Technology protest: what do you do?

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

Social Media Collective at Microsoft Research write about some responses to social media protest:

It’s common, and easy, to say “just don’t use it.” There’s actually a term for this– technology refusal– meaning people who strategically “opt out” of using overwhelmingly prevalent technologies. This includes teens who’ve committed Facebook suicide because it causes too much drama; off-the-grid types who worry about the surveillance potentials of GPS-enabled smartphones; older people who think computers are just too much trouble; and, of course, privacy-concerned types who choose not to use Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, websites with cookies, or any other technology that could potentially compromise their privacy. (This does not include people who can’t afford internet access or computers, or who live in areas without cell towers or broadband access.)… [There is] the idea that refusal is the only legitimate way to protest something one thinks is problematic, unconscionable, unethical, or immoral… I generally do not buy this idea. Here are three reasons why.

The Cost of Opting Out

Opting-out of watching The Bachelorette because I think it romanticizes sexism doesn’t impact me the same way that choosing not to have a cellphone does. If I choose not to have a cellphone, I am choosing to exist in a world where social norms have adapted to cellphones without adapting myself. Face it, someone without a cellphone requires everyone who interacts with that person to make special accommodations for them… not having a cellphone puts one at a serious disadvantage…

The Civic Responsibility to Critique

Members of a community (nation, state, book group, dining club, whatever) have a responsibility to criticize and suggest alternatives to things they find problematic, whether those are government principles, media representations, website policies, or laws. In fact, this is such a cultural norm that the right to protest is enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the US Constitution…

It’s Not Free

Social software is not free [the blog means price for those of you who immediately thought about liberty]… Only the most staunch pro-market capitalist would argue that a customer has no right to complain about a product or service that she is paying for, either directly or through the exchange of personal information.

I was, frankly, tempted to let this slide by in a linkspam, but we’re a bit quiet around here this week, so, let’s talk about varying forms of technology protest. Here are some of mine:

I left Facebook and will probably leave LinkedIn (just need to get some opinions from colleagues on whether this will be professionally damaging) over those sites’ like of using users to advertise products (LinkedIn just turned this on, here’s how to opt-out and here is their response to criticism), and Facebook’s continual cycles of making information shared with advertisers or applications and later making it opt-out in response to another wave of protest.

I am undecided on Google+: I intensely dislike their wallet-name policy, perhaps especially given that the initial policy was “name you are known by”, but it also has a lot of the features I miss about Facebook (in-line comments, longer entries than Twitter), so the cost of opting-out is a consideration for me there.

I keep some data in the cloud and use some Google services, although not as many as a lot of tech people (my personal email is not in Gmail, for example). There’s some cost of opting-out there too: cloud computing may be a trap but I notice Richard Stallman has an organisation that pays people to be his sysadmins (or could, at least, I can’t say I am certain whether RMS admins his own boxes). I could host my own instance, Diaspora, etc, but I don’t have the time or money. There’s also reader/friend cost: many more people follow me on Twitter than on as it is, almost no one ever logs into Diaspora that I’ve seen. I am simply not powerful enough to force my friends to follow me to different sites, so to some extent I stay where they are.

Most recently, I bought an Amazon Kindle which is fairly well evil (ie, so DRMed it’s possible that it will grow legs in the night, scan and eat my paper books, and make me ring Jeff Bezos in future for permission to read them). This is actually a response to even more nastiness to some degree: at least Amazon sells some recent e-books to Australian customers, relative to almost all of the ePub vendors anyway, and moreover sells them at the US price as opposed to the special markup (about 100%) Australians pay for anything electronic or Internetty. So that’s flat-out poor options, there.

I am committed to the right to complain about things I use in general: to be honest I think a lot of the “leave if you don’t like it” criticism, at least from people who are themselves apathetic, is rooted in “it’s not cool to care about things, don’t make me watch you caring”.

How about you? What services do you stick with and complain/protest about, and why? Which ones have you left/not signed up for despite temptation, and why?

Note: a bit of amnesty would be nice in this post. We’re talking about people’s choices, and frantic attempts to convert everyone to your version of technology purity will stop the conversation. If someone says that they are actively seeking an alternative to service X that has property Y, that would be a good time to mention service Z, which offers X-like functionality with more Y. Otherwise, let people talk.

A unicorn races around the world before the truth has got its boots on

Background: the Haecksen miniconf is a one day event at Australia’s Linux conference in January highlighting women and women in Open Source tech and community. It’s been running since 2007: I was the one who founded it (under the name “LinuxChix miniconf”, it was changed by Joh Clarke for the January 2010 event).

The current logo of the miniconf is of a unicorn driving a robotic Tux penguin (the latter being the logo of Linux), you can see it at the Haecksen miniconf site. This year’s organiser Lana Brindley planned to sell t-shirts for the event, which had the text:

[yōo-nǐ-kôrn’] noun
1. A fabled creature, represented as a horse with a single spiralled horn.
2. metaphor A person who is believed to be non-existent, and worthy of note if spotted in the wild, such as a woman working with technology.

There was a small Twitter storm in which the shirt was judged sexist, here’s a short sample:

For some reference on the in-jokes the unicorn reference is to the Unicorn Law: If you are a woman in Open Source, you will eventually give a talk about being a woman in Open Source.

The organisers of the Haecksen miniconf are always to date affiliated with LinuxChix and are women in tech and friends of women in tech. I guess the problem, certainly unanticipated by me without hindsight, is that there’s very little precedent for Open Source conferences to have such a woman-friendly sub-community that they’re going to be adopting the language of unicorn-ness for the purposes of mocking the straightforward sentiment and adopting it in a kind of reclamation.

What was meant: A whole conference of us! Are you going to treat us like unicorns now huh? We have horns you know…

I’m sorry that Lana faced a tweetstorm over it, it’s much too harsh for the lesson. The miniconf has been selling insider t-shirts since 2007 (the 2007 shirt was “At this year’s, stand out from the crowd”, with an image of a women-figure of the toilet door type standing in a line-up with man-figure shapes, which wouldn’t necessarily be read as friendly either). This year the attention to sexism at conferences has risen enough that it came to the attention of not-insiders who nevertheless care about women-in-tech and are watching out for sexism.

I suppose this suggests for future events (women-in-tech ones generally, not Haecksen miniconfs in particular) that designs and publicity should be run by some outsiders for a “will this sound like a serious endorsement of sexist sentiments?” check. Not only because of the impression left on folks on Twitter, but the potential impact on attendees too. If this was my first ever… I don’t know how I’d read that shirt.

Lana: sorry about what happened, it’s never nice to be in the eye of a Twitter storm, especially when your intent was to do good and you had consulted plenty already. If the spotlight had come on us in 2007 I bet I would have had the same problem.

On a related note, I grow increasingly tired of the 140 character limit on tweets, I think it contributes badly to situations like this. It’s hard enough for apologies/explanation to catch up with something that bugged people without having to eke them out 140 characters at a time with five replies coming in in between each tweet. But then, as everyone who has ever had anything to do with my writing will attest, 140 characters is not my genre.