Blog Post

DML2011 liveblog: Designing Agency

Beth Coleman (CMS-MIT) introduces. Participants: Ricardo Dominguez via Skype, Alice Marwick (Microsoft Research), Sasha Costanza-Chock. 

What are we talking about when we talk about agency? How do we relate agency and activism? Articulating a common set of principles to start with -- a box that presentations may break out of!

Pervasive media: real time visual copresence, important not so mcuh for fantasy of ubiquitous computing but how we work with the noisiness of the system to construct agency. Bell and Dourish: ubiquitous computing is already here but it's not the pristine science fiction vision technologists have often imagined for the future.

Ethan Zuckerman and Mary Gray: global media and rural communities, strategies of what people do when they're not totally connnected but living in a culture of a sense of networks.

Albert Bandura: agency as interactional causal structure. The central enabling factor is people's belief abvout their capability to exercise control over events in their lives. Testing your belief out on the world, changing the environment.

How does agency translate to activism? Everyday practices, feminist practices, general 'activist' practice: getting over the break between 'real activism in the streets' and 'what the girls are doing at home.

Technologies of activism; spaces of how agency gets posited.

Hillary Clinton's Internet Rights and Wrongs: talking about Tunisian, Egyptian revolutions. Internet as on one hand "accelerant of political, social, and economic change" and also as means to "stifle or extinguish" that change. What are our ethical obligations as scholars, activists, etc?

Ushahidi Platform (  put together 2007  in response to corrupted Kenyan presidental elections. Coalition of activists and media designers: an activist crowdsourcing map. SMS as default data input, reporting what's happening; mapping engine creates map, timeline, also alerts people by SMS and email. Using Google Maps API along with free/open source design; used in other countries (Haiti, Russia, Pakistan for different purposes)


Alice Marwick (postdoc at 

The closet in context: fashion blogs. Personal style bloggers, women who take pictures of themselves in cute outfits and put them on the web. An area of blogging that is growing. She interviews bloggers and analyzes discourse around them.

Agency, Democracy, Branding. Core claim of web 2.0 is that it is democratizing, which usually means a resouce typically controlled by elites has wider participation in web 2.0. ie, fashion bloggers allows those who are not part of fashion's elites to influence style. Also from a post-9/11 idea of fashion as representative of woman's right to self expression, a right under threat elsewhere (ie for the poor women of Afghanistan in their burqas; cf Sex and the City scene of women wearing couture under their burqas).

Fashion blogging part of this but also about fashion for queer women, women of color, women of size & others excluded from fashion elites.

Flickr group: wardrobe_remix. Mundane act of getting dressed given meaning; de Certeau tactics of consumption.

Most successful fashion bloggers conventionally model-esque (a few exceptions; and cf presentation on fat positive fashion that I sadly missed yesterday); and, queer femme asian guy. But more conventionally fashionesque bloggers get perks from designers.

Top 50% of fashion bloggers have small ads from brands; recognized as a force for word of mouth marketing. Conference on marketing: seeing bloggers as "hyper consumers" an "interface between industry and customers". 

Selling out? Brand connections (and book deals bring status), but elaborate systems of meaning evolve around brand names. (Hatred of one blogger for Ugg books was courted by Ugg; "You can't buy me")

Agency, authenticity, the subject. A "good" fashion blogger has an authentic voice valued enough to get free stuff but individual enough to appeal as personal style. 


Sasha Costanza-Chock. Design+Agency+Mobile Tech. Mobile Agents: activist lessons for real world tech design

Important to draw lessons from what's happening around the edges of social movement practices--rather than asking what affordances of a given technology is. Exploring movement media use by hanging out wth movements. Mobile Voices Project. Mobile the form of network communication technology that most people on earth have access to. Globally and within US; Pew findings that African American & Latino populations use mobile data apps more (matter of both innovation among communities & also of distirbution of broadband, computers, etc).

What are activists doing with mobile devices?

-Journalism and storytelling (Oscar Grant's murder in Oakland, cell phone video widely circulated). Worldwide cirulcation of mobile media from Japan.

- Research, mobile tools for data gathering. FrontlineForms SMS, open toolkit where any researcher/community organizer can design a form to download onto cheap phones, encodes characters into form that can be sent via SMS to database. OpenDataKit for smartphones. LA group will be using this to gather data about housing violations.

- Action alerts, eg campaign to get Lou Dobbs off CNN --SMS campaign combined with Spanish language talk radio campaign, street action that drove print coverage in English and English language media; SMS call to action in all forms. Transmedia mobilization.

-Mapping platforms like Ushigiri, to display information gathered by SMS.

- Fundraising; most famous eg $30m raised by Red Cross for Haiti by small SMS donations; foursquare campaign donated when people checked in at the location of a poster for Earthjustice organization

- Media/remix. Phillipines has highest level of mobile participation, 2-3 simcards per person, activist jokes and ringtones celebrated


Ricardo Dominguez via Skype. What does artivism offer this conversation?

