“How do we do things with our principles and also get our tasks done?” An interview with Hadassah Damien

Back in May 2014, I interviewed the multitalented New York-based activist, performer, and technologist Hadassah Damien, whom I had originally met in January during a librarian-techie trip to Haiti. We spoke about technology, education, and related topics.

MM: How would you describe yourself and your work?

HD: I would describe the work that I do as cultural work and as a technologist, so I’d say I’m a cultural worker and a technologist and that those worlds cross over sometimes, and sometimes don’t. The cultural work is a lot of community arts work, and political art, public performance-type work that has a real art-ivist, activist dimension, and a lot of work that’s trying to promote social change through promoting ideas of liberation and moving those into using cultural forms to change hearts and minds. And also, a lot of the work that I do is about making spaces for more people’s voices to have a platform. And that mindset completely informs the way I think about technology. I’m a self-taught technologist, so I didn’t go to school for computer science, I didn’t go to school for really anything technology-related. Although I did do a graduate program at the CUNY Grad Center from 2011 through 2013, and in that I did a certificate program track that was called Interactive Technology and Pedagogy, the ITP program. But for the ten years or so before I took that program, I had always been sort of autodidactic around technology. Like, as soon as I got a computer, I started realizing I could record things on it, and make things on it. And I started using computers because I wanted to make digital art, record the work that I was doing, record poems that I was writing…

MM: So it kind of pushed you into learning how to do that stuff.

HD: Totally. And that was, like, 2001. I was recording on whatever free automatic program came on a Windows PC. And then I started learning how to make websites because I was doing cultural work, and I wanted to promote that work, and also I was often doing a lot of work with groups. So I was like, oh, there’s all these people, we have all this art we’re making, let’s go on tour, let’s tell people about our tour, let’s tell people about our shows—and so I wanted to use the web as a platform to sort of create some cultural history and cultural narratives and event advertising, all of that together. In 2003 or ‘4, I started to teach myself HTML. And I think I basically started realizing that it was relatively easy to learn this stuff. It wasn’t hard, it was just kind of many steps and complicated. But not difficult.

MM: One of my ballet teachers will sometimes say about a movement, “It’s not hard, it’s tricky.”

HD: Yeah. Yeah, I think that’s great framing. To me, when I’m trying to teach people technology or talk about a technical process, it’s the way I like to frame it: “You can totally do this, it’s just—you have to follow all the right steps in the right order. Do that, you’re fine. Don’t do that…We all know what happens, things break.” [laughs] I think my teaching is so totally informed by my personal process to figure out interfacing and using technology, which was just sort of like, “Try it! Look at what people have built!”

MM: I wrote down a line from one of your posts: “Part of my mandate is to empower people to control their own media and means of production rather than take over and leave folks confused.” So can you talk more about that in your approach towards technology and intimidation?

HD: That’s actually a really good question. To me, this also sort of plays into both a feminist and a liberationist approach to the world in general, where I find technology to have this masculinist, over-logical, kind of ableist edge where it’s like, “You can build anything! You have to build it like this!” And then there’s this aggro sort of builder culture in technology that I think a lot of people find intimidating, and I found intimidating at times. I really want to not tell people that they can’t do the work of the thing they want to build, but to actually be as thoughtful and inclusive about the way in which I’m walking with people as they learn. And I think that also is informed by the pedagogy certificate program that I went through, because there was a lot of thinking about teachers as collaborators and about teaching as a more horizontal process, as opposed to a top-down distribution of information. Just in terms of how people retain information, and what does it mean for someone to actually feel like they’re truly engaged and truly empowered and truly part of a building process of anything, right? And this goes whether it is a performance piece, whether it’s a meeting, or a facilitated conversation, or a class, or a group project that requires technology. There are ways to actually help people feel like their contributions are important no matter what they are, and that they can up their skill level and learn new things, without being like, “You’re a fuck-up! You didn’t close that tag!” Or, “You don’t write in C++ and Java and whatever! You don’t know anything!” Like—god, why? There’s actually no need to be like that. It’s competition, a domination culture mindset. It’s not really helpful. So, yeah, if I’m thinking about wanting to share information, I’m often thinking—even if I’m working in technology—like an activist. Or like a community organizer. How do you move a group of people into an extra skill set, into comprehending more skills, without making somebody feel stupid, or without holding up sort of weird masculinist principles of, “You have to do it right the first time!” It’s not the army, it’s not boot camp, it’s learning. It should be exciting and interesting.

