playing any games that require the sensor bar, like Wii Bowling and Mario Galaxy and my favorite WarioWare: Smooth Moves. (Omg, it’s the most fun.)

That’s when we discovered the coolest thing about the whole Nintendo emulation process! The sensor bar isn’t actually doing the sensing in this equation.

A Wiimote pointed at a diagonal, so that the sensor window at the end is visible.

I’d always assumed it was the Wiimotes sending a signal out of that little glass window in the end, and the sensor bar receiving it. (After all, Nintendo actually describes it as a Sensor Bar that is “sensitive to direct sunlight and various light and heat sources.“)  Turns out that’s backwards. It’s actually the bar itself that emits the signal. The Wiimotes read it, and transfers that information via Bluetooth to the computer, which uses it to calculate their position in space. And the signal that the sensor bar puts out is infrared.

What is infrared light? It’s heat. (In fact, that same Wiimote trouble-shooting guide on the Nintendo webpage suggests checking the vicinity of your set-up for lit stoves, heaters, Christmas lights, etc. that might be interfering with your gameplay.) Turns out it’s about the same amount of heat as that released by your typical household tea-light candle.

The Wii "sensor bar" with two unlit white tea-light candles in front of it, one at each end.

So, if you get a couple of tea-lights and place them roughly the same distance apart as the infrared lights on your sensor bar would be, voila, you’ve got yourself a cheap “sensor bar” emulator!

Maymay, wearing a green t-shirt and jeans, sits on a couch and plays Wii by pointing a Wiimote at a laptop with two lit tealight candles in front of it.

We tried this out and it works great. But my favorite part is that having to burn candles in order to play videogames tickles all my romantic sensibilities about technomagic. ;)

A laptop displays a Wii game on screen. Two lit tealight candles sit on the table in front of the computer, with a Wiimote placed on the table in front of them.

. . .

Profile view of Maymay looking into the near distance at a screen (not pictured.)Maymay doesn’t only come up with clever solutions for my need to play Mario Kart. They also perform even more legit technomagic, writing free code to help prevent sexual violence and get healthy food to people who need it. They’ve had a bad run of luck lately with two major car repair bills and a massive computer meltdown. If you can spare a couple of bucks to help them get back on the road, I’m sure they’d appreciate it.

Sugarland’s “Stay” and Metamour Dynamics in Mainstream Music

This song kills me.

I’m not generally a country fan, but I recently moved to a part of the Midwest that plays a lot of country music on the radio and this came on in the car the other day. It grabbed me. The recording is so spare, I assumed it was some kind of classic country ballad. Until I pulled up the video on YouTube, that is. I had to bite my lip to keep from crying in public.

See, I collect “metamour media” — songs, stories, movies etc. that center the relationship between two people who have a lover in common. There’s not a lot of it out there. Mostly, when we tell stories about any kind of “love triangle” we focus on the hinge, the person who’s being “shared” and that person’s relationships with the people who are “sharing” them. We rarely see depictions — either positive or negative — of how the two “sharers” relate to each other.

There are a few examples that come to mind, though. In pop music, we’ve got Carrie Underwood’s “Two Black Cadillacs” — a song about two women who discover that their common partner is cheating on them both, and plot together to kill him:

They decided then he’d never get away with doing this to them…

I remember the first time I heard this song, my jaw dropped and I was all, “Holy shit! Was that just a metamour murder ballad??”

Then, of course, there is Dolly Parton’s classic “Jolene” — in which Dolly plaintively begs her partner’s other lover (or crush) to consider her needs:

And I can easily understand how you could easily take my man, but you don’t know what he means to me, Jolene.”

In other words, “You’re a total badass and I get why he’s into you, but please don’t let him leave me for you; I need him.” This one’s my favorite because she’s singing directly to the other woman. It’s a conversation between the two of them, and it’s extremely human.

