by Natacha Roussel & hellekin
Life becomes resistance to power when power takes life for object.1
Life-producing activity manifests in a vast spectrum of scales and diversity, generating complex structures – human and non-human – that challenge representation. Dissipative, dispersive, reproductive, or caring, life-supporting structures are always in flux, always fragile, always complex, and always escape the narrow attempts at seizing, limiting, mapping or reducing them to a fixed model. However undeniable the success of science to accurately predict observable phenomenons, it never reached a point to encompass life. But outside the lab, the efficiency of its methods deprived of the prudence of its scope, conducted non-scientists to abusively generalize scientific results to everything, leading to a dominant and reductionist view of complexity where reality not covered by scientific knowledge is simply ignored, threatening life. Uniformization of the means towards reproducing ‘successful’ strategies, and the circumscription of the answer even before a question is formulated, leaves no space for difference, change of scale, or structures that ground diversity and life. This primacy of the map over the territory in our extractive society prompted us to explore the conditions of success of alternative, situated practices.
Shedding lights also means casting shadows. While citizen-led technological practice is often associated to the idea of a Tiers-Lieu, a social space to capture informal and volunteer practices such as hackerspaces and other grassroots collectives into the mainstream framework – home, workplace, and what’s in-between – of a society subjugated by the extractive market, we put in question this idea inscribed in an already problematic binary practice divided between work and home. In the shades of capitalist hegemony and ideology, we cast the 3TS to respond to the reductionist capitalist market-driven fallacy of “Third Space”, between home and the workplace, where social capital can easily be captured and executed in cold blood while the worker’s guard is lowered. Not only the pervasiveness of technologies makes such notions as home and work porous to the point of dissolution, but the rapidly deteriorating conditions of existence of the living often do not respond anymore to such criteria : the homeless meet the jobless in the darkness left over by the predatory shadow of mainstream propaganda.
Instead, we argue that the formation of Singular Technologies occur in a Third-TechnoScape. Borrowing from Gilles Clément’s concept of Third-Landscape – an undetermined fragment of the Planetary Garden – that refers to the sum of spaces where humankind abandons landscape evolution to nature alone2, we propose the concept of Third-TechnoScape to designate places of technological production abandoned by the industry and institutions to civil society. Such spaces, neglected by the mainstream, show more natural resources in terms of bio- and noo-diversity than architectured spaces colonized by pre-emptive thought – essentialist and hylemorphic.
The concepts of Third-TechnoScape and Singular Technologies stem from the need to characterize daily practice by citizen groups that deploy their successful institutional arrangements and affordances under the radar and outside the competency of traditional institutions. Both concepts do not try to define any tangible essence, but rather articulate social dynamics of the studied groups.
As much as the concept of Third-TechnoScape forms an adversarial response to the ideologically tainted concept of ‘third space’ now popular in social sciences, it also provides a narrative for society to defend itself from the hegemony of capitalist recuperation.
The Third-TechnoScape requires genuine human activity, and requires social ties that are not submitted to the market economy. In the Third-TechnoScape, social fracture is not one that needs reduction, but the result of smashing an axe of direct action in solidarity into the square-cornered flat screen of media propaganda to look and act beyond its wall. Where power needs to reduce the fracture, and smoothen out difference, the Third-TechnoScape embraces divergence and unity-in-diversity. As with aikido, the Third-TechnoScape requires a step aside to let the adversary fall from its own weight; meanwhile, one can look at beauties worth noticing. This change in the perspective and the quality of regard enables the ‘disintegrated’ to unfold their creative solidarity.
Once the dark matter of society, the Third-TechnoScape now highlights the artificial asymmetry in public funding that keeps it marginal although it forms the majority of successful grassroots endeavors in society in resistance to capitalist hegemony. Will the institutions realize that prowess of citizens to come up by and among themselves with working solutions where the subsidized private sector keeps promising marvels without delivering anything but barriers to the free development of the Third-TechnoScape?
As we embrace and promote the use and co-creation of Singular Technologies, we empower our local peers, and inspire more to share the love and realize the importance of free technologies production that respect and uphold diversity.