MM: So, following that, does it ever come up that communities you’re working with want to use all the proprietary stuff that everybody’s heard of, and do you ever kind of step in and push them towards open tools that may be less commonly used or more difficult to use, or have more of a learning curve?

HD: That’s also a good question. I remember, for the last couple cycles I’ve worked with this big volunteer-run community event called the Femme Conference that happens every two years. A big part of my task was to sort of make all the technology for everyone to use. And I remember very clearly having a friendly debate with folks about what platform we wanted. Like, do we need a BaseCamp? Do we want Google Docs? Do we want to look at Crabgrass? What are people going to use? We had a pretty fleshed-out debate about it. And we ended up going with Google Docs, which as an information activist, worries me, because I know when people put information into Google Docs, then Google can mine the words and—we don’t know what Google’s doing with our information. But we know they’re doing something. It’s going on their servers, something’s happening with it, that feels creepy. Also there’s privacy issues. But what I thought was actually more important was that people agreed on a tool they felt comfortable using so that they could get their work done. And people were willing to stretch within that tool. This small step was itself revolutionary, in that getting some folks to move to a place where they were using Google Forms was big for them. So rather than being some sort of anarchist purist about, “Well, even though you stretched to learn Google Forms, it’s still not good enough, because we’re not using an open source tool for the revolution!”—that would be a shitty way to move somebody through using technology, right? So my attitude was like, hey, here’s problems with Google, but you actually need to get work done.

And I think that is to me an activist struggle—how do we do things with our principles and also get our tasks done when there’s always so much to do, more than any of us as humans can get done? If there were a smaller group, or a group that could all be in the same place, or a group that had a longer lead time, I think I might have pushed more for other technology platforms. Because I do think that there is something prefigurative about using technology that has a similar political vision of the world as the work that’s being done. And I think that holding those two things together can make doing the work something that has fewer qualifications to it. For myself as an activist in some groups I run with, people are like, “Well, we want the revolution,” and everyone has their own idea of what that’s going to be. [laughter] But in the meantime, I still have to go to my job, because I work in capitalism. You’re like, “Well, I still have to go to work, so…” And that is true. So, for myself, I work with a good worker-owned coop. I sort of try to figure out working within capitalism to the best of my ability.

MM: And that’s Openflows.

HD: And that’s Openflows, yeah. But still, we are all working in capitalism. That’s fine. So, to parallel, it’s like, “Well, okay, I went into this project, I have to use some kind of tool.” Knowing that that tool is going to be embedded in a bigger system of something that we’re working against, what tools are possible to pick that are still closer to the overall vision or urge behind the work? And that is, I think, why open source tools are actually much more interesting and worthwhile to use. Because they remind us that there’s no neutral interaction that we have with the things around us, including technology.

MM: Do you ever encounter any surprises as you work with non-technologists about what people don’t know, or what people already know?

HD: I don’t know if I encounter surprises. I think what surprises me more than anything—which shouldn’t surprise me anymore—is people’s resistance to learn new technologies. And that’s just because I’m autodidactic, so I’m like, “Oh, a new thing to learn! Great!” And I have to remind myself that not everyone feels like that. [laughs] It’s actually not a fun adventure.

