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Friction in Cyborg Community

In looking for digital solutions, we found human-centered rituals and poetics. 
Published onJun 01, 2023
Friction in Cyborg Community


This is an excerpt from Sacred Stacks: The Art of Cyborg Community, a project of the Media Enterprise Design Lab and the Center for Media, Religion, and Culture at the University of Colorado Boulder. During the second half of 2022, MEDLab led seven communities to explore together the needs, ethics, and challenges of emerging decentralized technologies. What began as an errant search for practical tools became an exploration of ritual, relationship, and poetics.

To regard machines as sacred is no Internet-age novelty—not an invention of the startup evangelist's sales pitch, not solely the fetish of an investor class hustling awe so as to make inescapable the conveniences by which they conquer markets. To regard machines as sacred is human.

The stack, meanwhile, is what technologists call an amalgam of tools, the combination of things that fit together into some sort of whole. The pieces interlock and coalesce. A stack might consist of the server, the network, the apps, the phones they run on. It might be all the lines of code written in the past that you use to make something new with your lines of code. But the stack is not just cold software and hardware. It is the warm bodies that touch the machines and extend their life with them. The stack is a cyborg, a weaving-together of humans and machines that leaves both species changed, both less able to exist without the other.

Gif of a moon waxing and waning with the text "SACRED STACKS" in the middle.

The Internet has become the fabric of society. There are communities that don’t have direct access to the Internet, but their people’s lives are still affected by it. Not everybody is going to be in the metaverse—whatever that is, or whatever it will be—but the metaverse will affect everybody.

The people who are supposed to need decentralized technologies most, whose lives are most beset by the abuse of intermediaries, are those least likely to be found asking if they can pay you for that with Bitcoin or the like.

Decentralized technology was supposed to enable:

  • A renaissance of democracy

  • Easy cross border payments to correct global wealth inequality

  • Financial services for the unbanked

  • Benefits of citizenship to stateless refugees

  • Circumventing censorship by authoritarian regimes

  • Technology funded by users, not investors

  • Coordination on problems governments have been unable to solve

But for a lot of us decentralized tools are actually just strange and hard to use and confusing. Because of that very little of the above gets done.

I’ve had a lot of resistance to using virtual spaces. One time I tried to plan a convention for my union, and I proposed using a space like this, and people were very resistant. I think people have just a general fear of technology or of using something new. They don’t know how to use it. It’s not that complicated. But I think people just get freaked out. - Shoshana Brown (Kibilio Community and Farm)

I face a lot of challenges with having time. Most of our time is spent in ongoing meetings about fixes to frozen pipes, or helping replace roofs and getting city or county support to help those who cannot afford to fix their homes. Creating our own server—it just seems daunting right now. - Peggy Kuhn (Sans Souci Cooperative)

How do we make these things more applicable to a daily practice, as opposed to being merely a conversation that is going on in tech circles?

Chalk-looking drawing of some symbology resembling hands, suns, atoms, and a circuit.

The Internet is not as uniquely complicated as some would have it seem. Is it more complicated than a pozole or a quilt, a rice terrace or a steel mill, an ancient ceremony or a great novel? There are many parts of it, yes. There are many specialized terms. In learning it, people have had to neglect learning other skills. In pursuit of a certain seamless “user experience,” companies insist that their technology is something mere mortals cannot grasp. Devices and apps once came with manuals, under the former assumption that users could and should learn something to use them. Now mystification reigns.

Industrial magic,
the rounded corners of casing
around the hard edges of circuit boards,
the apps that claim “anyone” can use them,
the “digital natives” who can use them
but are not taught what lies beneath.

This is mystification: You couldn’t possibly understand. This is not for you. But the sacred can mystify, too.

In this way a community can take a pack of cigarettes, bought in a box at a store, and make it no longer a product—it becomes the sacred plant, the ritual object, the site of meaning that outsiders no longer know how to use properly. The sacred stack can wrest its component parts from the corporations that make them, track them, attempt to use them to track others. People’s uses of a thing can mystify its creators. This kind of sacred is a taking-back, a reclamation of meaning, an assertion of imaginative autonomy.

When we make things sacred we can make them ours.

The people who design products for the Internet worry about what they call friction. Friction is the extra click, the source of confusion, the time necessary to learn. Designers seek to minimize it, so that there are as few barriers as possible preventing the flow of revenue to their employers. All of it is a target. All of it is trouble. Entire industries exist to shave milliseconds from the flow of data from servers to browsers, out of the justified fear that any latency will cause users with endless choices to flit their attention elsewhere and redirect the flow of money.

With Google Workspace we had an individual account, and it was difficult traversing through the files and not understanding typical drive sub-holders. I’d upload a document, and it would change the format. I tried to make everything up on one page, and it would roll to the next. It’s stuff like that until I started using LibreOffice, but that was a suggestion from somebody else, because I didn’t understand what was happening. I started putting things up as a PDF, but then people couldn’t comment or make changes on Google Docs. And so it was a struggle for me. For a long time. - Peggy Kuhn (Sans Souci Cooperative)

Yesterday we had to focus on members who weren’t able to even open a link in an email. One person asked me to help. I work with her one-on-one here in New York. She wants me to meet her in Brooklyn and walk her through Google Sheets and things like that. It’s kind of hard for me. I’m really busy right now. Another person has a language barrier, so he spends a lot of time with Siri and Google just trying to translate. If you’re a teacher and have a second-language learner in your class, they’re trying to translate all the time. You’re wondering, are they really keeping up with what new things are coming in? Because they’re so busy trying to translate what happened before. - Adriane Rozier (Kibilio Community and Farm)

What if, in contrast to the product-builders, we treat friction as a teacher? If an app takes time and support to learn, that friction is an opportunity for in-person mentoring sessions that can bring a community closer. If sending a message out to the world takes more than a click, perhaps the senders will sit with the message longer and make sure it is what they really want to say. If there is a language barrier for one person, it encourages everyone to slow down and choose their words more carefully.

