What do bananas have to do with censorship? What do polyamorous people have in common with fax machines? How can you help your ideas have cyber-sex? These are some of the questions I answered in my presentation at the inaugural Atlanta Poly Weekend, a conference about polyamory and its relationship to a range of other things, including BDSM, Blues dancing, and of course, Internet censorship.
My talk was called “Anti-censorship best practices for the sex-positive publisher,” and I subtitled it “How to make keeping it up easy and taking it down hard.” I wrote the longest talk I’ve ever given (~7,300 words) and, in my usual style, supplemented it with a slide deck totaling 220 rapid-fire visual aids. In the end, I felt like it went over pretty well, although I was exceptionally nervous.
I was nervous first and foremost because this talk had several far-reaching objectives. Among them were driving home the importance of fighting for freedom of information and free speech, explaining the way Internet censorship and sex-negativity support and often rely on one another, and exploring how social networking theory can help cure the current worldwide pandemic of sexual paranoia. Moreover, I also wanted to provide as much insight as possible into the months of thinking that have gone into my “FetLife Considered Harmful: The Risks of Sex Ghettoization” essay in an effort to clarify it, because much of the backlash against it (and me) coming from FetLife members and some sexuality community stalwarts betrays their profound ignorance of the issues at hand.
That’s a tall order. On top of all of that, however, I also had no idea who my audience was going to be, other than that they paid to see me speak at a conference focusing on polyamory. Were they going to be techies or luddites? Young digital natives or stereotypically technophobic moms and grandparents? All of the above? No matter how homogenous and receptive in-person attendees may have been, however, I also live streamed the talk and I knew I was going to publish it on my blog for the Internet to see.
Ultimately, I chose to de-jargonize the whole talk; I never use the word “database” and I only use the word “data” 5 times. I don’t think I mention anything more technologically complicated than “a proprietary file format,” and I use the ubiquitous example of a Photoshop PSD when I do. I tried to discuss the issue generically while still providing practical guidance because when talking to a large group, talking about too many specifics would likely benefit only several individuals, not the whole group.
In the end, this presentation is about the “practical theory” of anti-censorship techniques, and while I focus on technical (Internet) censorship most, “censorship” is defined loosely. I again drew heavily on FetLife as a case study but I mercifully had way longer for this talk (an hour and a half) than for my KinkForAll Providence 2 talk in which I first presented my concerns about that site (20 minutes). Even so, I still didn’t have time to go into as much nuance as I’d have liked. Complicating factors like Reed’s and Sarnoff’s laws were left out of my talk entirely and I feel like I just barely scratched the surface of what I did mention, such as applications for Metcalfe’s law.
Nevertheless, it just so happened that a conference about polyamory was the perfect place to give this talk.
I want to thank the staff of Atlanta Poly Weekend for accepting my proposal, for putting up with me when I insisted that they re-organize the layout of my session’s room, for giving me a wireless microphone since I had a sore throat so I didn’t have to strain my voice to give the speech, for making a special effort to video record my speech and my slides, and for generally treating me way nicer than I’m used to, even though the VIP treatment made me a bit uncomfortable. Most of all, though, I want to thank everyone who offered encouragement when they saw me banging away at my keyboard in the hotel hallways late at night actually working on finishing this thing.
And that’s another reason why I’m nervous. This presentation is a first draft!
So, without further ado, below is a low-fidelity video of my presentation recorded from the live stream. (The high-quality version has yet to make it to me.) Like all my similar work, this presentation is “open source” and Creative Commons licensed. Feel free to download it, use it yourself (including, since I can only be at one place at one time, literally re-presenting it wherever you wish and are able), or share it with anyone you think might find it valuable. If you do any of these things, I would greatly appreciate a link back to this page.
- Anti-censorship best practices for the sex-positive publisher keynote presentation as a ZIP archive.
- Anti-censorship best practices for the sex-positive publisher keynote presentation as a PDF document.
- Anti-censorship best practices for the sex-positive publisher slides (and animations) as a QuickTime movie.
- Anti-censorship best practices for the sex-positive publisher keynote presentation as a text transcript.
[Video of The Machine is Us/ing Us plays.]
What do bananas have to do with censorship? What do polyamorous people have in common with fax machines? And how can you help your ideas have sex? These are the three questions I’m going to answer in this seminar.
We live in an amazing moment in history. As I bet any sexually vocal person will tell you (if you don’t already know), the Internet has fundamentally transformed our ability to communicate with one another. For example, before the Internet, if you were a gay teenager in bum-fuck nowhere, you were the only gay person in the world. Now, though, after the Internet, if you’re a gay teenager in bum-fuck nowhere, you’re one of millions of gay teenagers communicating online.
This is big. This is not merely the evolution of telecommunication technologies. This is a revolution.
The second sexual revolution is about information
The Internet is such a big deal that it’s actually a revolution of all kinds—media, governance, technology itself. But it’s also a second sexual revolution, and this one—our generation’s sexual revolution—traces its roots through the first. This is where just a bit of history comes in handily.