MM: Yeah, I’m somewhere in the middle. A lot of technology I’m intimidated by to some extent, particularly hardware. As a random example, a friend had once lent me a bike helmet camera. It was this whole apparatus, and I had been all excited when it was theoretical. Like, “Yeah, on my commutes down Flatbush Avenue…” And then I ended up having all this stuff with me for months and months and months, and I never used it. It seemed kind of onerous to put it together, and then there was thinking like, “Well, the first commute, I’m probably going to fuck something up, and I don’t want to…” It was this barrier, and inertia was just easier. And so I never did anything.

HD: Yeah, there’s something in there—I mean, the first time we use anything is actually just straight confusing. And maybe there’s something in that, too, about teaching people and interacting with technology, that the first time you do anything, you’re not going to be good at it. That’s actually normal. Because you don’t know what you’re doing, you have no body memory of it, you don’t have that first pass of information. And it’s hard to not be good at something. [laughs]

MM: Regarding activists and people in social movements in particular, do you see any strains of either technophobia or technophilia that you find unhelpful or would like to combat?

HD: I find activist-primitivist technophobia just kind of unhelpful. [laughs] You know, I totally get the urge to be like, “Let’s go back to a time before email!” I can see it as a symptom of the sort of damages of technology and oversaturation of communication and sort of capitalist urges for everyone to connect as much as possible! And advertising and marketing…I see that as a symptom of all the damage that’s happened through that. But I still think that these tools are really helpful. I went to a workshop at Eyebeam a couple weeks ago about how to create mesh networks, which was super interesting. It made me think a lot about autonomous ownership of networks and of communication technologies and how that actually felt incredibly different from the sort of composed neutral activity of logging into my Optimum account or whatever provider I have. And these folks were talking about mesh networks they’d created in Red Hook [Brooklyn] after [Superstorm] Sandy. It was really amazing. It made me think about the importance of having control of technology as an activist and as somebody who doesn’t trust state systems…Friendly reminder! Optimum can literally just turn off the internet, and New York goes down. All we have is our wifi on our phones. Or, cell towers can get turned off, and then how do people communicate? So I find it really, really interesting to think around these problems of how communication would be a fucking mess without some network in place for people to tap into and use. And it’s possible to build networks that aren’t owned by a giant corporation or a government. And that actually seems important to me because it goes back to this idea of building the thing that you actually want to be interfacing with, as opposed to the thing you just have to, because we live in capitalism.

MM: Does it seem like municipal networks are being talked about in many cities?

HD: Yeah, they are being talked about in many cities. I think it’s this idea of diversifying risk. It’s like when the Library of Congress turned off the server that serves the subject headings when the government shut down six months ago. There was only one site with this needed resource, and so when that got turned off, nobody had access to it. But were that information on a distributed server, or had it been held in a different way, that resource would have perpetuated.

MM: Do you see a role for libraries and librarians in technology education?

HD: Absolutely. Most certainly. Lord, please, god, thank you for librarians. [laughter] Where is the role not? Libraries are spaces where people can interface with tools that they might not otherwise have access to. I was a really nerdy kid who, when I had free time after school, would go to the library. I was just like, “Oh, time to learn at the library!” So I had a really specific history of engagement with libraries that’s pretty high. But libraries are where people go to have access to ideas, and information, and technology—both the building culture of technology and the communication connectivity culture of technology. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a librarian right now, because the face of how information is delivered is changing, and new facets are being added. But I can imagine that if it’s your professional task to figure out and wrangle with all this new deliveries of technology, then the other side of that professional task is to help other people wrangle with these new delivery systems of technology. Are there specific systems that you use or that you find that people interface with a lot?

MM: I think it’s what we were talking about earlier, the tension between wanting to expose people to more open tools that might be safer or have better privacy mechanisms than others, but also wanting to provide the tools themselves and also instruction in the programs that everybody’s heard of and that people need to know for their jobs. So on our public computers, we have both Microsoft Word and OpenOffice. And I don’t know if anybody ever uses OpenOffice. We’re also not driving people towards using it, and when we do classes, it’s always Microsoft Word. And usually the class is called “Microsoft Word” as opposed to “Word Processing.”