And if you think that understanding Dolly and Jolene as metamours is trippy, imagine how much more complex that story gets when the person begging Jolene not to take his man is Jack White:

Well, you can have your choice of men, but I could never love again…

Meanwhile, in the interest of a little more gender diversity, here’s Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson battling crooning it out over a shared love interest in “The Girl is Mine“:

Michael, we’re not gonna fight about this, ‘kay?

One thing I’m sure you’ve noticed is that a major theme in all these songs is conflict. It’s not that we live in a monogamous culture, not really. Our news and art and media are full of stories of people in complex multi-person romantic relationships — it’s just that, at the core of those more-than-two dynamics, what we’re shown is almost always conflict. That conflict shows up as competition. It shows up as controlling behavior. It shows up as heartbreak. We do have some stories in which the metamours eventually team up to oust (or, apparently, kill) a cheating partner — like Brandi and Monica at the end of the video for “The Boy is Mine“:

But I’ve yet to hear a mainstream love song in which someone even so much as, for example, expresses appreciation for their partner’s supportive ex.

And, honestly, I’m kinda okay with that. At least right now. Part of what makes metamour relationships so important to me is that they’re interesting and complex. “Interesting” and “complex” are words that often also mean hard. And I like seeing the emotional difficulties often associated with sharing a partner represented in the mainstream media. I think that, even for those of us who share partners with others intentionally and consensually, many of us have gone through some less-extreme variations on the kinds of struggle, suffering, self-doubt, competition, and conflict as the ones depicted in these songs. People seeing their experiences represented in art they can identify with is a key component of not feeling hopelessly alone.

It’s worth noting that, in many of these songs, it’s never explicitly stated that the person with multiple partners is cheating. It’s generally implied — cuz multiple partners. But, in the interest of identifying with the emotions of the characters, we can read some of these lyrics not as stories about unfaithful lovers or clingy exes who won’t go away, but rather about e.g. “secondaries” in some extremely dysfunctional poly relationships.

Which takes me back to the Sugarland song that started this thread. In the Metamour Intensive seminar I gave at the Transcending Boundaries Conference a couple of years ago, one of the key themes I focused on was acknowledging the complexity of our metamour relationships. I pointed out that even in polyamorous culture, we tend to treat our metamourships as a means to an end; we invest in our relationships with our metamours not for their own unique sakes, but as another way to support our relationships with our partners. Often, our metamours are more-or-less incidental sidenotes to our partnered relationships. And — regardless of whether we like a metamour or not — treating them as if they are simply a part of our relationship story, rather than acknowledging that they are the center of a relationship story of their own, isn’t very compassionate.

When “Stay” first came on the radio, I wasn’t exactly sure what was going on. I was struck by its musical quality, but figured it was just another average jilted-lover breakup tale. But after listening for a couple of verses, I put it together: This was “the other woman” singing to her lover, asking him to stay with her instead of going home to (presumably) his wife. This immediately intrigued me, since “The Other Woman” is traditionally the villain in romance stories. I was touched to hear her made out as such a sympathetic character. (The song is written from Jennifer Nettles’ own personal life history, and you can see how deep and complicated her emotions about that experience are by the way she expresses herself in the video.)

But what really got me about this song — and I just watched the video again and I’m choking back tears again — was watching the character’s emotional development in relation to her metamour. At the beginning, the wife is nothing but an impediment to her relationship with the man she loves. “It’s just another call from home. You’ll get it and be gone, and I’ll be crying.” She struggles with confusion and frustration over what the wife has to offer him that she doesn’t, why he keeps choosing the wife over her. Throughout the song, she uses the line “Why don’t you stay?” to try and persuade her lover to choose her over his other partner. But, by the end of the song, she has decided to leave him — and she turns the phrase on its head:

“I can’t take it any longer. My will is getting stronger. And I think I know just what I have to do. I can’t waste another minute after all that I’ve put in it. I’ve given you my best; why does she get the best of you? So next time you find you want to leave her bed for mine…why don’t you stay?”