On May 9th, 1960, the first oral contraceptive was made available to the general public; “the Pill” sparked the sexual revolution of the 1960s and ’70s. Like all revolutions, no one could predict the outcome at the outset. It sparked chaos; the sexual revolution precipitated the “sex wars” in the 1980s.
Also in the 1960s—in 1962 to be exact—Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider, affectionately known as “Lick,” (not kidding) first proposed a global network of computers. The project was initially adopted by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), an R&D branch of the US military. Yes, the Internet was originally conceived of like a weapon.
As the slogan “Make Love, Not War” spread through public consciousness in the “free love” movement of the 60s, the Internet was being recognized as a tool of generic utility and in 1969 was launched as ARPANet. “Make love, not war” is, at least poetically, a physical parallel of Internet technology.
The specification for the ubiquitous File Transfer Protocol (FTP) was published in 1973—the same year as the Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion in America. In 1986, as the sex wars raged, the National Science Foundation funded NSFNet as a cross country 56 Kbps Internet backbone for expressly non-commercial, essentially academic purposes. The protocol for the World Wide Web, called the HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP), was developed by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989, and, of course, eventually became the most widely used protocol on the public Internet.
In exactly the same way as Gutenberg’s printing press was recognized as a revolution, bringing with it 150 years of chaos, so too is the Internet. [Video: "Why do you think the world will be in chaos for 50 years?" clips play.] You may be asking yourselves, “Why is any of this important? So what if we are living in a time of media chaos?”
It’s important because disruption is the precursor to progress, and successful innovation harnesses chaos. Create chaos carefully, and you will be a force to be reckoned with. This seminar is about how to be a force to be reckoned with online.
In the United States, we don’t have State Media, but you have to ask, ‘In this country, if we had State Media, how would it be any different?’
While it is true that never before in human history have individuals like you and me been so empowered to create change using available telecommunication technologies, it is also true that never before in human history have all the technological pieces necessary for a totalitarian Police State existed simultaneously, as envisioned by Orwell—until now. In today’s age of postmodern warfare, information itself can be a weapon of mass destruction.
Information weapons come in two main forms: propaganda and censorship. Both can be considered cultural terrorism, each pointing in different directions. For us as sexual freedom advocates, propaganda includes fear-based messages spreading sexual paranoia or moral panic. Its target is the general populace. Censorship includes the firewalls, content filters, and bandwidth limits intended to target you—sex-positive publishers.
Lest you think I’m being hyperbolic, let’s look at some recent examples of the information landscape.
The censoring of sex
Perhaps the most obvious examples of Internet censorship can be found in China. But China also offers a particularly relevant case study for sex-positive publishers.
In 2003, a woman writing under the nom de plume of “Muzi Mei” became a notorious household name in mainland China after she started blogging about her sexual encounters with a number of men. She displayed a confidence that may seem familiar to many of you. In November of that year, she was featured in a New York Times article which reads, in part:
[…A]s China’s propaganda machine has promoted the nation’s new space hero or the latest pronouncements from Communist Party leaders, the Chinese public has seemed more interested in a 25-year-old sex columnist whose beat is her own bedroom. […] Mu Zimei is both reviled and admired, but she is not ignored. […] Her celebrity — which exploded when she posted an explicit online account of her tryst with a Chinese rock star — first seemed to baffle government censors but now has drawn a familiar response. Her forthcoming book was banned this week. She has quit her magazine columnist job and halted her blog, or online diary.
Yet at a time when ”Sex and the City” episodes are among the most popular DVD’s in China, the Mu Zimei phenomenon is another example of the government’s struggle to keep a grip on social change in China. Her writings have prompted a raging debate about sex and women on the Internet, where more people are writing blogs or arguing anonymously about a host of subjects in chat rooms and discussion pages.
”She does bring a huge impact on Chinese society,” said Zeng Fuhu, a top editor at Sohu.com.
[Ms. Mu] said she never realized her […] online diary would be so widely discovered, or that it would grow into a national controversy. But she defended her right to sleep with as many men as she pleased — and to write about it.
“If a man does this,” she said, “it’s no big deal. But as a woman doing so, I draw lots of criticism.”
Ms. Mu does not regard herself as peddling smut. She said her generation of Chinese grew up with little or no sex education. ”Some learned it from videos,” she said. ”Why not from words?”
Muzi Mei had opened pandora’s box. In the years that followed, a wave of celebrity sex bloggers, all young women, spread across China, each more audacious than the last. In 2004, a Chinese university student named Fu Rong Jie Jie posted softcore pictures of herself along with “lovelorn prose” and quickly became the country’s next phenomenon, calling herself “Sister Lotus.” She flat-out declared, “I will not be censored,” but by 2005 she had a cult following so large that Chinese censors ordered the country’s top blog host to move posts covering her to low-profile areas of the site and pulled a TV documentary about her from airing at all.
