Thinking as a ‘we’ again: Building collective worlds of mutual aid and creativity between/across digital platforms

Monday, 15 March, 2021
David Berry, Inside Uchronia, Flickr, 2006, CC BY 2.0.
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Dr. Kit Braybrooke

 

“I am because we are and, since we are, therefore I am.

The individual is part of a ‘we’ — and in fact, of many ‘we’s’.

The two are deeply intertwined.” // David Boiller & Helfrich Silke, 2019

 

As our societies re-emerge into city streets and neighbourhood squares after a year of Covid-19 lockdowns, it has come time to take stock, look around, and plan our next steps as organisers, activists, scholars and community members. What kind of world is in motion after a year of living virtually, isolated yet connected? What kind of worlds do we want to bring into motion, based on wisdoms collectively acquired in the trenches?

One thing we have learned is that the many injustices of Covid-19 have brought a multitude of social and ecological challenges long experienced by minority groups to the fore, from labour precarity and racial prejudice to ecological uncertainty. It is now known that the virus that causes Covid-19 is but one of hundreds of zoonotic diseases which are increasingly likely to reach humanity if our destruction of biodiversity continues. Referred to as the “tip of the iceberg”, global viruses of this kind reflect social-ecological systems under extreme stress (Vidal 2020). In the UK, this stress can be seen in the breakdown of collective relations. A study on the impacts of Covid-19 lockdowns by the British Red Cross finds a drastic increase in poor mental health amongst society’s most vulnerable in relation to social distancing isolation (2021). Public space has also shrunk during the pandemic. It remains unclear which cafes, museums, libraries, pubs and forests will survive the lockdown era. This is problematic, because these “third places” (Oldenberg 1999) in between work and home where people gather to play, chat and explore have always been the central places where we enact what it means to live together in a society.

These dynamics reveal deep-seated tensions between those in power who are working to maintain the inequalities of the status quo – I’m looking at you, Jeff Bezos – and those who are building alternative worlds within our world. This is the work that beckons.

The work of alternative world-building need not be loud or dramatic. Mutual aid, or the voluntary exchange of resources and solidarity for collective benefit, offers one such alternative. Mutual aid is a form of care work that is often gentle, quiet, slow and unnoticed. Long practiced by minority communities around the world as a matter of necessity, mutual aid can be seen in many kinds of places. Delivering groceries to an elderly friend, claiming a bit of unused land as public space, setting up a neighbourhood action WhatsApp group, or planting a community garden are all examples of how mutual aid can work in practice. Everyday activisms like these remind us we need not simply reproduce a dog-eat-dog world as late-stage capitalism would have us believe. Instead, we can nourish spaces rooted in collective care, or the “manifold range of doings needed to create, hold together, and sustain life and continue its diverseness” (Bellacasa 2017), with care-full multispecies relations recognised as fundamental to our common survival. Feminist geographers J.K Gibson-Graham have referred to this as a “queering” of the economic landscape, a destabilization of hegemonic logics through alternatives that “enact and construct, rather than resist (or succumb to) economic realities” (2008).

How can we bring worlds where we think as a ‘we’ into being, however, when we are forbidden from gathering in person due to social distancing measures and other government regulations? What kind of public spaces can be nourished on the Internet in a time of Big Tech, privatisation, extremist filter bubbles and government surveillance? Despite the considerable challenges, the possibilities for world-building in digital environments are plentiful – and in a post Covid-19 world, the most resilient spaces of mutual aid will be located not only online or offline, but instead blended across both.

As a community-engaged researcher, I have worked alongside a wide variety of creative practitioners across Europe, Canada and China – including artists, makers, crafters, hacktivists, curators, organisers and F/LOSS[1] advocates – who are finding novel ways of fostering collective nourishment despite Covid-19 limitations by deploying digital affordances tactically. They do this by gathering across, between and amongst platforms, in ways that make new kinds of space. “We are safest this way,” Chinese crafters explained to me while we exchanged stickers on WeChat, a platform which is currently used by 1 billion people behind China’s Great Firewall, and it is true that the more diffused across online and offline gathering spaces a project is, the harder it becomes to track (Braybrooke 2019). By working across multiple content creation platforms from Reddit and Miro to Discord and Signal to disseminate ideas, gather, and make things together, community projects are building alternative futures with diverse users globally across multiple contexts, such as DAOWO, a transnational network of local arts and blockchain cooperatives who deploy decentralised and open technologies to reinvent the arts.

