Technology, consent and privacy

Nobody (even at their age!) should struggle this much to read a situation.Tonight my fellow faculty member at Academy of the Impossible, Ramona Pringle, hosts an awesome-sounding event (which I sadly cannot attend) called The Connection Paradox: Creating a Social Blueprint. The event’s purpose is to flesh out an idea of how we want to live with technology and with each other. Since I can’t be there, she asked me to send her a few thoughts about the issue, and because of the things I often blog about, my thoughts automatically drifted to gender, privacy and consent as they relate to technology. Here are some of my jottings on the subject.

The dominant fear-mongering rhetoric around privacy and technology has given people an excuse to violate others’ digital privacy in ways they likely know (at least in the back of their minds) are immoral. Because the prevailing wisdom is “nothing is private in digital space”, our culture’s collective response to things like the sharing of intimate images is “well, she shouldn’t have sent him the photo in the first place”. This collective response flies in the face of the distinction between one-to-one and one-to-many communication. If a person chooses to send something via a one-to-one channel (or one-to-a-select-few, such as a group chat with 2 others), the tacit message is that the communication is for this person (or these people) alone. If a communicator wants a thought or image to be widely shared via one-to-many, they will do so themselves. I believe when people distribute intimate images that were texted or emailed to them alone, they know in their hearts that they are hurting and violating the other person, but our collective wisdom justifies their decision to share. That collective wisdom is what needs to change.

I feel this is a manifestation of some people’s belief that technology is an “objective” entity that functions and self-moderates automatically as its own animal, independently of human beliefs, values and behaviour. It strikes me that this is not unlike how people tend to think about the “free market”. I so disgree with this characterization. We are technology – we are the ones who make it, who use it, who decide how it can and should be used (though of course, we aren’t able to predict and control that use absolutely). We can set new and different standards of behaviour and use. IMHO, one of those “new” standards should be what is really a pretty basic/ancient moral code: if someone tells you something privately (especially if aspects of it are sensitive and/or could be harmful to anyone, whether they are involved or not), unless the communicator asks you to share or it’s in the public interest to share, keep it to yourself.

How to implement this standard? I dunno (sorry). It’s a complex cultural issue. In the case of revenge porn I believe the problem is also shrouded in misogynistic ideology that privileges public access to bodies (especially women’s bodies). I do think it would help to start teaching kids about consent as an important subset of how we educate them about privacy in a technology context. This teaching doesn’t have to apply solely to digital violations of a sexual nature (like revenge porn). For example, consider a situation in which a teenager confides to a friend about their crush via one-to-one chat, and the friend posts a Facebook status about it.

Consent should be an integral part of how we educate about privacy, but I think many parents and educators (not to mention the media) would be hesitant to do so. Why? Because it might in some ways qualify or mitigate (and perhaps in some folks’ eyes, undermine) the dominant, hand-wringy messages about BEING CAREFUL WHAT YOU POST because NOTHING IS PRIVATE ANYMORE. But I think it’s necessary. Educating about privacy shouldn’t just be about protecting our own privacy, but also about not violating the privacy of others. And this learning should start early.

Taking the Rape out of Culture

On Thursday, May 23 2013, I hosted an event at Academy of the Impossible called “Taking the Rape out of Culture”. It was an open group brainstorm (with some breakout discussions as well) to map the component parts of rape culture – what does it look like in practice? What are the sub-concepts (or as I dubbed them, “subgenres”) under the big umbrella of rape culture?

I was thrilled at the quality of discussion and the diverse range of participants we had. Participants included: people who work in violence prevention, anti-racism organizers, parents, journalists, new Canadians, trans* participants, volunteers at crisis centres. We came at the topic from a variety of perspectives and we really dove into the subject matter.

One of these days I’m going to have to get a WordPress plugin that allows me to embed a Storify, but today is not that day. I do urge you to read my Storify of tweets from the evening, which captures some of the ground we covered and provides detail on many of the “subgenres” of rape culture we discussed. We’ll likely be holding another session in the future to discuss methods of intervening and challenging the many component parts of rape culture, so stay tuned.

