New Criticals

Steph Alarcon

I take dispossession to be a creative rejection of a prevailing hegemony, perhaps while being ejected from it.  In current communities of technical practice, I observe notable sites of critical and active dispossession.

The first is an inchoate collection of rumblings and interventions that I conceptualize as “humane” cybersecurity. The cybersecurity community at large can be quite intimidating. In Geek Feminist communities, certain security conferences are known to be direly, demonstrably, unsafe spaces. Organizers are responding with alternative conferences catering to beginners, to activists, to women and gender-variant folks; the affinity lines are often fuzzy and fungible by design. Anti-harassment policies and codes of conduct (CoC) have become de rigeur; some people only attend conferences that have them. It is reasonable to view a CoC as a technology in its own right.

However, some in the cybersecurity community believe that their models of detection and reaction are insufficient to manage current and future threats to information accessibility, privacy, and trustworthiness. There is renewed will to engage with the concept of resilience in at least two ways: in the design of tools that are easy to understand and which protect users even if used imperfectly; and in large-scale efforts to re-direct the culture toward mutual aid, support, and inclusiveness.

The second site of dispossession that I observe is in the adoption of simple, jargon-free communication as a tool for inclusiveness and a reaction to performative expertise as an intimidation tactic.  Communities have responded with many initiatives, some wildly successful, to welcome beginners and underrepresented technologists and support their learning and early successes in a safe space.

There is difficulty and fear in engaging with an area of deep expertise for the first time. But there is gratification and pleasure in cracking the code. There is also pleasure in riffing and indulging in highly specialized language with peers, testing new concepts, playing out at the boundaries of our knowledge and shared understandings. Far from being solely a tool for exclusion, this riffing and flow can build bonds in communities of practitioners and experts.

As a survivor of a community of technical practice whose enshrined principles include “RTFM” (“read the fucking manual”), I found it both terrifying and hilariously ironic to come to this essay project and realize that I was completely out of my depths compared to the other participants. [1] But in the process of reframing expert language in my own dialect, I was served by the very concepts I was discovering.  I imagined shifting from subject-object into a frame of radical symmetry, and viewed my technical work in continuity with the work of STS scholars. It helped me find my way from fear, to difficulty, to gratification, and finally pleasure.

Perhaps in our efforts to introduce, invite and include, we need some protected, but wild spaces; invitations to engage fully and deeply with our unknowns, to attempt to stretch from fear to pleasure without the threat of strong repercussions if we fail; frameworks to offer each other access to our fields of expertise. Through play in these authentic but safe spaces,we might find concepts and strengths to bring back to our work.

[1] Upon receiving the essay I was to respond to, I emailed this to a friend:

"Oh fuck.

I'm living that nightmare where you're giving a talk at a conference
full of the best minds in feminism and STS and you realize that not only
are you in your underwear, but that it's Victoria's Secret underwear worn
unironically, and worse, YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT "MATTERING" MEANS!”