Meanwhile, another blogger, Liu Mang Yan, aka. “Lost Sparrow,” began podcasting lovemaking noises she recorded categorized by geographical regions of the country. That year, Pacific News Service reported:
In a culture where sexual attitudes are still repressive, the racy details shared by the women bloggers are thrusting them into the spotlight, despite China’s most recent crackdown on the Internet news media.
Though the Internet community for women is thriving, the Chinese government is stepping up its efforts to regulate online bloggers. China’s Ministry of Information Industry and the State Council on Sept. 24 released new regulations containing vague language banning sexually explicit content on the Web, which many analysts say are aimed at bloggers. Observers say the real goal of China’s Internet censorship is to prevent leadership and movement rising from the medium.
Sex-positive publishers, regardless of the labels they claim for themselves, have such a powerful effect on the inherently misogynistic, patriarchal, and sex-negative forces governing the world today that they—you, us—represent the collective human drive for self-determination. As Dr. Katrien Jacobs, Assistant Professor of Media and Communication studies at Hong Kong University writes in her book Netporn: DIY web culture and sexual politics:
[Reports] show that the PRC [People's Republic of China] party-state encourages the spread of the Internet while it believes that it can monitor and censor those aspects of activity that it sees as destabilizing, dangerous, and unhealthy. The PRC indirectly regulates the Internet by directly regulating intermediary actors/owners of cyber-cafés, ISPs [Internet Service Providers], Internet content providers (ICPs), and everyday citizens. For instance, the Guangdong public security department has agreed with local telecommunications companies to pay a reward of up to 2,500 yuan (US$309) to people who report any type of netporn traffic.
Dr. Jacobs also describes “the Chinese government’s provisions that were included in a draft of regulations in the year 2000 to govern telecommunications and the publication of news and electronic information on the Internet.” These regulations were a list of amazingly broad and vaguely defined “forbidden contents,” which were simply banned:
information that (1) Contradicts the principles defined in the constitution [of the PRC]; (2) Endangers national security, discloses state secrets, subverts the government, or destroys the unity of the country; (3) Damages the honor and the interests of the State; (4) Instigates ethnic hatred or ethnic discrimination, or destroys the unity of [China's] nationalities; (5) Has negative effects on the state’s policy on religion or propagates evil cults or feudal superstition; (6) Disseminates rumors, disturbs social order, and undermines social stability; (7) Spreads lewdness, pornography, gambling, violence, murder; (8) offends or defames other people, infringes upon the rights and interests of other people; and (9) Other contents that are forbidden by law or administrative regulations.
Number 7 in particular, which lumps lewdness and porn together with murder, deserves being called out as what Dr. Marty Klein calls a “phony category”:
It’s a common strategy in public policy discussions—creating a category that lumps two dissimilar things together, and decrying the more serious of the two. We’re all in favor of preventing hangnails and heart attacks, aren’t we? We MUST do something about that!
Also in 2005, in what was known as China’s “great Internet pornography trial,” the Chinese government sentenced 11 defendants, 5 of whom were university students, to prison for between three and twelve years. They were convicted as Internet pornographers under the censors’ regulations for administering a fee-based online BBS, 99bbs.com, whose users traded pornographic content. Dr. Jacobs describes the trial asan attempt of the government not to eradicate porn distribution but to undermine the very vitality of a new social network [because t]he values of this Chinese network were different from those of official mainstream society controlled by the PRC. It announced a sex/porn revolution in a twilight zone: It included the sharing of sexual ideas and communication by both women and men and gave its people access to pornography.
All of this censorship of sexuality is an erotophobic tightening of the social sphere. All of these regulations are fronts for an ideology that constrains women and sexual minorities. In China’s great Internet pornography trial, the lone female defendant, 29-year-old Zhao Yong, got the strictest sentence: twelve years. And just in case you needed any more convincing, just this week—THIS WEEK—32 Chinese women were reportedly arrested for writing and publishing gay erotica on the Internet.
China is not the only country with such repressive information policies.
Iran is equally repressive, of course, but so is Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Syria, and Vietnam, for example. Note, in particular, Tunisia and Egypt—both in the news recently due to their revolutions—were suffering equally pervasive Internet censorship, according to data from Reporters Without Borders. And Saudi Arabia, a key US ally in the Middle East, is just as bad. In fact, most countries that are connected to the Internet conduct some level of Internet censorship, including the United States. Interestingly, among First World American allies, Australia—Wikileaks founder Julian Assange’s home country—is by far the worst.
Still think Internet censorship can’t happen here, in the Western so-called liberal democracies? In many of these countries, legislatures have been trying to ban content from the Internet for years under various guises: “combating copyright infringement,” “defending national security,” “eradicating child pornography.” These causes are routinely misused and abused to support a pro-censorship agenda, I say as someone who would support legitimate efforts to do all of those things.
And what’s censored most?