Inasmuch as 3TS is an adversarial concept, when considering Singular Technologies, we place ourselves from a strongly affirmative standpoint that poses a difference as existing and sufficient; this is critical to how Petites Singularités operates, and a necessary step to avoid falling for the aporias crystallized in a general resentment we feel creeps activist circles: discourses normalize reality, and as one focuses on the ‘enemy’ they fail to realize their own riches. Instead, Singular Technologies respond to local, specific conditions and needs not covered by the market, not because the market is incapable of covering such needs, but because covering them would go against its logic of capture. Each singular activity is situated and fragile, sometimes ephemeral, engaging activists and dedicated people who work developing their specific aesthetics. As unique and fragile as it is each fight is important, it creates space to renew our modes of social organization and production.
From our experience with free software, we work towards the formulation of Singular Technologies, or technologies that foster human agency and critical, intentional technology production, adapted to local usage: “rooting technologies”. Singular Technologies are conditioned by an active presence, and an engagement of the community. Their production involves many different aspects that hybridize them with life ensuring their diversity and perennity, finding different ways to strengthen participation, engagement, and cooperation among our resistance networks.
QW stands for, Quantify Wholeheartedly, QWithin, QWithothers, QWhy… It started with a desire to create a different aesthetics for self-quantification.
Self-quantification tools have an important commercial success, companies propose tools that encourage people towards a healthier lifestyle. Those tools are linked to online platforms, where each individual profile separates the quantified body from its context and reduces the set of sensations to simple quantifiable assets to which each person can tune its body to match algorithmic cannons. The QW project responds to a situation where corporate apropriation of “care” and well-being tools serve economic interests by destroying deep introspection of one’s sensation, community-based inquiries on the body, and community support.
As individual bodies are addressed and promoted by the marketing discourse, it appears that the datafication of everything does not value the richness of our many differences nor can adapt to our always-in-transformation reality. Indeed Big Data processes, as precise as they can be, are necessarily abstracted from the individuals who produced them (Rouvroy 20153). This abstraction is also present in the relation that ties us to the social media promoted by self-quantification corporate tools.
However most importantly “data donation”4 disconnects data from community and context, and the focus on data specification clearly sets a very different social structure than previous community organizations. As data becomes standard in information economy, one can consider this division process in its consequences; and we might ask if, by decomposing self-knowledge it becomes a transferable character reduced to a set of clustered profiles.
QW is a feminist free software community-based project that builds an alternative to top-down imposed models, criticizing their fragmentary representation of life, that constrains body related information in a few discreet sets. Also QW responds to a Cultural Grammar that tends to represent information in graphs and charts, unified in a personal page going by the name of “dashboard".
This Cultural Grammar eventually leads to the blending of surveillance and propaganda aesthetics (Roussel 20155), including generated or prospective propaganda that takes the form of personal predictions coming from Big Data algorithms. Self-tracking sets grounds for bottom-up social control keeping to the promise of constraining the body and its evolution within a norms. It defines control parameters for our bodies and gives prognostics that we should conform to. This sophisticated social control is built on corporate social platforms, those also provide a space for comments and exchanges facilities to create conversation groups. They integrate consumer participation and mutual encouragement in what seems to become bottom-up eugenics. This process is problematically not based
on real solidarity networks and its existence is a nuisance to previous community based support networks, as instead the people are led to conform to a preset map representing their body as a neutral
carrier of healthy citizenship. This Cultural Grammar integrates both daily life and social mythology, it provides a generic interface to our feelings and personal sensory apparatus.
Acknowledging a lack of alternative QW aims to create a unique space, a collective space proposing a different aesthetic relation between the body and the measuring apparatus, a relation that is unstable and
moves across different meanings, recuses the fragmentary aesthetics and questions the possibility of the measure itself. Using our smartphone as a carrier of sensing information QW proposes to seize it
as a source of measurements, unleashing those sensors that are most of the time used in a hidden manner by different applications. We tried to access that information by simple means and experiment with their gamification as a critique.