Collaborating across such diffuse terrains can be tricky, but it also fosters flexibility and creativity. Like the dérives of the Situationist International, who explored the streets of 1950s Paris as a way of inhabiting urban space by making “rapid passage through varied ambiences” in resistance to the daily routines of life under advanced capitalism, cross-platform co-creation can bring communities on the margins together to build alternatives on their own terms. The possibilities are diverse. Maker and DIY/DIT[2] communities in the UK found creative ways to organise across offline and online spaces in the early days of Covid-19 to manufacture Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for front-line workers in response to the national government’s failure to provide enough supplies to hospitals (Richterich 2020). The Art Tech Nature Culture network, founded in response to a lack of public gathering spaces due to Covid-19, brings creative experimenters together on a classic email discussion list to plan artistic co-creations for post-lockdown times that foster ecological regeneration. The Fairwork project, meanwhile, has explored how workers around the world are starting to challenge the hegemony of gig economy platforms such as Uber by creatively deploying digital tactics to include subversion, disruption and the manipulation of algorithms in ways that produce fissures, or “moments in which algorithms do not govern as intended” (Ferrari & Graham 2021). These subtle exploitations of platform logics range from breaking platform rules outright (like rejecting job requests) to explorations of app loopholes and other kinds of disruption (like virtual picket lines). The #CovidCreativesToolkit offers one example of the many resources currently being developed by communities of practice such as these to suggest the kinds of platforms, strategies and tools that can be used for tactical organising across digital spaces.

Examples like these illustrate how mutual aid can proceed through creative interventions that foster collective care in times of crisis, and how the work of building alternative worlds need not involve reinventing the wheel. Instead, we can facilitate transformative ways of working, making and thinking together by experimenting with the possibilities of blended online and offline spaces in a spirit of play and subversion. By thinking tactically as a ‘we’ by fostering new collaborations between, across and amongst platforms, we also offer new ways of doing – the kind that make other kinds of worlds possible.

 

[1] FLOSS stands for Free/Libre Open Source Software, and refers to the community groups who build, maintain and advocate for free and open software, which is freely and openly available to everyone to use and build upon, and developed by communities of programmers, who work together to support and test it.

[2] Do It Yourself / Do It Together

Dr. Kit Braybrooke

Dr. Braybrooke is a digital anthropologist and designer whose work explores the links between public participation, cultural heritage and sustainable social/ecological development. She has conducted research with communities across a variety of digital and material terrains, and is Research Fellow at the University of Sussex and Director of Studio We & Us, a participatory design studio which brings public institutions and communities together to foster collective futures through creative approaches. codekat.net | studiowe.net

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References/Citations:

Bellacasa, María Puig de la. Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More than Human Worlds. University of Minnesota Press, 2017.

Boiller, David, and Silke Helfrich. Free, Fair and Alive: The Insurgent Power of the Commons. New Society Publishers, 2019.

Braybrooke, Kit. ‘’Placeless’ Making? Reframing the Power-Geometries of Digital Platforms in China through Tactical Co-Creation’. The Critical Makers Reader: (Un)Learning Technology, edited by Loes Bogers and Letizia Chiappini, Institute of Networked Cultures, 2019.

British Red Cross. The Longest Year: Life under Local Restrictions. 2021.

Ferrari, Fabian, and Mark Graham. ‘Fissures in Algorithmic Power: Platforms, Code, and Contestation’. Cultural Studies, vol. 0, no. 0, Mar. 2021, pp. 1–19.

Gibson-Graham, J. K. ‘Diverse Economies: Performative Practices for `other Worlds’’. Progress in Human Geography, vol. 32, no. 5, Oct. 2008, pp. 613–32.

Oldenburg, Ray. The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community. Hachette Books, 1999.

Richterich, Annika. ‘When Open Source Design Is Vital: Critical Making of DIY Healthcare Equipment during the COVID-19 Pandemic’. Health Sociology Review, vol. 29, no. 2, May 2020, pp. 158–67.

Vidal, John. ‘Tip of the Iceberg”: Is Our Destruction of Nature Responsible for Covid-19?’ The Guardian, 18 Mar. 2020.

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