CalIT Artivist laboratory b.a.n.g. lab, Electronic Disturbance Theatre 2.0; continuing the work of hacktivism. What did in meant to be interpellated into an institution & to be putting forward institutional critique? & also border disturbance, San Diego/Tijuana. Also nanotechnology, unauthorized use of particle technology.

Researchers' approach not only thinking about communication and documentation. Is there something else? Direct action & electronic civil disobedience.

Approach projects thinking about design: evaluating infrastructure -- no-fi (primary modality), lo-fi, hi-fi (too expensive). Ie, looking for cheap technology available on a mass scale using ubiquitous infrastructures.
Syntactical: is code available, open, manageable, fairly easy to transfer knowledge to individuals and communities.
Semantics: three words to bring to the foreground for the project's trajectory (eg electronic civil disobedience); resonant aesthetic terms.

2007, border disturbance art and technologies, GPS based media art. Virtual hiker algorithms; GPS art had generally been based on narratives of urban discovery rather than looking at movement through nonurban landscapes. The transporter immigrant tool: a speculative concept, available infrastructure (cheap GPS enabled Motorola phone); project to help people access water but also artistic dimension of "geopoetics". 

<Skype image freezes then comes alive to utter the words "poetic estrangement," in a performative moment>


Opens for Q&A; Beth begins with the "easy target" of Malcolm Gladwell. But beyond critiquing him, where are the failures of media activism? 

Where is risk--putting the body at risk?

Does network media exist to document (ushahidi: witness, but there is also action there. Online/offline feedback). 

Activism risks changing a system--as opposed to using social media to hang out with friends, using social media to make a change.

Ricardo: risk comes with online transparency in digital disturbance tactics.

Sasha: EDT put theory of electronic disturbance in practice, but cf the massification of this strategy with Anonymous actions for Wikileaks etc--can see conversations about this in anonymous IRC &c. Risk? Of being grabbed from houses, imprisoned awaiting prosecution. Doesn't make sense to distinguish between networked and other forms of activism here.

Beth: These forms of activism are international/global and anarchistic. 

Alice: Distinctions between an everyday action with political implications and an activist act or self-definition as activist. (What if someone doesn't want to be perceived as activist? Cf the way it's political to be a woman of size involved in fashion, but maybe she just wants to look cute. Political and activist not the same thing [comment: this connects very much to the fan activism panel I also liveblogged]

Beth: where do we see transformations? Eg Anonymous, going from a troll to a political activist. 

Sasha: what are the problems with drawing this distinction; networked cultural practices not oroented toward cultural change become a substrate in so-called "real" political action. cf Korean teen fashion bloggers catalyzing huge street mobilizations.

Beth: who owns the tools? Eg YouTube. & reporting of eg Tunisia; something reported as twitter-hashtag inspired by western media, when story on the ground was that it was the YouTube video that transformed bearing witness into activity on the ground.

Q: bringing in term "discursive activism," for sharing media in relatively apolitical ways. Comfort in the space of discursive activism (might be Facebook)--then a turning point into other forms of politics.

Beth: publicness of eg Egyptian facebook activism; is it a question of timing, how fast someone can act?

Sasha: what structures enable or constrain agency (whether or not it's understood as explicitly political). Includes eg the possibility of anonymity in the space. Can media and content easily become spreadable? [my comment that seems too minor to raise my hand for: not everybody wants their content to be spreadable even if they want it to be public!]

Q: how do people build up their sense of their capacity for their skills, their power? Classic definitions of democracy as the people we can 'face'; are we seeing a jump into larger movement politics, or fast moving smaller groups?

Response from audience: Eric Hobsbawm's idea of social banditry. People historically have been outsid ethe law, antagonistic with the state, but not conscious of themselves as political. Pirates etc. Gradually they might become political, tip into thinking of themselves that way. If you have a long history of that kind of participation but it has a digital trace you can't remove when it might have political implications of bodily risk... Is there a kind of digital hygeine we can teach? Beth: that's what media literacy is. 

Beth: to learn from game design, where a game gets interesting because you can affect the world in a way that you can see. 

Sasha: games also demonstrate blurriness of binary between simulated and 'real world' action.

Sasha: embodied learning, project based learning; critical digital media literacy has to be read/write, deconstructing and creating AND linking to real world action: a praxis of digital literacy. 

Beth: what happens after we topple the statue, after the big romantic moments of direct action? How do people keep on living together afterward? Continuum of the everyday with larger actions.

Q: strategic value in uncoupling social change from the markers of activism? Familiar and exciting model of people in the street, but there is also social change occurring that doesn't look like that or doesn't have a radicalizing moment. 

Beth: meeting people where they are.


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