This shift is so important because, by giving that phrase over to the other relationship, she’s explicitly putting herself in the wife’s shoes. She can imagine what it must be like for the wife to have her husband constantly leaving her for another woman. And she encourages him not to do that. She makes her shift toward a compassion even more clear when she describes the wife “beg[ging] you not to go.” Certainly, she’s not leaving him for his wife’s sake. But, in choosing to leave him, she acknowledges his wife as more of a human being than she has throughout the whole beginning of the song. If you watch the video, I think you can see this shift happening around 3:40. It coincides with her shift towards seeing herself as more of a human being, as deserving of a loving relationship with someone who’s really there for her. And watching both those shifts in perspective happen simultaneously is profound.

EDITED TO ADD:

Oh hey, I just remembered, there is a well-known pop song that suggests a pretty positive metamour dynamic. ;)

The Spice Girls – Wannabe

How Privacy Works in the Predator Alert Tools

The Predator Alert Tool for OkCupid was recently written up in a lovely, succinct, accessible article by Lifehacker‘s Alan Henry: Predator Alert Warns You If Your OkCupid Prospect Might Be Dangerous.

Of course, as per usual, the Bitter BDSMer Brigade showed up to spam the comment section with random conspiracy theories. But this actually gave me a great opportunity to talk about how data privacy and administrative access function in each of the core Predator Alert Tools. So, win!

My comment is copied here for your reading pleasure:


 

story645 said: “there are accusations that he’s been using this extension (or an earlier one he made for fetlife) to mine people’s data so that he could prey on them.”

First of all, Maymay uses they/them pronouns.

Secondly, I simply want to address the rumors that any of our Predator Alert Tools are being used for malicious purposes by talking a little bit about the technology behind each tool in the suite:

* PAT-FetLife: [http://maybemaimed.com/playground/pre…] Runs on an 100% transparent database. It is basically just a big online spreadsheet that users can submit information to — anonymously if they wish. No log-in or password information is ever required to use PAT-Fetlife. The database is posted publicly and is visible to anybody who wants to look at it, including the administrator. But there is nothing the administrator can see that you or I can’t, and there is nothing in the database besides what users voluntarily decide to post. The other piece of PAT-Fetlife, the part that highlights flagged profiles in yellow while you’re browsing Fetlife, is a client-side extension that only interacts with your browser locally. No administrator has access to it.

* PAT-OkCupid [https://unquietpirate.wordpress.com/2013/04/04/how…] Again, PAT-OkCupid only collects information that is already public. It works by looking at an OkCupid user’s publicly-answered Match questions and highlighting their profile in red if those answers suggest cause for concern. PAT-OkCupid scrapes data about how users have answered Match questions, as long as those answers are set to “public” at the time PAT-OkCupid looks at their profile. (Actually, now that I think about it, we haven’t really considered the issue of how PAT-OkC responds when a user changes or privates their Match answer. That might be something to consider for a future version.) Anyway, again, PAT-OkCupid doesn’t give the administrator any information that isn’t also available to every OkCupid user.

* PAT-Facebook [https://apps.facebook.com/predator-alert…]: is a Facebook app that allows users to semi-anonymously share information about experiences of abuse, and connect that information with the Facebook profiles of the person who abused them. PAT-Facebook is the only existing Predator Alert Tool that has the technological potential for administrator abuse. This is because PAT-Facebook allows users to give their “reports” a privacy setting — for example, they can choose to share only with friends, or only with other people who have reported the same abuser, and they can choose whether or not to display their identity alongside their report. But, as with Facebook itself, all of these “private” messages are hosted on a central server and visible to the administrator of that server. Even though PAT-Facebook does not surreptitiously collect any data besides what users voluntarily provide, it does technically allow an admin access to data that the user probably intended only for their friends or another limited audience.

Personally, I feel confident that Maymay has never used their admin access to look at any non-public PAT-Facebook post, and I trust them not to do so in the future. But I don’t expect Internet strangers who don’t know me from Adam to take my word for that, and they shouldn’t. Because PAT-Facebook is the only Predator Alert Tool that is potentially vulnerable to this kind of administrative abuse, we have gone to extra pains with this tool to decentralize *administrator* control, and we have also been especially painstaking about reminding users that no information you post on the Internet is ever 100% private, and encouraging them to prioritize their own safety when making a report.

