Between the Past, the Now and the Future – An interview with Joana VaronJulia Kloiber
SUPERRR: For people who've never heard about the Oracle for Transfeminist Technologies, what is it?
Joana: The Oracle is a card game inspired by the tarot, but with a different format and purpose. It is designed to trigger conversations about alternative tech around transfeminist technologies from the future, but in a playful manner. So it's meant to open up our imaginations about what formats and what values alternative technologies can have. It is a joint project led by myself from Coding Rights, Clara Juliano also from Coding Rights, and Sasha Costanza-Chock from Design Justice Network. We developed the Oracle over the years and through a series of workshops where we would play and experiment with the deck. The cards, the concepts and the game's logic changed and developed at every iteration.
SUPERRR: Can you tell us more about this iterative process? How was the idea born and how did it evolve?
Joana: In November 2017, when many experts came to Rio de Janeiro for the Global Symposium on AI and Inclusion, we decided to host a small side event at the Coding Rights offices to consider the question: what would a feminist algorithm look like? We wanted to do something different to debating inclusion in AI, because inclusion sometimes means that you're going to be included in something that was developed by someone else, in someone else’s perspective. So we wanted to steer the conversation away from that kind of framing and deliberate on questions like, “What would a feminist algorithm do?" and “How do we envision that piece of tech when it comes from our needs and our desires, and our imaginations and our cosmologies?”. We held a workshop on these questions, and with that, we started to assemble post-its with values written on them, that in the end kickstarted ideation for what would later become, after a series of other workshops, the sum of the transfeminist values of the Oracle. And I don't know exactly when we shifted to the card game, but already we were assembling the values, playing with the post-its and using our imagination.
In developing the deck, we were also inspired by the Design Justice Principles and by the work of my colleague and good friend, Lucía Egaña Rojas . In another gathering held in Panama, I had the opportunity to attend a speculative feminist writing workshop that she developed for Cooptècniques. Taking cues from her work and that lived experience, we started to play with that methodology and weave in the question of what a feminist algorithm would look like.
This is how the game started to take the shape of an Oracle. It began as a loose brainstorm in a small friendly gathering, and then we started to developed the values cards. Up to that point, we had been using pilot cards with designs from The Noun Project, but once Clarote was selected as a Superrr Fellow, we could develop our own designs – thus starting a new process. In fact, I believe you experienced that moment even closely than me because you two were in Berlin and I was in Brazil. Clarote held some brainstorming workshops around visualizing the values, which inspired what their graphic illustrations would look like. It was very important that we had that development moment, and it was the first funded activity of the project, when it actually took the shape of a proper deck, with our own visual identity.
SUPERRR: Do I recall correctly that there were different names along with each iteration?
Joana: Yes, one was “The Oracle for Transfeminist Futures” and then “The Oracle for Transfeminist Tech”, because we were focusing on feminist technologies from the future. The situation cards were incorporated after we played it with a group of feminist colleagues from the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) network. After the session, Jac suggested we could somehow use the Feminist Principles of the Internet, also developed in collectivity. So we took the principles, which have great goals (e.g. “A feminist internet respects life in all its forms; it does not consume it.”) and transformed them into situations. Altogether, as you can see from all the projects and people I’ve mentioned so far, developing the Oracle has actually been a very collective process which fed into many of the interactions and feminist projects that were happening at the time.
SUPERRR: Throughout this iterative process, did any stories or tools come up that were particularly surprising? And who participated in these workshops?
Joana: It all started in English because the conversation started at an international event: the first iterations of the Oracle were in English. Later on, we translated it into Spanish and to Portuguese. For me, it was very interesting to see that, when we started to play the Oracle in Brazil and other countries in Latin America, the imaginaries were very, very different from what we were playing in the US or in Europe. The conversations were more connected to ancestral technologies and for me, it was very beautiful to notice this. In this sense, the context and where you play makes a big difference. In Latin American contexts, objects that connected to ancestralities came up, like drums, and plants. An expansion took place, which was very inspiring. We don't want to see tech just as something that depends on machinery, on screens, on keyboards, on robots, or even on algorithms. And when we started to play it here, in Latin America, a reappropriation of ancient and traditional knowledge and ancient technology took place. Many ideas were actually very low-tech or were being renamed as technology.
SUPERRR: Can you elaborate on this reappropriation of ancient and traditional knowledge as technology or on low-tech ideas that are elevated through the game?
Joana: Well, we recently had the opportunity to play the Oracle with representatives from cooperatives and public servants of nine Ministries from Brazil, in an event about Platform Cooperativism hosted by the Ministry of Labor in Brazil and the Secretary of Solidary Economy, among others. The Oracle was used to open up the imaginations of those who were present. The challenge was to think about if and how technology could help cooperative movements in Brazil, or even just experience the fact that, independent of people's background, everyone can have a role in tech design. The Oracle uses narratives of the future to make you feel free to imagine whatever you want – free from dependence on the current state of science. But it can also be the first step in actually envisioning something that might already be feasible. During the workshop, interesting ideas emerged. Like a pair of decolonial sandals. In this imaginary, wherever you walk in the sandals, you (re)connect with the ancestral practices of that territory. When you walk with sandals in the present, it connects you with the past, with the people who were in that territory, in that case, in a quilombo. In that playful narrative, when these sandals are sold by a cooperative, they also take you to the history of that community and how those beads or handicrafts came to be from the past. They connect the history of things, a learning tool that adds their history to the products of the cooperative.
SUPERRR: There are so many futuring methodologies like backcasting or forecasting, often used by companies or governments. How would you say the Oracle differs from traditional futuring methodologies?
