Still from Incoming (2017), by Richard Mosse - http://www.richardmosse.com/projects/incoming
Still from Incoming (2017), by Richard Mosse - http://www.richardmosse.com/projects/incoming

[blog] Making ‘community’ critical: Tech collectives through the prism of power

Author: Fabien Cante

In her recent blog post, Kersti Wissenbach expresses her frustration with the field of “civic tech,” which, as she puts it, remains far more focused on the “tech” than the “civic.” This resonates with me in many ways. I write as someone who is possibly more of an outsider to the field than Wissenbach: my previous research was on local radio (all analog), and as my DATACTIVE colleagues have found out, I am clueless about even the basics of encryption, so anything more technically complex will leave me flummoxed. In agreeing with Wissenbach, then, I do not mean to diminish the wonders of tech itself, as a field of knowledge and intervention, but rather underscore that the civic (or “the social,” as my former supervisor Nick Couldry would put it) is itself an immensely complex realm of knowledge, let alone action.

Wissenbach proposes that our thinking efforts, as scholars and activists concerned about the relations between technology and social change, shift toward “Critical Community Studies.” By this she means that we should ask “critical questions beyond technology and about communities instead.” I strongly agree. The research projects around data, tech and society that most excite me are the ones that are rooted in some community or other – transnational activist communities, in the case of DATACTIVE, or marginalised urban communities, in the case of the Our Data Bodies project. However, like Charlotte Ryan (whose response to Wissenbach can be read here), I would also like to be a bit cautious. In what follows, I really emphasise the critical and contextual aspects of Critical Community Studies, as envisioned by Wissenbach. I do so because I am a bit sceptical about the middle term – community.

I am involved in urban planning struggles in south London where the word “community” is frequently employed. Indeed, it serves as a kind of talisman: it invokes legitimacy and embeddedness. Community is claimed by activists, local authorities, and even developers, for obviously very different aims. This experience has shown me that, politically, community is an empty signifier. Bullshit job titles like “Community Manager” in marketing departments (see also Mark Zuckerberg speeches) further suggest to me that community is one of the most widely misappropriated words of our time.

More seriously, and more academically perhaps, community denotes a well-defined and cohesive social group, based on strong relationships, and as such self-evident for analysis. This is not, in many if not most circumstances, what collectives actually look like in real life. Anthropologist John Postill (2008), studying internet uptake in urban Malaysia, writes that researchers too often approach tech users as either “communities” or “networks.” Neither of these concepts captures how technology is woven into social relations. Where community presumes strong bonds and a shared identity, network reduces human relations to interaction frequencies and distance between nodes, flattening power differentials.

As Wissenbach rightly notes, people who use tech, either as producers or users, are “complex [beings] embedded in civil society networks and power structures.” It is these power structures, and the often tense dynamics of embeddedness, that Wissenbach seems to find most interesting – and I do too. This, for me, is the vital question behind Critical Community Studies (or, for that matter, the study of data activism): what specific power relations do groups enact and contest?

Still from Incoming (2017), by Richard Mosse - http://www.richardmosse.com/projects/incoming
Still from Incoming (2017), by Richard Mosse – http://www.richardmosse.com/projects/incoming

The critical in Critical Community Studies thus asks tough questions about race, class, gender, and other lines of inequality and marginalization. It asks how these lines intersect both in the community under study (in the quality of interactions, the kinds of capital required to join the collective, language, prejudices, etc.) and beyond it (in wider patterns of inequality, exclusion, and institutionalized domination). We see examples of such questioning happening, outside academia, through now widespread feminist critiques calling out pervasive gender inequalities in the tech industry, or through Data for Black Lives’ efforts to firmly center race as a concern for digital platforms’ diversity and accountability. Within the university, Seda Gürses, Arun Kundnani and Joris Van Hoboken’s (2016) paper “Crypto and Empire,” which could be said to examine the “crypto community” (however diffuse), offers some brilliant avenues to think data/tech communities critically, and thereby “re-politicize” data itself. More broadly, a wealth of feminist, post/decolonial (e.g. Mignolo 2011; Bhambra 2014; or Flavia Dzodan’s stellar Twitter feed) and critical race theory (see for example Browne 2015) can help us think through the histories from which civic tech communities arise, their positions in a complex landscape of power and inequality, and the ways in which they see their place in the world.

There is always a risk, when researchers consider community critically, that they put certain communities under strain; that they are seen to hinder positive work through their (our) critical discourse. Certainly, challenging a community’s inclusiveness is hard (and researchers are very bad at challenging their “own” community). But I think this is a limited view of critique as “not constructive” (a crime in certain circles where “getting things done” is a primary imperative). I would argue that collectives are strengthened through critique. As Charlotte Ryan beautifully puts it, Critical Community Studies can be instrumental in forming “a real ‘we’.” She adds: “an aggregate of individuals, even if they share common values, does not constitute ‘us’.” Building a “we” requires, at every step, asking difficult questions about who that “we” is (“we” the social movement, or “we” the civic tech community), who doesn’t fall under “we’s” embrace, and why.

Bibliography

Bhambra, Gurminder K. (2014) Connected Sociologies. London: Bloomsbury Press

Browne, Simone (2015) Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness. Durham, NC & London: Duke University Press

Gürses, Seda, Kundnani, Arun & Joris Van Hoboken (2016) “Crypto and Empire: The Contradictions of Counter-Surveillance Advocacy” Media, Culture & Society 38 (4), 576-590

Mignolo, Walter (2011) The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options. Durham, NC & London: Duke University Press

Postill, John (2008) “Localizing the Internet Beyond Communities and NetworksNew Media & Society 10 (3), 413-431