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Towards Feminist Listening: Community Archives, Feminist Servers, and Corporate Tech Imaginaries

Reviewed by Dr Sandra Nelson (9th of August, 2023)

Published onAug 21, 2023
Towards Feminist Listening: Community Archives, Feminist Servers, and Corporate Tech Imaginaries
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Abstract

In this article, I will discuss ways in which listening happens from a community archive paradigm, its tensions when caught in corporate tech imaginaries (as forms of belonging) and how drawing from feminist servers, supports developing an ethos of feminist listening, to not only sustained marginalised heritage but also create systems of differences.

Ethos of feminist listening

Feminist listening is an approach to counter othering in full stack technology and society at large. It recognises the need to return to a human foci to sustain politically engaged community heritage. It recognises the plurality of individual voices in collectives, notes the resonances and tensions between them, and seeks to share their struggles and hopes. Feminist listening is not a claim to new terrains or fields of knowledge; it is instead a call, an act, from our place, your place and other places, for collective listening, firmly located in feminist ethics of care, community heritage and digital humanities.

In this article, I will discuss ways in which listening happens in a community archive paradigm, its tensions when caught in digital currents and how drawing from feminist servers, supports developing an ethos of feminist listening, to not only sustained marginalised heritage but also create systems of differences.

Community archives and social paradigms

In Preserving Queer Voices, Sharon Webb (2023) discussed community, grassroots and DIY archives as unique and crucial contributions to historical narratives.1 Archives that render visible marginalised heritage and counter hegemonic, heteronormative and patriarchal thinking of heritage.

The community archive is also a lived spaces from social memory blends with political memory,2 towards cultural memory,3 towards social change. A space for memory storage. At its core, beating strong, is a collective force and care, vitalised by the strength of people's vulnerabilities, visibilities, collective voices in pluralities.

Making a community archive a place of social practice, distributed agency and heritage, from which hierarchies of memories fit in different horizontal forms of modulations (rather than hierarchal), from different access points, with avenues that enable different forms of inhabiting, listening and voicing: authored in name, authored in the anonymous, in resonances, in silences, in recognition, in changes.

Digital community archives and imaginaries

Network memories are networked digital objects⁠ that, in their materiality, are 'plyable', 'reprogrammable' , and shaped ⁠by the places and algorithms in which they circulate, connect to, and are distributed within.4 Framing memory not as an end point but a social process.5

To maintain a community archive means to include both ‘history’ as storage, as ‘a representation of the past’; and to include ‘memory’ as a set of social process towards the act of remembering, as the ‘life’ force of the community archive and as an active agent in the shaping of belongings, as cultural imaginaries.6 However, when 'networked' (as part of the multitude of the Internet platforms/services, networks), individual and social memories blend with hypersurveillances, and neoliberalism values, while the archive is caught in the streams of hypermemory and hyperamnesia.7 As a result, community archive cultural imaginaries - forms of belongings- entangle with assumed digital citizenships (yet a different form of belonging) and corporate tech imaginaries (corporate imagined forms of belongings).

What does it mean when community archives are situated within corporate tech imaginaries?

Corporate tech imaginaries are by themselves paradoxes. They often frame missions of 'democracy' and 'tech for good' in relation to capitals (e.g. culture capital, social capital, neoliberalism). This results in the development of 'black boxed' technology that, mine, scrape, and extract natural and human resources (e.g. genetics, labour). Design and production practices that not only reproduce inherited cultural bias, micro-aggressions, violence at an impossible speed and scale, but also dictate how knowledge is distributed by whom, and for what.

Opening the 'black box', Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler in their Anatomy of AI System (2018) points that full stack reaches beyond the multi-layered ‘technical stack’ of data modelling, hardware, servers and networks, into capital, labor and nature.8

Anatomy of an AI system ( Crawford and Joler, 2018) is a full stack mapping of the Amazon Echo - Alexa - a machine listening device that contains seven directional microphones, audio signal processing and machine learning to make sense of sound and speech. The user can be 'listen to' at all time, and 'listening' is also frame to support visual-impaired user.
https://anatomyof.ai/img/ai-anatomy-map.pdf

Crawford and Joler offered different entry points to the 'anatomy' of Alexa listening system at the intersections between human, nature and technology. By framing the 'user' as 'simultaneously a consumer, a resource, a worker, and a product', one can see how full stack become an echo of democratic societies at large, and the 'user' as its 'citizen'. However, such full stack, are claimed terrains with, as stated by Crawford and Joler, constant tracking, quantification, and commodification. It is a terrain where boundaries between the personal and public are opaque, where commodification of listening leads to hypersurveillance. Therefore, in such systems, what does it mean to belong as a citizen or non-citizen? This is particularly relevant when thinking about digital community archives that might include and for example migrants, forced migrants, a person on the borders of society or at risk.

Hacking digital pathways for a community archive

When marginalised, access to levels of technological autonomy and creativity become central to hacking and digging deep new shared digital pathways. A slow and laborious process takes place, often built from lived experiences, situated, often finding roots in punk, repair culture, do it together, crafts and activism.