In short: If you don’t trust Maymay, you probably shouldn’t use PAT-Facebook. But, since we know there are people who don’t trust Maymay, we’ve made a point of building PAT-Facebook in ways that will make it easy for them to run and control on their own server. You can read more about how to do that here: http://unquietpirate.tumblr.com/post/641686138…

* PAT-Twitter [http://maymay.net/blog/2014/05/2…]: is the simplest tool to explain in terms of privacy. PAT-Twitter lets you make lists of Twitter users who you want to flag, and allows you to add a comment about why you are flagging them. It uses a similar interface to regular Twitter Lists, with one big difference: Twitter Lists are stored on the Twitter server. PAT-Twitter lists are stored on your computer. That’s it. Your PAT-Twitter lists live in your browser. This is called an “unhosted app.” The only way Maymay can get any data about you via PAT-Twitter is if you lend them your laptop.

If you want other people to be able to use your PAT-Twitter lists, you can also publish them to a simple server called a “Facilitator.” Then, anybody who has access that facilitator can download them — and anyone who doesn’t, can’t. Starting your own facilitator is easy as pie. Maymay runs a publicly-accessible one here: https://pat-twitter.herokuapp.com/ I run another one here: http://ancient-garden-8851.herokuapp.com/ And simple instructions for installing your own are at the bottom of the PAT-Twitter README. If you want to prevent someone from seeing who you’re flagging, just keep your list private on your computer, or only publish it to a password-protected facilitator that you share with your friends.

* PAT-Lulu, PAT-BangWithFriends, PAT-ChristianMingle, and the upcoming PAT-JDate are all built on top of the four core Predator Alert Tools described above. (PAT-Lulu and PAT-BWF use the PAT-Facebook engine. PAT-CM and PAT-JD use the same framework as PAT-Fetlife.) They share the privacy model of whichever core PAT they are based on.

We have also been working with another developer who has some good ideas for PAT-Tumblr, and we recently got word that there may be a Predator Alert Tool in the works for Match.com.(!) We don’t know what the technology will look like for either of those tools yet, but we will remain committed to the same principles of transparency, prioritizing survivor safety, and user control/ownership of data that we always have.

I’m happy to answer more questions if people have them. :)

Whole People Make Better Allies Than Parts of People: My review of ‘Savages’

This is a review I wrote of the movie Savages soon after it came out. My original draft is dated 8.15.2012 but I work slowly, so you’re getting it almost a year later. If you were ever going to see the film, you’ve probably seen it by now. Still, be warned that this is chock full of spoilers and potentially triggering references to gendered and racialized violence.

. . .

Savages. I have to say something about it, don’t I? I’ll say this: It took me by surprise.

Savages is, first and foremost, a pornographically gratuitous depiction of gory violence committed almost exclusively against people of color by white people. Or by other people of color for reasons directly related to white people. It’s a move about the drug war that pits Good White American hippie pot dealers against malicious and terrifyingly evil yet somehow also hopelessly bumbling Brown Bad Guys. It’s wall-to-wall with insulting caricatures of Mexican folks. And it paints the DEA as a corrupt but well-intentioned group of dudes that ultimately saves the day. Um…what?

Meanwhile, the movie’s gender stereotyping is out of this world. Out of a huge cast, we have only four named female characters: Two spoiled and shallow city girls who love to shop, the hardened drug queenpin who inherited a cartel from her dead husband but who really just wants to be a mom, and a sainted wife dying of cancer who provides emotional motivation for one of the male characters but who we never actually see. The three female characters who do get screentime show some grit but also flail around and cry a lot. They appear toughest mostly while providing men with encouragement to do ruthless things in their defense.

