republica 2022 recap - Feminist lessons from the digital frontier

The photo shows the four panelists, Ellen Ehmke, Hera Hussain, Michelle Thorne and Julia Kloiber sitting on stage with a large sign behind them depicting the logo of republica.

We are superrr happy to have been able to host a panel on intersectional feminist approaches to tech policy at this years re:publica. We were specifically thrilled to bring together four amazing women in one panel who talked about the impact of feminist practices on tech development, how a feminist perspective can help to build a better internet and how we all can move forward with our struggles to create more inclusive and equitable digital futures. We were able to welcome on stage Hera Hussain, the founder and CEO of Chayn, a civil society organization fighting gender-based violence. Moreover we were joined by Michelle Thorne, research director of Mozzilla’s sustainability program, as well as by Ellen Ehmke, a senior expert on inequality at the Robert Bosch Foundation. The session was moderated by our very own Julia Kloiber from SUPERRR Lab.

From the very beginning on it became apparent that in technology, as in all other areas, different systems of oppression such as patriarchy, racism, socioeconomic inequality, etc. intersect and shape the world we live in as well as our individual experiences in it. The panelists highlighted the incredible intersectional feminist tradition and heritage we all draw upon in our daily work to change technologies and the internet for the better.

“We're all standing on the shoulders of giant*esses - today we're here to share their and our stories and to celebrate". - Julia Kloiber

Viewing how technology has transformed the world today, we need this strong tradition to build on, because tech transformations have been far from picture-perfect. Technology has brought opportunities, efficiencies and innovations. But at the same time it has entrenched inequalities, polarised debates and created novel harms. Activists around the globe are working on bringing feminist values like collaboration, care, and equity to the center of technology development aiming to disrupt and change the power structures of big tech.

Incorporating feminist values in ones everyday work and approach to life is definitely an experiment, as Hera Hussain pointed out. Having built an organization on the basis of collaboration and openness, she learned that “feminism is not a goal post or a destination, you are learning and unlearning all the time”, which also means sometimes “being just another imperfect feminist.” But using your own power to create spaces for oneself and others means continuous learning about how to incorporate feminist values in ones work as well as being held accountable by others for that work.

“I care about sharing more and hoarding less – holding space for different perspectives, also and especially beyond gender." - Hera Hussain

With Chayns new field guide to advance survivor-centric interventions to tech facilitated gender violence - Orbits - Hera and her collegues are creating exactly those kind of spaces. The purpose of the guide is to source information on how to embed a survior-centered and trauma informed approach regarding gender violence to critical areas like research, technology development and policy. It offers examples, best practices and strategies, but also open questions – for which a feminist perspective could help to find some answers.

Using a feminist approach to find answers is also a daily practice for Michelle Thorne. At Mozilla she unpacks the complexities of the internet and its connection to the climate crisis. “The internet is the largest coal powered machine that we have” Michelle stated on the panel, which amounts to more than 3% of global carbon emissions - more than that of aviation or the shipping industry. Looking through an intersectional prism, it is clear that the climate crisis disproportionately affects women, girls, and people in vulnerable communities. Therefore, the impact of the Internet on the environment must be front and center if we are to achieve a sustainable and equitable future.

“How can we trasition the interent away from fossile fuels while advocating for a just and sustainable internet – that’s a feminist question of our time!” - Michelle Thorne

Aiming for such a goal includes making sure big tech takes its climate neutrality pledges seriously, since they are “moving big into green washing”. Moreover, selling the status quo powered by green energy as an improvement will not solve the digital rights issues on online plattforms or the harassment of women sustainability leaders in the online space. Hence, while campaigning for a fossile free internet, we need to advance open and sustainable digital alternatives at the same time, since everything is interlinked.

Ellen Ehmke also stressed the fact that the interlinking factors are most relevant when trying to reduce inequality online. Analog and digital spaces are inseperable: “It is the racism that existed before that is now encoded into AI, it is misoginy from the analog world that is now causing online harm on social media.”, Ellen said. On top of that, the online sphere is adding new layers of inequality in both spaces, which we need to account for. Applying an intersectional lense to these problems enables us to think beyond trying to emulate the status-quo idea of power of men, but rather to create a different notion of power altogether.

“Opposed to the hope in the early days of the internet, the contrast today couldn’t be more stark: Instead of equal access and reduced societal barriers, we have a system goverened by a few white men running these super hierarchical organizations that dominate not only the internet, but also our economies and media.” - Ellen Ehmke

Instead of coming up with entirely new strategies on how to lead our fights for greater justice today, we should look at the fights that have been fought already in the past and should learn from them, Ellen points out. For example there is lots of experience on fighting for the bodily integrity of women in the analog realm. Since we now have to do the same for the digital, we can learn from such struggles.

Switching gears from problem analysis to solutions, a major focus on stage was the idea that we need to embody the values that we want to see embedded in technology in order to make change happen. The panelist emphasized we should be working together, enabling each other with resources that we can spare to build our communities online. Moreover, consent as a principle needs to be meaningful and informed not only on a legal basis. To withdraw ones consent needs to be as easy as consenting to something, in order for the concept of consent to support agency instead of limiting it. At the same time we need to be aware of the limits of consent in large societal seetings and we should to be careful not to overstrech the concept, Ellen points out. Michelle connects the latter to the climte crisis debate, stressing, that probably very few people have agreed to have their future being burned away. At the same time they are confronted with having very limited opportunities to make a difference on an individual level.

Last but not least, in the face of all the work that needs to be done it is important we embed our work in hope and joy. Because hope is what gives us the ability to continue and focus on what we want to achieve and joy gives us the energy and rewards we need. As Michelle puts it, “bring it with joy, bring it with fun and light even in that seriousness, and make our revolution irresistible! Because that will give us momentum, purpose and beauty.”

To start off our own feminist practises, we need to speak up, cooperate, and let our anger be heard. It is important we create a sense of solidarity since we cannot solve these issues on our own. Moreover, the feeling of not being alone gives us power. Taking this up, in the end of the discussion each panelist shared a person or something that continues to inspire them in their work, giving them strength and a feeling of not being alone. May these inspire all of us to push for change in the world and together realize more equitable, just and sustainable futures:

“A starting point for feminist practice: use your power, read, write, cite, listen, open your mind, vote correctly, volunteer, donate, have challening conversations and always be learning!” - Hera Hussain