Drawing from Yuval-Davis's Politics of Belonging, where care is discussed as an alternative metaphysics, because ‘identities and belonging need to be constructed primarily not as autonomous rational attitudes but as relational and dialogical’.9 How then can forms of belonging take place in full stack systems?

Corporate tech imaginaries - whether AI systems, quantum systems, future systems - in their race for supremacy, speeding up, scaling up, makes it harder for a people and communities to keep up with access to tech and to be able to develop their alternative tech imaginaries and belonging.

However, Feminist servers are such alternative, not a utopia. For example, Systerserver,10 and AnarchaServer,11 are feminist servers and place of relationality between voices, collective memories, collections or archives, ethics of care, and open source tech, as alternative social systems12 and systems of memory.

Feminist Servers Manifesto and evolving ethos, frames agency (e.g access, skills, collaboration, slow/fast computing), knowledge (e.g. awareness of the tools your are using) and politics (e.g freedom of speech).13 A Feminist Server...

Feminist Servers Manifesto, Feminist Server Summit afterlife, from 2013 https://areyoubeingserved.constantvzw.org/Summit_afterlife.xhtml + Ministry of Hacking, October 2014,esc, Graz - https://etherdump.constantvzw.org/p/feministserver.diff.html

Although not stated as such, but understood, these values, together and some individually, also frame an approach to ethics of care (e.g. maintenance, sustainable and accessible systems). Values that Full Stack Feminism would like to build from and with.

Feminist servers are collectives of plurality, as marginalised voices get materialised and our, or their, different memories and collections cumulate towards collectives listening.

Reflecting Feminist Servers collective listening, during Trans Hack Feminism,14 in raising questions such as “what would be the purposes and principles of a feminist server? Can feminist servers support women, feminists and GLBTQI in their fight for having their rights such as freedom of expression and opinion respected? Can we create trust among us to develop cooperative approaches to the management of those spaces of resistance and transformation?" And I would add can feminist servers support freedom of listening?

Collective of listening

Collective listening is situated (in relation to time [e.g era], space [e.g culture, politics] and action). It produces forms of togetherness. Farinati and Firth framed listening as a method or technique of social change.15

Collective listening with a community archive or a feminist server is first a call for recognition that leads to individual change, solidarity and collective strength, shifting who or what can be seen. It is also a call for social change as marginalised heritage, for example, heritage that has yet to enter public listening. In For More Than One Voice, Adriana Cavarero (2005) states:

Without [...] communication, without action in a shared space of reciprocal exhibition, uniqueness remains a mere ontological given – the given of an ontology that is not able to make itself political.16

Zooming in on listening, as part of a broad corporate tech imaginaries, I draw from Lucia, and Firth's listening as a conscious act and active,17 while Nick Couldry (2010) discussed it as a process to ‘recognize and register the uniqueness of others' narratives’.18

I would state that to listen of your own accord is willing to be transformed.

I differentiate feminist listening from the Echo machine listening system - as a an 'ear' in your home, the home of another, the home of others, as hypersurveillance.

Alternatively, listening with/within Feminist Servers becomes a relational process, as network between individual paths, a collective organism, converging in the creation of a social space, towards a political space.

In Relating Narrative, Caverero, discuss listening not as a single act, but part of mechanism of "storytelling", "story-taking" (here as memories) and vulnerability and violence.19 Huzar and Wooldford (2021) further frame vulnerability towards an ethics of care of non-violence: ‘Instead, the insurrectionary humanism of their accounts of vulnerability reveals the imbrication of the ethical, the ontological, and the political’.20

Taking memories and vulnerability as yet to be reflected in the design and application of systems - like the ECHO/Alexa/Amazon machine listening system, when the act of listening can be transformed as... a mediation of inequalities, with capitalism aim, consumerism gain fed by chasing the new and future tech desires to produced with 'efficiency', to be better 'connected', to 'care' ... taking individual experiences to performed equalities as endless monologues, stripped of its labour, stripped of its heritage... exchanging a care culture for one of maintenance and profits...

Feminist listening as social change

When the act of listening comes from the place the user inhabits, a community archive, which in return 'inhabits' full stack modes of listening, rather than the tech inhabiting the archive, it transforms the process of listening towards an approach to feminist listening, one that reflects feminist servers' values and approaches (mentioned above) .

In Force of Listening (2017), Farinati and Firth

think of listening as a method or technique of social change, a practice for creating potential political spaces, changing decision making processes and organisational processes and therefore transforming power relations in a very direct and concrete way.21

Full Stack Feminism recognises the need for community archives, from multiple places, in pluralities, navigating the edges between their own listening, public listening, and tech listening. When embraced – for example by the feminists servers – it contributes to the development of new understanding in designing systems of differences. It is implementing an ethics of care led by the people who inhabits those systems, starting but by no mean authoring or ending with feminist listening, a practice to be tailored from our and your own voices. Here is our hope.

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