QW has set a premise to build an interface where several people could connect and interact at the same time on the same set of visuals; different scenarios are under development at qw.lesoiseaux.io: a puzzle recomposes a body from bits and pieces of organs using SVG transforms; a collective measuring platform called "How To Climb a Mountain"6 constructs a mountain from accumulating the steps of every participants relatively to what they consider being their physical capacity; a creative diary platform. All these tools are transitional, ephemeral, non-archived. They exist and their main objective is to create a support of playful relation to digital aesthetics that can be shared among peers and friends transformed and augmented along time, using measure as a material for playful social interaction and body as a source of information, that generates data according to criteria defined by the community.
QW has been built by peer networks choosing to span from existing feminist and free software groups building on their accumulated knowledge, in the context of Samedies, a collective project existing since 10 years in Brussels, associating women in free software. Feminist groups develop in solidarity and also along shared health practices, they have a history of collectively looking for alternatives to dominant science aesthetics, including via different aesthetics, Suzann Gage for example used her drawing talents to develop feminist medical visualization presenting collective self-examination (Gage 19817).
QW has a collaborative intention that meets free software ethics and tools, and a number of Samedies gathered around the project developing learning together setting the grounds for a platform that overtime aims to become reusable and expandable. In order to fulfill this project QW has integrated its production with existing communities.
QW is the result of questioning the capitalist market processes, that has been developed and produced within a solidarity network. The different communities were engaged in a shared research learning process aiming to the production of different mind sets.
From here to there marks a linear progress from one determined point to another, and expresses the undetermined path that will develop into a roadmap to reach a specific goal, set in advance as a desirable objective. This expression is often used to engage in a road towards a quantifiable output, and tries to predict a set of discrete steps to follow in order to reach expectations. The resulting roadmap is brought forward to teams and funding institutions as a rational, comprehensive depiction of a deterministic bet on a future engineered to become the future.
Although roadmaps from here to there are very satisfying to the mind, seemingly reducing risk to a bearable minimum, they have to deal with many imponderables. Inherited from engineering approaches, roadmaps tend to work well in that context where machines must abide by the laws of physics. Our universe tends to favor ‘good enough’ assumptions, that with time and effort can help propel rockets to the stars in a pretty accurate and effective way. Strong of its success, technoscience amplifies its power over domains beyond its scope, by the virtue of its effective predictive power. But engineered solutions
often lack insight into complexity, and roadmaps tend to hit unforeseen limits that, from an engineering perspective, amount to errors.
From here to (t)here tries to account for this complexity, and also for the fact that how predictable things might be, complex systems are not only things, they involve many trans-individual relations affecting each other in unexpected ways. The (t) is here to remind us to consider the present situation as a hit-or-miss goal inherited from a past that didn’t play well along the lines of prediction. In retrospect, the oracle was wrong. The expression, turned around from its deterministic perspective, also insists on the importance of focusing not only on the expected goal, but more importantly on the actual path taken, of which the goal is but one step that will hopefully be taken.
An exemplary 3TS project, Dewey upholds a principle of integral solidarity, drawing strength from the transindividual taking root in concrete action. Practice enables technology: from practice and an ethical intent (of sharing, respecting and promoting the commons) is revealed a technical need (a cartography of the commons) that orients a singular technological development characterized by a commitment to participation and voluntary involvement of the actors of the commons.
Dewey is a non-profit association and a support network to local Press initiatives. Active in the Brussels region, the network gave birth to four antennas (Dazibao in Saint Gilles, What For in Watermael-Boitsfort, Pixels in Ixelles, and Ezelstad in Schaerbeek) who signed a chart following three principles of small-scale, pluralist, and solution-based information. These antennas are in(ter)dependent ; that is to say they are fully autonomous in practice, while sharing contents (with Creative Commons licenses) and tools
(free hardware and free software, etc.).
Mapping the Commons is the stated goal of Dewey Maps that nurtures a support network to local Press initiatives. If the original intent was to provide the local Press with yet unavailable information about the Commons, the cartography project of Dewey largely broke beyond a technical endeavor to venture into the network’s core competence : small-scale participatory democracy.
Its aim is to enable the Brussels citizens to engage into local forms of production, exchange and communication, independently of the most institutionalized structures, like market-based and state-controlled institutions. To put it briefly : the map can guide citizens across local solidarity networks, and make them visible and valuable to the users.