Cisters, make today your starting point

Today is the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHT). As with all awareness-raising days, it is only one day amid a sea of others on which we tend to be more indifferent to the oppressions and systems of power that we play a role in perpetuating. However, IDAHT and other efforts like it can be useful for people who are in the early stages of coming to terms with their privilege as a straight and/or cis person. People like the person writing this post.

I have never harboured any negativity, discomfort, or dismissive attitudes toward people who don’t share my sexual orientation, gender identity or expression. For a long time I felt like that was enough. Recently I have begun to swallow the fact that there is much I don’t know about the experience of being a person in this world who is gay, a lesbian, trans*, bi, queer, two-spirited, or gender-queer. To be an active part of the solution, I need to educate myself (and, as I develop greater knowledge and perspective, educate other cis and straight people) on what these lived experiences are like and how they differ from my own.

I owe much of my (admittedly limited, but growing) recent understanding to a new friend named Sophia Banks, an immensely talented freelance wedding photographer who has seen a 90% reduction in business since coming out as a trans woman. Via her Twitter account, Sophia candidly and generously shares the anger and pain inflicted upon her and her fellow trans* people (trans women in particular) by cisnormativity and transphobia. I highly recommend you follow her if you are a Twitter user, especially if you are cis. Sophia has explicitly professed that her goal is to build understanding among cis people. Since it is no trans* person’s “job” to provide these insights to cis folks like myself, I am very grateful to her for expending her time and energy in doing so.

Many of the experiences and impacts of transphobia that Sophia has shared are things that I understood before on some cold and abstract level. However, hearing personal stories of how transphobia plays out in people’s lives adds a punch-in-the-gut vividness and urgency. A key example that comes to mind is the scope of transphobia’s economic impacts on trans* people. As we all know (I hope!), lack of income security often spills over to impact other aspects of life including mental health, housing stability, and experiences of violence at the hands of individuals or the state.

Sophia is self-employed, and her billings have seen a steep decline since she came out as a trans woman. Her once-booming business (I mean, look at those gorgeous photos!) has slowed to a trickle and she is hovering dangerously close to eviction. She is concerned that if she continues to work as a woman (i.e. as herself), she will be homeless. No person should have to erase themselves in order to make a living and keep a roof over their head. I Storified some of her evocative tweets about this, please check it out to read it in her own voice.

Ontario recently added discrimination based on gender identity and expression as grounds for a complaint to the Human Rights Commission – an important victory. However, what’s to stop an employer from simply ascribing a more innocuous reason to their choice to not select a trans* job candidate or proposal from a trans* contractor? “If the interviewer is transphobic, it’s hopeless,” says Sophia. The new Human Rights Code, while undoubtedly important, doesn’t seem to deter many employers from expressing and/or condoning harmful and exclusionary attitudes. If you’re cis this next part may shock you (it did me), though I imagine trans* readers may relate: Sophia told me one prospective employer asked her which genitals she had in a job interview. WTFFFFFFFFF

In addition to facing discrimination from employers and clients, the costs can be enormous if a trans* person opts for sex reassignment surgery (SRS) or other medical supports to align physicality with identity. Financial costs for trans women are especially high – $25K isn’t unheard of. Yet for many trans* people, SRS is not an elective surgery but vital. Not to mention the fact that in a cissexist society, aligning your physical sex characteristics with your identity is often the only way to convince people that you’re a Real Woman or Real Man (ugh), despite the fact that the vast majority of people will never encounter your genitals!