Blogs—especially sex blogs—like yours and mine. Personal blogs are more censored even than opposition political party websites, according to data compiled by the OpenNet Initiative.
A few years ago, I started keeping a list of corporations and public facilities that censored my blog and I encouraged my readers to report any blocking to me. I learned that I’m censored by the free Wi-Fi provider in both Long Beach, CA’s airport and Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Austin, Texas; by Bolt Bus’s free Wi-Fi; by NASA’s Goddard facility in Greenbelt, Maryland; Vodafone UK censors my blog unless subscribers ask to opt-out of “Content Control”; and I’m censored by the public libraries in Austin, Texas, Sacramento, California, and Providence, Rhode Island (even on computers specifically reserved for use by adults).
Internet filtering at public libraries in America is actually mandated by a 2003 law known as the “Children’s Internet Protection Act” despite numerous reports, including the Youth Safety on a Living Internet report published in June 2010, saying Internet filtering is actually bad for kids and their education. Such misguided attempts at “protection” result in a sexuality information deficit that causes terrible emotional, and often even physical and legal, damage to the very youth they claim to be protecting.
This isn’t supposed to happen, right? The premise—and the promise—of the Internet was that you, an individual with something—anything—to say, can reach a global audience with the push of a button. But that simple activity presumes that on the Internet, all content is created equal. Or, as ever so famously phrased, “In our world, all the sentiments and expressions of humanity, from the debasing to the angelic, are parts of a seamless whole, the global conversation of bits.”
But if that were really true, non-controversial content would be pretty much the same as controversial content, perhaps of a political nature. Of course, we know that even in America, content is not all treated equally. The ACLU recently launched a campaign called Don’t Filter Me! because they received reports of LGBT websites being blocked in schools because they were LGBT education websites!
Censorship also happens in the form of service discrimination, not merely content blocking. For instance, after Wikileaks began releasing US diplomatic cables in December, 2010, it faced a series of extrajudicial attacks: Amazon kicked Wikileaks off its servers, Everydns.net withdrew its domain name, and PayPal froze WikiLeaks’ account. The amazing thing about this is that each and every one of these attacks has a sexual censorship precedent.
The folks who published the NYC Sex Blogger Calendar have had their PayPal account frozen and their funds seized not once, but twice, before they decided to ditch the service way back in 2008. Web celeb Violet Blue’s “sex-positive URL shortener,” vb.ly, had its domain name seized by the Libyan government in October, 2010. And just one month before Amazon cut off WikiLeaks, there was a big hoopla over Amazon’s initial defense of, then banning of a “Pedophile book” from their virtual shelves. Interestingly, Amazon initially said it wouldn’t pull the book because that would amount to censorship. Eventually, Amazon capitulated to public pressure and, of course, now the book is gone.
Amazon’s conflicting actions with regards to the pedophile book should teach us 2 very important lessons. First, that censorship can be social just as much as as it can be technical. And secondly, that sexual speech will always be in the vanguard of anti-censorship efforts. Thus, sexual speech will always be censorship’s initial—but never its last—casualty.
So here’s how we can frame the censorship versus free speech problem: On the Internet, even if your content may not be illegal, if you can’t find anyone to host it, link to it, or bill for it, it may as well be. In exactly the same way as Julian Assange is being called a “terrorist,” not a journalist, Galileo was being called a heretic, not a scientist. And in a fascistic world where such ludicrous stigma is treated as dogmatically-enforced fact, since I’m a “sex” blogger discussing sexuality a lot online, they call me a “pedophile.”
Of course, we’re none of those things. Nevertheless, we’ll all get called these things because, in the words of national security blogger Maximilian Forte, “The real ‘insurgency’ is the one being fought at home. To the state, every defiant citizen is a terrorist, in mind if not in practice.”
You may not have realized it until now, but because you as a sex-positive publisher publish material asserting different values from the mainstream society controlled by corporations and your government, websites like the Chinese 99bbs.com are your kindred spirits.
Circumvention Tactics for Information Guerrillas in the Culture War
Anti-censorship is called circumvention because it helps you dodge, or circumvent, the censors. Since there are many different publishing platforms, I’m not going to get into the technical nitty-gritty of which button to push on which screen. If you want to talk about that with me, I’d be happy to speak with you privately later.
Instead, I’m going to detail three best practices that, taken together, I hope will provide a framework for how to build anti-censorship techniques directly into the way you think about publishing itself. Each concept builds on the one beneath it, so you can think of any action you take online to be a cumulative result of these principles in action. They are:
- Avoid single points of failure,
- diversify your distribution network, and
- liberate your data.
Let’s go through them one by one.
Avoid single points of failure
First, you need to be aware of single points of failure and do your best to avoid them.
A single point of failure (SPOF) is a part of a system which, if it fails, will stop the entire system from working. This is also known as the weakest link, and is the single most critical concept in this entire presentation. To explain this, let me tell you a short story about bananas.