Rolling racism and misogyny tightly together, the camera treats lily white Blake Lively with the most blatant male gaze I’ve seen in a while. It lingers unabashedly on her glowing, gauzy, golden blonde innocence, caressing her pouty lips and designer dresses. The film is inexplicably interspersed with random shots of her looking lost and beautiful on a sunny beach, lest the viewer forget for a moment that all of this gore and brutality is in the interest of saving the princess. O is the Prettiest White Girl and brown people are going to die horribly to protect her feminine purity.

Speaking of which, the movie uses rape as a plot device. Let me tell you how much I hate movies that use a graphic on-screen depiction of rape as a plot device. Someone once gave me a copy of The Other Boleyn Girl as a gift. I like historical fiction, even sort of trashy historical fiction, but half an hour in, the gratuitous rape scene started. I stopped the movie, ejected the brand new DVD, threw it in the trash, and walked out of the room. I realize that rape-as-plot-device is hard to avoid, at least if you ever want to see a movie or watch TV or read a book, because it’s so ingrained in our rape-culture-infused genre conventions. I will say that Savages handled the rape scene in certain ways better than others. But they still included a depiction likely to trigger a huge proportion of their audience just to make it clear, in case we weren’t already sure from all the other murder and torture, that Evil Brown Bad Guy really is Evil and Bad.

In illustrating that people who do horrible things can also be human and fallible (and that even attractive young white people can be cold-blooded and horrible!) the movie seems to be aiming at some kind of clumsy moral ambiguity. It gets close a couple of times, such as the conversation between John Travolta’s corrupt DEA agent and Benicio Del Toro who has come to his house to kill him. Ultimately, though, what we end up with looks more like, “White people can do no wrong and brown people can do no right — because white people have Reasons for being violent, whereas brown people are just violent by nature.”

In the end, the princess is verily rescued by her two handsome lovers (and the DEA) and they all retire happily to Indonesia — land of “savages”. Savages. The word smacks of racism and so does this movie from start to finish.

And I loved it. I loved it because its the first and only film I’ve ever seen in which the romantic subplot is about three people who are in love with each other and the story about that relationship isn’t simply that it exists. Sure, I’ve seen other movies with triads or vees before. Ones in which the idea of a threesome isn’t simply porn or comic relief. Gregg Araki’s screwball comedy Splendor is a cute one.  Vicky Cristina Barcelona is emotionally complex. I like Bandits a lot because it treats its three-way relationship with playfulness and humanity and also because I just like clever heist movies. But even in these films, the structure of the relationship remains a point of contention among the people in the relationship. It’s highlighted throughout that this is a weird thing to do and that the people doing it are struggling with it. Savages never bats an eye.

The story is that O, Ben, and Chon got together and have been together since. Period. At no point is it ever implied that O will have to choose between the two men or that her relationship with one of them is more real than the other. The three have fights and drama about the kind of stuff that couples also have fights and drama about, but there’s never a suggestion that the men have fought over O, or that anybody secretly dreams of monogamy. They all love each other and that’s how it is. It’s a genuinely complex and complicated relationship in which the thing that’s complicated isn’t the fact that there are three people in it. And like any triad in the real world, they deal with outside censure from others, but the most explicitly critical thing anyone says is Elena’s comment to O: “They may Iove you, but they will never Iove you as much as they Iove each other. Otherwise, they wouldn’t share you, would they?” Yes, it’s implicitly homophobic, but it centers the metamour relationship — and so does the movie.

That is the closest I’ve ever seen on-screen to a representation of me. To the kind of intimacy that feels right to me. A kind of intimacy I feel unable to access for all kinds of reasons, including that my way of loving is never even shown as possible in the media that writes our cultural consciousness. Case in point: Other reviews of Savages complain that the relationship between Ben, Chon and O is never explained to their satisfaction, and that this makes the movie seem unbelievable and fantastical since “literally the entire premise of the film hangs on their relationship”. But lots of other action movies hinge on the idea that some guy loves his wife or kid so much he’s willing to go on a killing spree, and reviewers never say, “Prove it.”

