Interviews

"Technology isn't the driver of social movements, it's the other way around"

 Foto: UOC/Bart Grugeon

Foto: UOC/Bart Grugeon

17/12/2019
Anna Bonet Martnez and Bart Grugeon Plana
Sasha Costanza-Chock, associate professor of Civic Media at MIT at the Berkman-Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University

 

Designer, media-maker, troublemaker: this is how North American activist Sasha Costanza-Chock, the only transsexual professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), chooses to describe herself. Her work is centred upon social movements, transformative media organizing and design justice, meaning the design of services based on the principles of justice. In 2014, she published her first book, Out of the Shadows, Into the Streets! Transmedia Organizing and the Immigrant Rights Movement, about technology and immigrant rights activism. At the end of November, she visited Barcelona for the Sharing Cities Action Encounter, organized by the Government of Catalonia and the Dimmons research group, part of the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya's (UOC) Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3).

 

You have researched and written a lot about binomial technology and social movements. How are they related?

Technology isn't the driver of social movements, it's the other way around. Social movements can drive our development of new communication, organization and mobilization technology. For example, this year marks the 20th anniversary of Indymedia, a global network for open publishing and free programming that was first launched in 1999 alongside the anti-globalization, environmentalist, hacker and anarchist movement. At that time, social media networks like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or MySpace did not exist. Indymedia was one of the few open spaces where you could publish information from within the nucleus of social movements. Then what happened? The cultural industry realized that it could make money from all this information and it stole this innovation from social movements and free programming, turning it into the social media we know today.

Several social movements have exploded in different regions around the world. In Asia, for example, in Hong Kong, and also in Latin America: in Ecuador, Chile, Puerto Rico and Bolivia. What social movements are emerging in the United States?

When Donald Trump was elected in 2016, the whole country started to mobilize itself. Since then, different social movements have condemned how citizens are losing their rights at the hands of his administration. The energy surrounding these social movements is being harnessed for electoral campaigns as we approach the next presidential elections in 2020, mainly because each of these movements agree we have to make our voices heard without the help of those in power. This has generated various mobilizations such as the trade unionist, LGBTQ, feminist, pro-migration, environmental and African American movements, who speak and act out against him and his allies, including both billionaires and the middle- to working-classes who have nationalist and racist views and deny climate change. Our struggles have now joined forces and we're working together to bring him down. There are also some technology-related movements that have very interesting prospects.

Like what, for example?

Employees at Amazon, Microsoft and SalesForce are signing petitions to try and make their colleagues more socially aware. There's also the "No tech for ICE" movement, that has criticized some technology firms who offer information to government officials so they can find, detain and deport illegal immigrants. A good example would be Google: in 2018, more than 20,000 employees protested against the company's management of sexual harassment cases. There's a movement to demand ethical technology, which is something we haven't seen before.

Is design justice your response to all this?

The Design Justice Network is a network we launched in 2015 that is based on ten transfeminist, intersectional, social justice and environmental principles. We challenge designs that harm those who are marginalized by systems of power, and use them to imagine and build a world that is safer, more just, and more sustainable. I am a member of the steering committee and our team currently has 400 members, including designers, architects, artists, technologists and community organizers.

Can you give us some examples of the network's activities and actions?

We offer a critical perspective. The fact that we live in an oppressive system has caused us to behave in an oppressive manner. The network proposes ways to change this system using the means and support of design processes. Design justice can be applied in all aspects of life: from the design of a city or homes to the cover of a magazine or the evolution of a social project. We are currently working with a group of nurses looking for a space where they can exchange resources and devise new medical tools, as well as taking a stand against a project that aims to build an experimental smart city in Toronto (Canada) that is horribly exclusive and threatens the privacy of residents' personal information.

Is the hope that design justice can help in achieving these structural changes?

To be honest, it's not only capitalism that oppresses our society. To quote the black North American philosopher Patricia Hill Collins, it's a matrix of domination where capitalism, the heteropatriarchy and white supremacy all converge. This oppression of race, gender and class has existed for years and doesn't show any signs of diminishing. At the Design Justice Network, we want to build a world that allows many different worlds to coexist, not just one designed for multinationals that destroy all forms of local life. There is no other alternative – one way or another we'll end up in the same place. One option is to carry on as we are, destroying the planet until there are only a few surviving human beings, who will have no other choice but to create new ways of existing. The other option is to start that change now and avoid a much more violent process. It's imperative we build an alternative world because, if we don't, the world as we know it will simply crumble.