Dangers of a banana (and sexuality) monoculture
When Americans think of bananas, they think of one and only one variety: the Cavendish. In the words of Chiquita, the globe’s largest banana producer, the Cavendish is “quite possibly the world’s perfect food.” But it also happens that all of the 100 billion Cavendish bananas eaten annually worldwide are genetically identical; every commercial Cavendish banana tree is grown from cuttings of the original tree. This genetic monoculture is the Cavendish banana’s single point of failure.
Since it lacks the genetic diversity key to a species’ health, any fungal or bacterial disease that infects one banana plantation can infect them all. That’s exactly what happened in the early 1900’s when similarly genetically identical crops of the Gros Michel variety of banana were devastated by a fungus called Panama disease. It ravaged plantations across the globe for decades.
According to a 2005 article at PopSci.com:
Growers adopted a frenzied strategy of shifting crops to unused land, maintaining the supply of [Gros Michel] bananas to the public but at great financial and environmental expense—the tactic destroyed millions of acres of rainforest. By 1960, the major importers were nearly bankrupt, and the future of the fruit was in jeopardy. […] U.S. banana executives were hesitant to recognize the crisis facing the Gros Michel. […] Once a little-known species, the Cavendish was eventually accepted as Big Mike’s replacement after billions of dollars in infrastructure changes were made to accommodate different growing and ripening needs. Its advantage was its resistance to Panama disease. But in 1992, a new strain of the fungus—one that can affect the Cavendish—was discovered in Asia. Since then, Panama disease Race 4 has wiped out plantations in Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia and Taiwan, and it is now spreading through much of Southeast Asia.
Insistence on a banana monoculture is once again costing billions of dollars in efforts to save the Cavendish from extinction, just as was once spent—fruitlessly—on the Gros Michel. It seems to me that growing multiple varieties of bananas and importing all of them would be better for business and the environment. Yet American culture’s obsession with essentialism—on dichotomies, which are, briefly, a set of “good” things that are exclusive from an opposing set of “bad” things—discourages US banana execs from diversifying their product line, thereby keeping the American populace largely ignorant of banana varieties and contributing to environmental disaster.
The problem is not with any given consumer’s desire for a consistent—Cavendish-only—experience, but rather with the lack of anything other than a proscriptive experience as the only option, whereas others are, in fact, available.
That’s the exact same dynamic playing out with regards to sexuality information. You and I live in wild banana fields, where a variety of sexuality information is growing all around us. But most Americans are being allowed to access only one very specific kind of sexual information.
The moral of this story is that if you have only 1 of a crucial thing, that thing is a single point of failure and represents a vulnerability to you.
Recovering from SPOF vulnerability
There are two basic ways to deal with being vulnerable to single points of failure.
- The obvious solution is to create redundancies for every part of your system; you make available as many duplicates as you can afford to maintain. (This is sometimes called “mirroring.”) This way, even if some parts of your system are taken offline or if some places featuring your content are blocked, the others will hopefully still be available.
- The other strategy is to decentralize the system or content itself such that there is no single piece necessary for the other pieces to function; you eliminate single points of failure by making available as many overlapping pieces as you can. In this design, even if some parts of the system or of your content does get censored, enough of it remains available to maintain a cogent message.
A decentralization strategy is not better or worse than one using redundancy, and in fact a hybrid strategy is frequently most effective in most circumstances; both methods offer different advantages and disadvantages. Redundancy is often more expensive and time consuming to make available because everything has to be done multiple times (unless you automate the process), but it can offer greater integrity. On the other hand, decentralization is more often lightweight and versatile but can be far more complex to manage. Here, many small actions are taken by many participants in many places that may seem inconsequential or incomplete when viewed in isolation, but they weave enough of a web—so to speak—to become an agile, even graceful way to move through the world as a whole.
Some common examples of an Internet publisher’s single points of failures are:
- having only one copy of your data (no backups)
- having only one website or contracting with only one web hosting provider;
- registering only one domain name or registering domain names with only one domain registrar;
- hosting your websites in only one country, or state (or other area of legal jurisdiction);
- using only one publishing platform that you do not control (Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, etc.).
Here’s a super simple example of recognizing a potential single point of failure and avoiding it in a tweet. Do you see it? Using two URL shortening services in one tweet means that if one of the services stops working, people who view this tweet will still be able to get a sense of the examples I’m citing as “GOP fiscal idiocy and moral irresponsibility” via the other shortlink(s).
Similarly, when I publish episodes of my sexuality netcast, Kink On Tap, I post a live, unedited version to Ustream.tv and then post another version to my own website, effectively making a mirror (a copy) of every episode. If KinkOnTap.com should go down, Ustream.tv still has every episode.
Here’s yet another example in which I published an exposé about some shady and unethical technology being used by Internet sex toy retailer EdenFantasys on two of my blogs on different domains. When a commenter expressed concern that I’d receive a cease-and-desist letter from EdenFantasys I suggested that they copy and cross-post my exposé to their own blog, which they did. As more and more copies began appearing online, it became obvious that a cease-and-desist letter would be pointless because the info had spread so far so quickly.
