Nathan Matias and Digital Activism

Nathan Matias raised the question during his presentation on January 28, "How can the average person retake control of technology and mitigate some of its more harmful effects, considering increasing domination by corporate and government interests?" The previous Sawyer talks have all contained, at the very least, undertones of this anxiety, but Matias brought it to the forefront and addressed it in pragmatic terms.

His argument was basically divided into two basic parts, first locating and examining inequality and then suggesting possible methods by which to attack it. Matias has worked on teams that have identified, among many others, differences in gender representation within the media, Twitter harassment, and racial discrimination on Airbnb. These findings are hardly surprising given prevailing social contexts, but they do the necessary work of highlighting that technological platforms do not intrinsically solve deeply embedded social issues. In addition, he emphasized the importance of design as a component of platforms as a place in need of critical engagement. For example, when DonorsChoose added marital status in front of the names of teachers, in effect gendering them, funding began to skew toward male teachers, away from than the more equal distribution prior to this tiny design change.

When it comes to actually implementing changes in these platforms, Matias recognized that we cannot radically change the Facebooks and Twitters of the world from the outside, but we can put pressure on companies to work toward more modest solutions or we can appropriate platforms for more noble ends. For instance, Wikipedia users created a Project Women's History in an effort toward greater representation of women on the site. Obviously, this will not get to the root of why people are collectively less likely to add articles about important women, but this project shows the influence of regular people against dominant institutions. Matias is careful to resist surveillance methods as a mode of fighting inequality. Not only can surveillance be used against the very marginalized voices that technology helps to empower, but it can also cover over injustice without effectually confronting it.

Matias's methodology does run into some obstacles. For instance, Seth Morton, one of the Sawyer Graduate Fellows, pointed out that checking a box labeled either "male" or "female" or assuming someone's gender based on a their name can actually reify the kinds of destructive binaries that activists would like to break down. This is where we need a better definition of "equality." Rex Troumbley, the Sawyer Postdoctoral Fellow, noted that Matias's working definition mostly characterizes equality as equal representation. This model, while useful in assessing huge amounts of data and finding areas of concern for activists, has limits, which Matias himself recognized. It seems unsatisfactory to suggest that we can understand the complexities of a concept like equality only using quantitative measures, but I won't pretend to have an answer both as practical and nuanced as we need.

On one hand, we live in a society that currently makes a binary distinction between male and female and that positions people within more-or-less clearly delineated racial categories like black, white, Hispanic, and Asian (though these notions seem to be steadily changing). To not account for these differences (among others) when tracking inequality means overlooking the very real and destructive history of our socially constructed categories. "Colorblind" racism is the classic example of this problem. Matias's project mostly works on this front, analyzing the inequality produced by these categories and fighting against this inequality on its own terms.

At the same time, Matias's approach does not offer a way to subvert harmful binaries in a more transformative way. Let's imagine that Twitter harassment becomes gender balanced, with males and females receiving an equal share of vitriol. We might have achieved equality based on Matias's functional definition, but then we would still have to grapple with the persistence of online abuse and hate speech.

In addition, Matias's suggestion that pressuring powerful groups can reach equality is fairly narrow. Sure, we can make Wikipedia more gender balanced or call on DonorsChoose to undo their design change, but challenging dominant bodies often misses attacking the underlying systems that produce the problems we would like to address. It would also likely lead organizations to make apparently positive steps that don't approach the problem as a whole, especially if we measure success only in percentages.

With this said, Matias would probably agree with many of my points while recognizing that expansive social change isn't really his central concern at the moment. In fact, the part of Matias's presentation that I found the most interesting was that he was dedicated to empowering regular people to regain a sense of agency in the world through productive action. Maybe adopting aspects of his approach, by making people feel like they do matter, we can work toward the more sweeping changes that are ultimately necessary.