Because local Press is about informing the neighborhood, it’s a powerful tool to engage inhabitants and develop community ties. Following this lead, Dewey Maps creates an inventory of common resources that people can tap into and nurture themselves: a map is not the territory, but Dewey Maps proceeds from investing the territory and gathering inhabitants to explore, promote, defend, and organize the commons around them.
Dewey develops cartographic tools in Brussels and in Belgium. In 2015, the network launched a free software map called “Bruxelles, mode d’emploi” (“Usage notice to Brussels”) that gathers a large ensemble of local shared resources. Given the unexpected success of this tool, they decided to integrate it to the OpenStreetMap community (in collaboration with Mycelium.cc and “Réseau Transition”) and to extend its use to other places in Belgium («Belgique, mode d’emploi» project).
Dewey plays a third role of «local action nursery». The association supports in particular local initiatives fostering the defense of common goods in the region of Brussels. In 2015, the association enabled launching the Latinis garden – on the Josaphat uncultivated land in Schaerbeek – and the food recuperation project Récup’Kitchen.
Dewey’s standpoint clearly marks a difference from the mainstream, in favor of the commons, engagement in the territory, and a fully participatory approach involving existing, autonomous groups already on their way. The focus on solutions and walking the path together ensures both integrity of the process and actual empowerment in action and reflection, as it avoids blocking on perceived problems and barriers.
The Muriqui project, named after outstandingly social monkey tribes from South America, engages citizens with a mobile game to transform degraded spaces in their territory into permaculture forests. This development involves a direct relation with the diversity of practices of the different citizen groups already engaged in maintaining or creating city landscapes, gardens, permaculture and agro-ecology, plant pots, etc., in many different contexts and territories. Muriquis form a consortium with a wide range of ground experience with local communities. As the MURIqui proposal was filed for European Union (EU) funding to kickstart the project, a number of processes and requirements were identified to form an institutional blockade that would prevent access to public funding for the benefit of the public
that is not mediated by capitalist markets.
‘Private capture’ i.e. how common goods and services that are either freely available or allocated through local negotiated rules or through public services, are gradually co-opted into the private sphere.
Under the pressure of public research institutions to engage with private partnerships for the MURIqui proposal, we found a number of supposedly highly successful private enterprises that were almost completely dependent on a continuous supply of European Commission funding, with limited prospects of ever producing a useful and marketable product. An EU Commissioner we approached described a
recurring problem with EU funding and software that confirmed this grotesque situation: private software companies receive public funding to produce proprietary software that stops being produced and developed further as soon as EU funding dries up. The EU then is left with either software that cannot be reused nor passed on to the next operator in a project – and a net loss of their investment – or need to bind their interests with already financed projects that they are now depending on to keep the system running.
A precondition for the participation of Petites Singularités in the MURIqui proposal for EU funding was the mandatory production of free software as an outcome of the project. The question of ‘intellectual property rights’ (IPR) revealed significant tensions between private institutions insisting on maintaining rights on project outputs, on the one side, and on the other side (civic) organizations championing open-access knowledge and free software. In order to fulfill our requirement the consortium decided to dismiss one of its members, a software company with a record of several EU projects under its belt that would provide the ICT tools underpinning citizen engagement, but under a proprietary license that would threaten the perennity of the project.
The European Commission, with its increasingly narrow drive for promoting innovative enterprise, market solutions and economic growth, provided strong hints at the need for including private enterprise within funding proposals as this would suggest a direct route to the marketization of project outputs, and thus contribute to the holy grail of policymakers and politicians: GDP growth.
Growth Domestic Product (GDP) measures what is bought by the consumer, leaving non-mercantile value completely out of consideration. While capitalist market theory claims self-regulation and optimal allocation of resources, in a GDP-driven economy, examples abound that demonstrate the fallacy of the theory and the irrelevance of the GDP indicator: GDP grows when you destroy and replace merchandise, or when environmental destruction drives new consumption, e.g., to mitigate impact on health; over-consuming and producing more waste makes GDP grow, etc. All this is ‘good for the economy’.
Within this framework, no difference is made between large corporations and small businesses. This reflects the status civil society is given in our institutions, as the space for its representation hardly exists; small businesses, cooperatives, non-profit associations, and informal citizen groups are considered on the same ground as transnational corporations. All economic indicators are measured against large industries and aggregate values from the trade economy, leaving out any social value, including that which is created or maintained by the cooperative and associative sectors. From a GDP perspective, a sane society deprives the private sector from growing.