The takeaway here is that the Internet is a copy machine. Since digital copying is so inexpensive, combating Internet censorship is as simple as copying and distributing the censored thing, so censorship itself becomes increasingly expensive.
Diversify your distribution network
Second, you need to do your best to diversify your distribution networks. Herein are two key concepts that we’ve just learned. First, if you only have 1 distribution network, that’s a single point of failure. Secondly, and more importantly, diversity itself is a shorthand for discussing the SPOF response scale because diversity is anathema to censorship.
A distribution network is the infrastructure—the structural system—providing the means by which information flows. This could be a website like Twitter, verbal conversation with friends, or a conference like this one. All strong distribution networks are diverse. To understand why, we can look (conveniently enough) to sex and, specifically, polyamory.
Understanding distribution networks: Polyamory and the Internet, sitting in a tree
As I see it, a poly activists’ core goal can be succinctly described as achieving equality in relationship choice. That is, polyamorous people recognize that the structure of a compulsorily monogamous relationship, in which one individual is connected to only one other individual, is limiting. Instead, we argue, many people may find more value by changing the structure such that one individual can be connected to more than one other individual.
This has some remarkable parallels to the way telecommunication technologies (like the Internet) work. In essence, polyamory does for relationships what digital telecommunication technologies have done for ideas.
As technology theorist Kevin Kelley wrote in his seminal work, “In the network economy, the more plentiful things become, the more valuable they become.” Another way to say essentially the same thing, but from a polyamorous perspective, is “Love is not a scarce commodity,” or, even more generally, “the more, the merrier.” Here’s how veteran web designer John Waters explained it:
In the industrial economy, scarcity established value. Natural resources such as oil, gold, and diamonds were scarce and therefore considered valuable. […] Paul Romer and other theorists introduced the “New Growth Theory”. In this model, the principle of scarcity is turned upside down.
The new theory essentially divides the world into two productive inputs: “things” and “ideas”. Only one person at a time can use things such as a hammer, a telephone, a lawnmower, or a car. On the other hand, ideas can be used by many people simultaneously, i.e., recipes, blueprints, formulas, methodologies, and software. They can be used to rearrange things. They can be copied, shared, and connected, thereby leading to more ideas. “Economic growth,” Romer says, “arises from the discovery of new recipes and the transformation of things from low to high value configurations.”
So, this “transformation of things from low to high value configurations” is what the polyamory movement does with regards to relationships. The most obvious limitation with the often-monogamous notion of “true love” is that it creates a scarcity model, and free distribution is anathema to maintaining scarcity. Polyamorous people understand that “free love” is not just a hippie slogan, it is a way to create real-world emotional value.
Unsurprisingly, then, we can look at the evolution of telecommunications to learn about sex-positive movements. A good example is fax machines.
Contrary to popular belief, the facsimile machine was invented in 1843 by a man named Alexander Bain, built from the same things as the telegraph. It was not until 1906, however, that the machines started seeing significant use. Newspapers were the first early adopter because the machines allowed them to send photos across long distances. Next, weather services adopted the technology. Finally, 2 years before ARPANet was introduced, XEROX invented the modern “fax” machine in 1967. Today faxes are still ubiquitous, and they can interface directly with the Internet. There are, for instance, numerous services that translate faxes to emails and vice versa.
Like the Internet, the fax machine had a long incubation period. Moreover, it took millions of today’s dollars to invent the first one, and that machine was utterly useless. It wasn’t until the second one was built that the first one became useful. As more fax machines were built, each one became more valuable.
That’s Metcalfe’s Law: the usefulness of a network equals the square of the number of its users.
On a graph, the “incubation period” looks like a long mostly-horizontal line, but then as more devices are added to the network, we see a continually steepening upwards incline. When people talk about the “network effect,” this is the shape they’re talking about. After a network reaches critical mass, as Kevin Kelley put it:
When you buy a fax machine, you are not merely buying a $200 box. Your $200 purchases the entire network of all other fax machines in the world and the connections among them—a value far greater than the cost of all the separate machines.
This works on multiple levels of scale. When we’re talking about it from the perspective of an individual, the “devices” of Metcalfe’s law are humans. Whenever you hear someone saying, “I joined FetLife because all my friends were on it,” what’s happening is that their personal social network—the people they interact with on a regular basis—has hit the critical mass crossover point.
When we’re talking about it from the perspective of a group, or community, then the “devices” are, themselves, communities. When organizers talk about “building coalitions,” what they’re doing is trying to pull their cause towards the critical mass crossover point. Metcalfe’s curve, as it’s known, is what makes large networks hard to resist—regardless of whether that network’s nodes are fax machines, people, or ideas.
When a network gets large enough, it becomes the de-facto infrastructure for the nodes it serves. Just as Facebook has become a de-facto communications substrate for large segments of the Internet-enabled populace, FetLife is fast becoming a de-facto substrate for many sexuality communities, often overshadowing, even replacing prior infrastructure.