Take trans* people’s access to limited resources, couple it with the high levels of post-secondary education required for social work positions these days, and you get a lot of cis people delivering social services to trans* people whose life experiences are unfamiliar to them. For a person experiencing little income security, precarious housing, and/or lack of acceptance (or outright hostility) from family, friends and colleagues, effective and empathetic mental health support and other social services are crucial. And yet, Sophia has struggled to find support groups for trans women that are actually facilitated by one. “I asked why trans women were not facilitating the groups and they said they can’t find any with the qualifications,” she says. “How can any trans woman afford to go to school for an MSW [Master of Social Work] while transitioning?”

Considering these factors, it is perhaps unsurprising that over 40% of trans people attempt suicide. Considering these factors, it is perhaps unsurprising that, when a video game site editor outed a trans woman on Twitter this week mere hours after she had attempted suicide, people were pissed – though not enough cis people by any stretch. Many cis people who I know harbour no ill will toward trans people were not part of the broader discussion around this incident. Shamefully enough, I probably only heard about it because it happened in the gaming community, in which many of the people I follow are active.

I’m sure for every cis person who participated in that discussion, there were a few sitting on the sidelines feeling perturbed by the whole debacle, but uncertain of what to say or how to contribute. I can relate. I want to do right by trans* people. As a well-meaning but relatively clueless cis person, I don’t want to say the wrong thing unwittingly or ask too many questions and end up causing additional hurt, anger or exhaustion.

If you’re a well-meaning but relatively clueless cis person (it’s okay to admit it if you’re willing to do something to change it), IDAHT is one day out of the year, but you can make it your starting point. Today, take some time to learn more about how to best support trans* people, and how to best participate in the fight for justice across the gender spectrum. Here are some places to start, and I definitely encourage you to post any resources you find useful (either as a cis or trans* person) in the comments.

Sort-Of App Review: r/ally

Like previous “sort-of reviews” on this blog, this is more a description of what I enjoy, find useful, and might change if I could about the mobile app r/ally (@RallyYourGoals on Twitter), currently in beta mode. I’m not an industry expert and my intent is not to provide an exhaustive, authoritative account, just a user reflection.

r/ally recently approached me on Twitter and asked me to beta test the app. The tweet was non-spammy and when I visited their feed, it wasn’t filled with identical tweets to other accounts (which is, for me, typically a dealbreaker). And most importantly, the app concept seemed uniquely designed for me and my interests, which was a dealMAKER.

r/ally is an app for women to collaborate and support each other in pursuing their goals: professional, personal, and anything in between. As a woman who is constantly creating new goals and seeking like-minded collaborators for grassroots projects, the idea appealed to me. One app store reviewer wrote “this is what LinkedIn has been missing,” and I’m inclined to agree.

Not only can people see what projects you’re working on, they can reach out to help even if you don’t know one another. Users have the option to accept or decline offers of support on a goal from other users, and once an offer of support has been accepted, the two users can share private messages to spitball ideas, exchange contact information, and anything else to move toward the goal in question.

The app is currently not location-specific, but I’ve come across users in Toronto and Vancouver so far. Like many products and services that cater to women in a career context, the users at this early stage seem to be primarily middle-class, white, urban and highly educated. A more diverse user base would make for a more interesting and inclusive user experience, and I’m hoping they will get there.

Like any social app, it needs a critical mass of active users in order to be worth checking regularly. I don’t think they’re quite there yet but I definitely see the potential! I seem to share interests with a lot of the users who are there, which has led to a few new connections. The app notifies you of other users’ goals you may wish to support, and so far I’ve found the algorithm produces users and goals relevant to my interests.

As this app amasses more users, I am confident that it’ll be interesting and busy enough to come back to regularly. One thing I think might be a barrier to frequent use, though, is that users appear to be capped at three active goals at a time. For me, this limits the app’s usefulness because I’d like to be using it as a sort of long-term social to-do list, and I typically have more than three long-term goals on the go at a given time. If they removed the goal cap, I’d have a lot more to do on r/ally.

r/ally is a brilliant concept with a well-designed interface and algorithms that drive user engagement. If it gets more uptake, especially among more diverse communities of women, it has a lot of potential to be a go-to app for ambitious women.