HD: And again it’s that idea of hitting people where they already are, so they can move a couple steps, as opposed to being like, “Learning Word Processing and Open Source or Proprietary Options.” People will not have any idea what that means. In our professions we all have our own specified language that we use, and it is unfair to assume that everyone else is just going to know it, even if it makes a lot of sense. Like, “proprietary” seems like a perfectly normal word to me. But—no.

MM: It doesn’t resonate. I also wanted to ask if you have any thoughts and practical suggestions regarding online safety and addressing threats to an open Internet?

HD: Those are kind of tied together. To me, one of the biggest threats to the open Internet is people staying willfully ignorant on how the Internet is built and how it works. Because, again, it’s not that it’s actually so complicated; it’s just that it is a specific arrangement of hardware and software that makes this Internet thing happen. When folks don’t want to know how something happens, then it’s much, much easier to be manipulated or given disinformation, or to accept that the only way to interface with it is through corporate or non-autonomous measures. Some information actually can help people feel not intimidated by it, and therefore more willing to interface with different parts of it, and also understand privacy and security stuff a little better. Because if the Internet is seen as this great black box, where I type in my email address and out comes a newsletter that I get sometimes, and the interfunctionings are completely mysterious, then it won’t make any sense as to what’s encryption and why does it matter, or what’s data-mining or data harvesting and what does it matter, what’s an algorithm…So I think being freaked out by new information is not helpful, although that’s also a normal reaction to new information.

MM: Do you have favorite resources, in general? I know the Allied Media Conference is coming up.

HD: I really think the AMC is an amazing conference. I think they do an awesome job of helping people think about technology in ways that are not alienating and are truly authentically empowering. I read Feministing a lot. It’s one of my favorite blogs. I use Wikimedia Commons a lot, both as a downloader and sometimes an uploader. I also love perusing the Library of Congress archives. And I love Archive.org, going through their music files and downloading public domain music. I have a huge collection of big band music from that. I do soundscape art in my free time, just for fun, and I enjoy a website called Freesound.org. There’s a lot of Creative Commons uploaded sounds on there, and so it’s a friendly way to interface with something that is happily copyleft. It’s not about how everything is copyleft and has various sharing copyrights apply to it, but without that, this site would not be possible. So I find it great to use, and also really helpful as a teaching tool. I have a couple of browser plugins. I have one called TACO (Targeted Advertising Cookie Opt-Out) that’s been around for a while. I also think it’s baby steps. It would be really cool to do workshops where it’s like, “All right everyone, bring your laptop or your iPad, and open it up, and open up this program, and press install and see what this does.” Obviously you would want it to be taught by a trusted person if they’re having you install crap on your computer, but we technologists who can be trusted are out there to actually go through the process with people putting ad blockers and encryption on their machines. I think that would be really helpful because it feels overwhelming just to put it on your to-do list. Like, encrypt my email? Where does it go on my to-do list, you know? [laughter] But yet it’s something a lot of people want to do and would be willing to do if they just were able to walk through it easily.

MM: Anything else you want to add?

HD: I decided to get into professional work in technology in part as a feminist act, because I wanted to do work that was not traditionally associated with women. Traditional jobs do not interest me but technology does, and also I give a shit about what I work on, what I do. And I wanted to be a bit of a needle, wanted to twist some knives, and it gives me an opportunity to do that. I kind of sit in this space of knowledge that’s in between being a builder/software coder/hacker on one side and a teacher/user/activist/thinker/cultural producer person on the other side. And it’s actually for me a great space to be in, to think really critically about technology, as opposed to just being like, “Whatever, use Google!” on one side, versus, “If you aren’t encrypting your IRC channel, you’re fucked!” There’s got to be a middle ground to actually get people to engage and to move folks’ knowledge bases and self-assessments, too, of what they can do in technology. I think that’s really possible, and I think that the more folks actually keep talking about things like encryption, things like privacy, things like open internets and mesh networks, the less of a barrier people will have around learning about it, and the more this stuff will just be normalized into people’s lives. That’s my final two cents.