The hegemony of capitalism leads to a denial of the existence of institutional arrangements outside of utilitarianism and the trade economy. As the hegemony of this ‘economic’ approach extends to institutional funding, its flattening world view imposes an inadequate filter that leaves out solutions independent of, or opposed to the trade economy. Under cover of neutrality, armed with a sharp capitalist reading grid, institutional funding processes effectively cut out all projects supporting diversity and plurality simply by the massive asymmetry of public resource allocation in favor of larger ‘economic’ projects contracted by transnational corporations.
Institutional blockade also manifests in the requirements for obtaining funding: “social value”, institutional forms, preliminary access to market and funding capacity, specialized tasks and positions, and accountable production plans. All these are usually not available to researchers nor to small networks that are often divergent, exploratory, involving multiple skills from a variety of disciplines, unless they can count among them on someone who has the skills, inclination, time, and capacity to afford writing the grant proposals, and the ability to tackle complexity. Very tight timescales from the issuing of funding calls to proposal submission work against democratic organizations that prefer more consensual and deliberative approaches, and favor the efficiency of hierarchical decision-making structures and slick administrative procedures found in private enterprises who can allocate the resources to engage highly qualified individuals to spend significant amounts of their time on highly technical and tedious proposals.
A lack of discernment between scales, means, and purposes makes it almost impossible to address funding institutions in a pertinent way to solve the problem of private capture of public funding and the social value of publicly-funded projects. Beyond a myopic vision that could be corrected with the right lens, institutional blockade seems to reflect a terror of facing a nonetheless required change of civilization, from simplistic runaway extractivism to complex planetary symbiosis.
The term ‘zinneke’ traditionally nicknames a bastard street dog and proudly means a lower class inhabitant of Brussels. Zinneke is a non-profit association that has been producing a thematic street parade every two years in Brussels for the last two decades. The choice of the name belongs to a long history and reflects the idea of a melting-pot mixing multiple cultures that is put forward as a strong element of Brussels’ identity.
At the end of the parade, the team proposes the attendance to choose a theme among a list for the next parade in two years. Then the Zinneke organizes people around local structures in groups called Zinnodes to think about and prepare an interpretation of the given theme during the next carnival. Each Zinnode is led by an existing association or sometimes an ad-hoc collective. Most non-profit organizations in Brussels have participated somehow to the Zinneke project, or know someone who has. The Zinneke network is very organic and evolves over time: from one edition to the next, Zinnodes tend to change. Coordination of the Zinnodes is ensured by four dedicated people in the Zinneke team, although this work also engages the complete structure, particularly in moments when people get together to attend several parties organized every year, workshops, and classes made to share knowledges or transmit useful techniques such as welding to make chariots, or art practices related to the body in movement, etc.
The Zinneke parade is highly appreciated by Brussels inhabitants in that it values the large diversity of local initiatives. Zinneke is also perceived as a social hub where participants in many organizations could informally get together and exchange beyond the common ground of the parade.
Zinneke is amazing in integrating the diversity of actors into a project strengthening their existence and distributing knowledge. However in fact, this hub function is not completely accomplished as the ephemeral nature of many of the Zinnodes requires this relational work to be repeated every year. Zinnodes’ liaisons have difficulties maintaining stability over time and need to rework the relational process with new people, reassess the tools used and the transmission of information from person to person, in an educational ritual of sorts.
Zinneke has accumulated many different know-hows over the years, such as organizational processes and communication models that happen undocumented. Some of these models have been shared and refined over the multiple editions of the parade by what resembles an oral tradition, backed by dedicated four liaisons within the Zinneke.
Zinneke appears like a shamanic process, beating the drum once every two years with a single word that reveals, from the depths of the unknown, some untold collective story. This oral tradition engaging many people into unusual practice and collective reflection forms a ritual that repeats like an ancient nomadic festival following the migration of great animal hordes.
Zinneke since its inception had settled in different precarious places that influenced the approach of the biennial. Recently the association was granted a more solid base, and this accounts for a settlement of the tribe. It’s not casual that the reflection on technology comes back at this point in the history of the collective.