Even Savages is a tiny, pathetic crumb of representation. Apart from the one salient detail, these peoples’ lives are nothing like mine. I don’t identify with any of them as an individual. I’m not Taylor Kitsch. I’m not Aaron Johnson. And I sure as hell am not Blake Lively. It’s a love story about three people who don’t resemble me in any way, tucked inside in a badly-written, trigger-riddled flick suggesting that “the drug war” is between white Americans and brown foreigners and that white people deserve to win. Still, I left the theater walking on clouds.

As we walked home in the late night desert heat, my partner asked, “What did you think?”

“I…am completely incapable of critically analyzing that movie right now,” I said.

I knew, distantly and abstractly, that lots of things about the film were problematic. As we’d watched, the part of my brain that clocks oppressive media messages had been tracking them in the back of my head. But that part was completely drowned out by another part of my brain. I haven’t been paying attention to the poly news cycle, or any news cycle. I’d heard nothing about the film, critical or otherwise. We picked it randomly because it was $2 at the cheap seats and we didn’t want to see Men In Black 3. So, I had gone totally unprepared. Unguarded. And found myself hanging on every scrap and scene of the developing love story, going, “…Really? Oh my god. Really? Really??” My stomach fluttering, my nervous heart opening hopefully, tentatively, all the while waiting for the inevitable moment when the angst would start, when she would be forced to choose, when she’d end up happily ever aftering with one or the other of them and I would be crushed. It never came.

I asked my partner what they had thought and they made some comments about the depictions of violence. We discussed the handling of the rape scene. And then I stopped in my tracks. “You know what was actually the most intense part for me?” I said slowly, “The love scene. The one with the three of them. It wasn’t a porno cut scene meant to titillate and scandalize the audience. It wasn’t joke. Hell, they didn’t even show the sex. That was a love scene. A standard-issue Hollywood love scene between three people. Somebody put that in a MOVIE.” And then I started crying and they held me for a while, standing in the middle of the street, with our border town’s imposing ever-present cop cars rolling by.

When we got back to the house, our roommate was there and asked what we’d gone to see. “Savages,” I said, blushing slightly. “Oh god,” she grimaced, “How was it?” I’m a white girl who grew up steeped in middle-class liberal aversive racism. I carry a lot of sticky privilege guilt around the women of color in my life. I was embarrassed to admit to my radical Xicana roommate, who talks explicitly and often about the harm that racism has done her and her family growing up on the border, that I’d spent the cost of a meal to be entertained by this blatantly white supremacist propaganda. “It was…” I paused for a moment, trying to think “You know what it’s like growing up queer and never seeing yourself on TV and then, the first time you walk into a movie, and you see someone who looks like you, or your partner, or your relationship up on the screen…” She nodded, wide eyed. “So, um, it was a terrible movie. Like, it was problematic, and it was also just bad. Bad acting. Bad script. Stupid plot. But…”

We sat and talked, then. She told me about the first time she saw real friendship between women of color on screen. We talked about intersections of oppression and radical compassion, about how sometimes a thing that is triggering for you is healing for someone you care about and vice versa. We hugged. We cried. I gushed. I felt validated, seen, and loved. And in the morning, my critical faculties came back online, and I was able to think clearly and write in detail about how the movie was fucking racist.

There’s a larger point to be made here about how giving each other space to hurt and heal, even though healing can be a twisted road through strange and difficult pastures, allows all of us to become better allies. But this what I have to say about Savages: Don’t go see it; it’s fucking racist. Unless you are one of the few people in the world fortunate enough that you can sit through graphic depictions of racialized violence, misogyny, and rape, and view them critically without being re-traumatized by them. In that case, please go see it. For me.

ETA: I woke up this morning wondering about the etymology of the phrase “off the chain,” which I originally used to describe the gender stereotyping in this film, and whether it had racist connotations. I did some research, by which I of course mean “I asked Google.” I discovered a wide range of conjectures about where the idiom comes from, including slavery, dog fighting, and telephones. But regardless of the phrase’s roots, one thing I learned for sure is that I was using it wrong. *blush* I’ve replaced it above with “out of this world.”

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