Now, before I go any further, it’s important to mention that large networks like Facebook or FetLife are not inherently bad things. From the perspective of an individual node, this feels wonderfully connective. But if we scale up to the perspective of the group’s network itself, we see we’re suddenly alone; using a system that doesn’t offer interoperability, like FetLife for example, we’re unable to interact with other networks.
This is what in-group/out-group, us/them, you-versus-me, thinking looks like. This is how privilege hierarchies are created and recreated time and again. If ignorance is a privilege, then knowledge of this social networking concept is key to creating a socially just world.
Structurally speaking, when combined with the competitive, capitalistic, “every man for himself” ideology, the network effect encourages each large network to create incompatibilities with other networks in order to lock users into their service. In other words, this interplay pushes systems towards structural monoculture; it creates vendor lock-in. And regardless of whether it’s technological, cultural, or social, vendor lock in, as we’ve seen, is a single point of failure.
The only solution I see to this large-scale problem is to weave diversity into the very fabric our lives. That is, we need to systematicize diversity itself. And there’s no better place to start than sex.
Systematicizing sexual diversity
Now that we understand the systemics, improving the system is relatively easy, although it may be easier said than done. All we need to do as individuals is use multiple distribution networks, including as many services purporting to be subject matter-agnostic as possible, and prioritize services that offer interoperability with other networks. Similarly, as a community, we need to prioritize, build and use infrastructure that’s highly interoperable at every opportunity.
For instance, with regard to your own personal distribution network’s structure, I’m suggesting that you use FetLife and Facebook and your own WordPress blog, or whatever other services and platforms you have the resources to utilize. In other words, don’t put all your eggs one basket since this kind of diversification offers redundancy on the distribution network level itself.
Remember Kink On Tap? In addition to multiple copies of the content (my proverbial “eggs”), I was also using my own WordPress-powered blog and a social networking video site called Ustream (my proverbial “baskets”).
My other major project, a national series of sexuality education conferences called KinkForAll, is even more decentralized: it has a Google Group, a FetLife group, and a Facebook group (to name just a few), videos are posted on YouTube and Vimeo, live-blogged event notes are posted to personal blogs all over the ‘net, it has a Twitter account, and even an account on Identi.ca, an open-source Twitter-like clone. Moreover, since other KinkForAll participants independently create and share their own media from events, not even I am a single point of failure. Our own KinkForAll.org website is unusually spartan. To navigate, each upload is marked with a global “KinkForAll” tag as well as an event-specific tag, creating a decentralized yet well-organized multi-media cyber-library out of many small pieces, loosely joined.
In contrast, remember Violet Blue’s “sex-positive link shortener”? Since anything that declares itself sexuality-related becomes a target for censorship, building sexuality-specific infrastructure is a recipe for disaster. When vb.ly was taken offline by the Libyan government, all its short-links ceased to function. Violet had created a single point of failure and, worse, she had created one in the structure of the distribution network itself. That’s why I expressed critical skepticism when Violet launched her website in August, 2009; just as a road doesn’t care if it’s being driven on by a kinky person, Internet infrastructure should be content-neutral, too.
Beyond technicalities, though, publishing to (supposedly) content-neutral services challenges the hostile culture of sex-negative networks. In the last week of July, 2010, Facebook took down the community pages of Self Serve, a women-owned sexuality resource center, and also Violet Blue’s “Our Porn, Ourselves” consciousness-raising campaign page. While this cultural terrorism hurts us, not only will it hurt less the more decentralized our content is, but it also inspires conversation.
From a cultural rather than a technical networking perspective, when you speak up in support of, say, polyamory in a place where no one else is doing it, then as far as this new network is aware, you’re the first fax machine ever invented. It may take time, but when someone joins your monologue (even if they’re initially hostile), you’re suddenly having a dialogue—and that means they just became the second fax machine. Remember Muzi Mei, whose “writings have prompted a raging debate about sex and women on the Internet, where more people are writing blogs or arguing anonymously about a host of subjects in chat rooms and discussion pages.”
Finally, I’m suggesting that for both users of a network, like you and me, as well as creators of networks and networking tools, like Violet Blue and FetLife’s founder, John Baku, interoperability should be prioritized.
For example, I think the single best thing about FetLife is its “Events near me” page, but the single worst thing about it is that none of these events are findable from outside FetLife. Since there’s no way to access FetLife from outside FetLife, it’s like Vegas: what you say on FetLife stays on FetLife. This prevents individuals from, for example, importing event listings to their Google Calendar, something Facebook can do and that makes it more useful for a user.
FetLife is currently incompatible with any other network. In fact, nothing you post to FetLife can so much as be indexed by search engines like Google. This is also culturally dangerous because it nurtures an in-group/out-group mentality among FetLife users. But the “you’re either with us or against us” mindset offers no space either for allies or dissension, so the longer FetLife remains a technological monoculture, the more it becomes a social ghetto.