As nomadic tribes with oral tradition transitioned from hunting and gathering to agriculture, recorded history started with the appearance of accounting of stocks and the written word. Interestingly, in the case of Zinneke, this transition from precarity to institutionalization of their base corresponds to the questioning of media volatility and exploitation of their dormant media archive.
Steady in the slow rhythm of orality, the Zinneke team could observe with acuity the mainstream personal media evolution from film photography to live upload of high resolution digital pictures, and the associated mass hysteria of online social platforms attached to the instant gratification devices.
As there is no fixed digital structure proposed by the Zinneke to its Zinnodes, a lot of the communication, knowledge and documentation during Zinnode work is dissolved into individual habits and what was an undocumented oral organization is rapidly co-opted by mainstream corporate social media as Zinnodes tend to create private groups on corporate media platforms to organize themselves.
Zinneke is very aware of this, and as much as they want to protect their culture from too much formalism, they do not want to feed corporate social media. They already have committed to using free software internally and their Web site is hosted by local ISPs. The desire for a change of tools and the development of a dedicated technology devoted to exchange between Zinnodes and perennity of the documentation is however pushed back in time by the Zinneke organizers. Indeed they can appreciate the gap between their oral tradition and the paradigmatic change of integrating digital tools and hybrid modes into their collective practice, and want to take time to envision it properly.
Our approach towards Zinneke was not to respond to a technical need, but to question how this expression was tackling a real need. What Zinneke liked is that we did not start from the technological issues, but rather had a social concern, we were busy understanding their functioning and what composes their needs. The objective here is to commit to ways by which free software practice can bind with those existing peer organizations, to build knowledge from strongly correlated practice, unfolding each time a singular technology.
As smartphones became a commodity over the lifetime of the parade, the public started recording the live event, the ephemeral ritual, with pictures and video that they upload on the spot during the parade to corporate social media, or keep to themselves and their intimate social network.
The question raised was how to facilitate the reference and exploitation of these media in the wild that remain inaccessible to the Zinneke after the fact. Some people already have a way to share it, usually via the corporate social media preset on their smartphones: how to provide an alternative platform to them? Some people don’t know how to share their media assets and contribute them back to the Parade: how to find other ways and engage the public as they record the media? Other aspects of these issues can be tackled, from the legal to the psychosocial, and beyond pending more research.
A lot of media has been recorded nevertheless over time mostly from the zinnodes sharing making-of assets, artists and journalists, or other people proficient with digital media sharing a copy of their work with the association. All these media are stored on a hard-disk drive in dated folders, that require physical access to the archive for picking up images.
That means each access to the media archive is a personal, intimate and subjective dive into the history of the collective, but, in the image of the oral tradition, does not build up knowledge. Instead it deepens the experience of the individual accessing it for specific needs. But this requirement to go all over the archive again makes it fastidious over time to envision larger curation.
Organizations sculpt their own particular processes into their own culture. Technological choices contribute to the structures and operations of human organizations, influencing this culture. The attention paid to technological frameworks can allow for a better understanding and facilitation of human processes, transmission of knowledges, recording of know-hows – including evaluating whether such recordings are desirable, and amplifying existing processes rather than forcing them into preexisting normalized forms thought and designed for specific use-cases, usually in the enterprise domain.
For Zinneke, in an attempt to preserve a continuity with existing oral processes, we propose a discursive platform called Discourse, that minimizes, but does not eliminate the shift from oral to digital. The flexibility of the platform allows for volatile contents to inform a longer conversation and evolve as new participants come and go, and reflection refines. But it still raises many questions associated to hybridization from human collective interaction to technological practice. How, for example, does the sedimentation of information into collective documentation influence the imaginary of participants?
Singular Technologies inscribe themselves in contexts were many fights happen and accompany people in delicate environments. Their proximity to resistance movements across continents makes for an important responsibility in organizing humans, their resisting spaces, and their alternatives.
Petites Singularités has setup an online platform to share experiences, develop ideas, and create synergies between activist and resistance projects who don’t shy away at standing their ground against the extractivist hegemony.
This article moves a lot of mud, and hopefully raises a lot of questions that we’ll be happy to address in the continued conversation that it calls for.