Joana: Firstly, the fact that it is based on transfeminist values, which we sourced. In the first iterations we used empty cards to which people could add transfeminist values and use those values to think about future technologies. Another point is that the Oracle is not a tech solutionist deck, it is not meant to encourage ideas that depart from the belief that tech by itself can solve our historical problems. So the deck also includes the joker card, which is inspired by the sayings and thoughts of indigenous leader Ailton Krenak in Brazil, who has a book titled “Ancestral Future.” These cards question whether the tech we have imagined for the future should exist or not. Should it actually be created? What kind of experiences, lives or history is a particular tech erasing? While amazing ideas can be imagined, the Oracle poses the question of whether they should or shouldn’t exist, even in the future. This brings you back to the past while playing with the idea of the future.
I don't think we should have a linear vision of time and there are many cosmologies that also believe in that but, due to colonization, this is not in the mainstream view, but is a view that is pretty much alive in practice – particularly here in the territory of Brazil. I live in Rio de Janeiro, where afro-decendence enriches and is totally reflected in the local culture, our music, our parties, our festivities. We are always reconnecting with those ancestralities, when we go out to parties, when we sing, or when we connect to the territory and our histories, sometimes histories of violence, but also of resistance and maintenance of powerful cosmologies, in which in the present we are in continuous conversations and interactions with energies that have lived far longer than us. They trace pathways to pull back and reconnect us with the past, with our ancestralities – and this also makes us more grounded. So the linear vision of time was imposed by colonization and is furthered by neoliberalism. Neoliberal theories impose one path to development, proposing that there are underdeveloped countries that are developing towards one specific ideal which values consumerism and the notion of us as individual beings, instead of part of a collective and an environment and of the histories from where we come. That proposed disconnection is what is leading us to technologies that cause anxiety, depression, and degradation of beings and of the planet.
A while ago I had the opportunity to attend a vigilia around ancestral narratives, led by Indigenous peoples from several territories of what today is called Brazil. It was hosted by Ailton Krenak. We all gathered around a fireplace, where Krenak highlighted how tying those ancestral histories and narratives, and being able to access them, grounds us. It’s different to a timeline, like on social media, which tells you what you should consume, what you should be producing, how you should be presenting yourself. This kind of timeline makes people sick with anxiety, depression and many other mental health issues, including suicide. Krenak's gathering was the opposite. Those histories reconnect you with you, with who you are, and with everybody that came before you.
SUPERRR: From a European perspective, the ancestral evokes the past and we understand the past, present and future as clearly divided. However, it’s very interesting to hear you talk about ancestral futures. Can you elaborate on this concept?
Joana: The ancestral is not only in the past, but rather incorporated into our bodies and our territories in the present. The only thing that exists is the now, and through the now, there is a connection with the future, which doesn't actually exist. The only thing that exists is what you want from the future in the now. So in the now, in every single present moment you are both living the now, breathing your ancestrality and aspiring to the future. Everything together in the same moment, not linear. That is what I think is problematic, for instance, when AI industry leaders refer to future existential risks of AI. The risk is already happening, in the now, because they are leading this tech development.
The notion of time and how it is situated points towards how technologies are situated. This is captured in the cards “bodies and territories” in a similar way to how transfeminist values are captured in the “values” cards. The “bodies and territories” cards situate tech in the territories and peoples who envision them, therefore, it challenges the notions sold by big tech that a particular tech shall be universalized in a global scale. That is their narrative because it gives them money, profit on a global scale, which also means monopolies and destructive extractivism. What if our technologies are meant to be local, situated, non-scalable, but interoperable? If we think in terms of the Feminist Principles of the Internet, transfeminist tech is also situated and this notion of time also becomes a component.
SUPERRR: This is very different from the current, popular methodologies, where you take data to predict a future. It’s separate from corporate futuring methodologies because it is not a tool for prediction. The Oracle for Transfeminist Technologies is rather a tool for exploration, for community building, for grounding yourself in the here and now. This is a more irreverent question, but do you have a favourite card? And if so, which one is it?
Joana: From the “values” cards it's pleasure, because it's important to foster joy and pleasure in life. That's one of my favourite cards. From the “objects” cards, I like the drums, the bread and the bacteria. But we also keep coming up with new objects in the workshops. I like that people come up with new things.
SUPERRR: Five years ago, you had the idea and started the first iteration. Now there have been several iterations. So when you think about the future, what are your aspirations for the card deck? In what contexts would you like to see the Oracle being used? And do you already have plans for what's next?
Joana: I'm very happy that now we have many prints in Portuguese and we are trying to make partnerships with feminist libraries to distribute them in Brazil. Another landmark has been transforming the deck into an art installation during the event "Ancestral Immediacies", held at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW). Now the deck is also available at Archive Books, the HKW Library.
Distribution is tricky, as we are working with many languages and territories. So we need partnerships for distribution like the one we did with Allied Media Store to sell the deck in the US. We reinvest everything in the project, so by purchasing the game or donating to the project, people also help us to further develop the project, facilitate workshops, create prototypes and improve and expand our online platform, etc. We are still looking for partnerships with feminist bookshops or initiatives that help us to solve distribution in Latin America and to other parts of Europe. So suggestions are welcome.
We also would like to keep exploring ways to bring the Oracle into schools, tech development spaces but also into policy-making and art spaces. I hope the workshop at the Ministry of Labor that I’ve previously mentioned and also the HKW installation have jump-started that trend.
We are also remodeling the website transfeministech.org, which is part of the distribution strategy. The idea is that is to become more clear on how people can play by themselves and maybe even consult the cards on the website. We'll be working on that in the next semester.
SUPERRR: Wonderful! That sounds like a lot of great plans. Thank you for this interview and we look forward to seeing the evolution and new developments of the Oracle for Transfeminist Technologies!
Illustration: Anna Niedhart, Rainbow Unicorn.