There’s always a context to whatever you’re trying to communicate, and that often is unspoken. Sometimes that context is the surroundings. But sometimes there’s another reason. If you’re miscommunicating both online or in person, there’s some underlying reason why. Email, for example. I get mail it. I open it. I read it. I deal with it. But if someone’s not doing that, why? We have to decide if we want to address it or not. In this day and age, we can have the best communication tools in the world, but it doesn’t mean people will understand each other. That’s what I’m always trying to figure out. What’s the context here? Why are people miscommunicating both in person and online? - Adriane Rozier (Kibilio Community and Farm)

As the Nigerian thinker Bayo Akomolafe says, “In distressing times, sometimes a solution is counter-productive, not the thing we might want to seek out.” We can stay with the trouble, with the cracks, fissures, and wounds in order to precipitate the natural course of action of things, letting things fall apart. Then we can work our way out using that sensibility of the minimal, the crack, the lyrics of the imperfect to build something else.

A 4x8 grid of old computer monitors with cartoon drawings on the screen.

Akomolafe reminds us of an African saying that wisdom springs from the corners of the mouth. We have been listening to an ideology that speaks only from the center of its mouth, that seeks the comfort of the highway instead of the humility of the dirt road. Perhaps our technologies, despite the boasting claim of innovation and transformation, suffer from an inability to look from the sides, to refuse the hegemony of the straight path. There is perhaps more to learn from the toxic wasteland of Agbogbloshie in Accra than in the so-called “genius” centers of innovation in Silicon Valley. Seeing the latter as the avant-garde archetype of technique and the former as a paralyzed victim of imperial opulence is the source of our ignorance.

Friction can reveal the biases built into a society and its technology. If opting into surveillance is easier than choosing privacy, that is a lesson. Why is that? How did it get that way? If ordering a spare part is easier from an exploitative corporation than from a local store, why is that? Could the friction in our lives—and there is always friction somewhere—be organized differently? Friction can be something we love.

Friction is what keeps
a bicycle upright and steady,
what keeps a foot
from slipping on ice.

Friction is how a flute
turns wind into a note,
how a finger
pulls a string to sound.

There is friction in the work that commercial technology hides from view—the glitches and the testing, the honing and improving, the humans subjected the worst images others can conjure, the patterns of thinking that hide beneath an interface. What if these labors were more widely shared?

A sacred stack seeks to distribute its friction on its own terms. Its community wants to participate in its troubles and its learning. Communities use friction as a chance to come closer together.

A new co-op member volunteered to clean out the crawlspace of our oldest resident, who has lived in the park for fifty-two years. She is one who has come out whenever we’ve had volunteer work days. She’s a helpful person herself. Unfortunately, raccoons had lived under her home for about twenty-five years. The poop and the mess was hazardous work. Her pipe needed replacement, but the plumber did not want to come out in those conditions, after he saw under her home. This woman had been living now for about a month without running water in her home. So our volunteers put on suits and were almost totally brown when they finished the job. - Peggy Kuhn (Sans Souci Cooperative)

Friction opens time for the sacred. That is where the sacred takes hold in us—in the friction. How we choose to use friction can make it sacred and make it ours.

A charcoal-looking sketch of a just-waning moon at the horizon with eyes.

Sacred Stacks is a collaboration of the Media Economies Design Lab and the Center for Media, Religion, and Culture at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Composed and compiled by Andi Argast, James Brennan, Nabil Echchaibi, Drew Hornbein, Shamika Klassen, Samira Rajabi, and Nathan Schneider, with illustrations by Drew Hornbein of Ritual Point Art & Divination, in partnership with these communities:

  • Iraqi Journalists Rights Association (Baghdad, Iraq)
    Specializes in providing legal support for journalists and writers, and works to pass laws that protect journalists

  • Kibilio Community & Farm (Western MA, USA)
    Rooted in Black and Queer land sovereignty, an intergenerational, intentional community dedicated to embodied healing, and reparative, ecological, and reproductive justice

  • Meli Bees Network (Barreirinha, Araribóia, Brazil and Berlin, Germany)
    Involves communities in some of the most endangered areas of the Amazon to create environmentally and economically sustainable activities that allow both land and people to flourish

  • Sans Souci Cooperative (Boulder, CO, USA)
    Volunteer board members of a cooperatively owned and democratically governed mobile home park with 60 homes

  • Survivors Know (Chicago, IL, USA)
    Action hub for survivors of workplace sexual violence, sexual harassment, and discrimination

  • Unheard Voices Outreach (Nashville, TN, USA)
    Network of currently and formerly incarcerated people with a goal of preventing recarceration and ending mass incarceration

  • Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (San Francisco, CA, USA)
    Arts organization devoted to bringing curiosity and creativity together with social, racial, and economic justice

Made possible with financial contributions from the Henry Luce Foundation, the Filecoin Foundation for the Decentralized Web, and Starling Lab for Data Integrity.

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