The online equivalent of dropping a bomb on a ghetto to eradicate a marginalized group of people is seizing or censoring a domain name. In this way, FetLife is to social networking what vb.ly was to link shortening: an easy target. And for a social network, as a network, FetLife isn’t very social. That’s why I think FetLife should work on creating public-facing options for at least three of its major components: journal entries, groups’s discussions, and events.
Not only would this interoperability be a boon for users, when we look at the big picture—at the level of networks themselves—this sort of federation is frequently nothing less than a matter of life or death for marginalized communities. Living in a hostile society, as we do, means we are many small and disparate networks. Even FetLife’s incredible ~775,000 users pales in comparison to Facebook’s ~500 million. Our smartest survival option is therefore to create as many connections as possible between groups: we must become a diverse network of interoperable networks.
As social network developer Evan Prodromou says:
The great thing about federated systems is that anyone can play […b]ut our current social web technologies don’t work like this at all. From the point of view of a typical social web site, if you don’t have an account on that site, you don’t exist. The only way for your friends on that site to interact with you is if they invite you to join the site. Despite the fact that there are hundreds of other social networking sites on the Web, almost every single one works as if there were zero other social networks on the Web.
That approach, especially for sexuality communities, is fundamentally flawed—isolationism is dangerous. To the extent that we are to have sexuality-focused social networks, or sex-positive branded infrastructure, we must federate. We must use tools that interoperate with other tools. And if we don’t demand that we get them from the people who control the large networks that we use, we’re burying our collective head in the sand.
Thankfully, it just so happens that federation, openness, and networking are all very sexual concepts.
Liberate your data
Lastly, you need to liberate your data. On the one hand, this simply means using services that don’t keep you and your content walled off from the rest of the world like a jealous lover, as we’ve just seen. In the words of DataPortability Project steering committee member Drummond Reed, this means that,You can read it, write it, or move it somewhere else—all under your control, using the tool, program, or service of your choice.
On the other hand, though, it means not acting like that jealous lover towards your own data in the first place. Since both the Internet and love function on the principle that abundance is more valuable than scarcity, loving your online content means setting it free. Have you ever heard someone say “don’t steal my idea”? This sentiment doesn’t make sense because ideas are free, and data—indeed, all technology—is simply a collection of ideas.
When computer networking professionals are “promiscuous,” they’re not being slutty—at least, not in the sexual sense. Instead, they’re configuring their network cards to let them see all the communication happening on a network. But transposing sex onto technology makes a lot of sense because technology evolves in exactly the same way humans do; using sexual reproduction.
As a sexual species, a human baby inherits the genes from both its parents’s lineages. But humans are not merely sexual creatures in a physical sense, we are sexual creatures in an intellectual sense, too. The way we share our genes to make new babies exactly mirrors the way we share our ideas to make new technology. Just as biological organisms evolve and they become more diverse, specialized, complex, and social, so too does technology evolve.
The easier you make it for your ideas to meet and, indeed, to mate with those of others, the more value you both will get from them. More to the point, however, the more your ideas “have sex” with other people’s ideas, the more diverse your idea distribution network will be.
Speed dating for ideas
When it comes to helping your ideas have cyber-sex, there are a few easy things you can do.
First, get out of the house. Have an idea? Talk about it online, on a blog, in a tweet, to a friend in email, anywhere that gets your idea out of your head and onto the Internet. In other words, publish, publish, publish.
Second, get socializing. When you publish, link liberally. Link to your own, prior content, and link back to the content that inspired yours. Speak URLs in audio recordings like podcasts so listeners can “follow” those, too. The more you link—the more connections you make—the more possibilities you offer others to interact with you.
Third, be yourself. Be sure to make your own source files available, if you can. In other words, open source your content. For instance, all artwork for KinkForAll, from icon designs to door signs, to promotional materials like print-ready flyers and postcards, is made available for free in their original file format. When possible, I convert proprietary formats to standardized ones that are more interoperable, such as turning simple PhotoShop images to SVG ones. I do the same thing with presentations like this one; browse my website and you can download all the assets that I used to make this presentation with one click.
And finally, be up-front, honest and open. Explicitly license your content permissively so that your content is legally attractive to others. You can use any of the Creative Commons licenses to keep your copyright but allow people to copy and distribute your work provided they give you credit—hopefully with a link back to your site! I sourced most of the imagery you saw in this presentation in exactly this way. Again, KinkForAll goes even further, expressly putting all shared resources into the public domain.
None of us were ever meant to work, or live, or love completely alone. In the end, we need one another—and we need others who aren’t the same as we are. And when different people like your ideas, and then make copies of your work, they’re helping you stay one step ahead of the censors.
As I once heard said, “unprotected speech leads to brain babies,” and that means “epiphanies are orgasmic brain baby conception moments.” I hope I at least gave you a cerebrorgasm or two. :) Thanks for coming to my seminar.