Marginalia 5

Solidarity, making space, and ways of understanding

5 May 2019


I know you've all been missing my Marginalia series terribly, so here's a bumper edition for you.

One of the delights of last year was listening to the podcast Artist in the Archive, and in January this year the latest in the series dropped: Thirty One Cylinders. This story is amazing and has everything: archivists repairing old media technology, Indigenous language renewal, philosophical discussions about metadata and the balance of recognition vs protecting sacred knowledge, and everyone's favourite topic: the endless problems with international copyright law. Not to be missed.

I was also amazed by the History Lab episode about patternmakers, Invisible Hands. They approach this topic with incredible care, and it's a fascinating world that most of us know nothing about. Patternmakers are the people who make the original casts for basically everything that is mass-produced: from jellybabies to tractor buckets.


I'm a big fan of the work of Mozilla Fellow Darius Kazemi. Two articles he's written recently outline quite nicely what all the fuss is about the 'decentralised web': what it is, how the various incarnations work, and how they can (or do) interact. Check out Why I'm excited about decentralized social networks and Three protocols and a future of the decentralized internet. One of the cool projects that uses Dat is Beaker Browser - former Beaker worker Tara Vancil explained how it all works in her JSConf talk Imagine this: a Web without servers.

Craig Mod also wrote recently (ish) about the re-emergence in the popular imagination of email as a publishing platform. Of course email newsletters have been around for decades, but there does seem to be a bit of a fresh cycle happening with people independently writing for (they hope) a large audience, off Facebook et al to email newsletters, rather than back to blogs. Even Seb Chan has gotten in on the action. I still think RSS is under-appreciated both in terms of how it already 'invisibly' powers a lot more push publishing than people realise, and in terms of how much more it could be used, but email is the classic decentralised communication system that despite Google's best efforts, remains still effectively decentralised.

I've been disappointed by OpenStreetMap's apparent stalling in recent years, and Serge Wroclawski has some ideas about why that might have happened. Sarah Bond has another story of volunteer-dependent tech companies behaving badly, declaring that A Virtual Reality App that Reconstructs Ancient Rome May Have Exploited Its Developers. Feeling depressed after reading those? Check out how Low←Tech magazine built a 100% off-grid solar-powered website

Finally, two cool projects academic librarians might be interested in:

  1. Academic Markdown and citations: A workflow with Pandoc, BibTEX, and the editor of your choice
  2. Crosspull: Python code that pulls metadata for every publication in Crossref that lists a specific institution in it's author affiliations


Meredith Farkas wrote “Devaluing” the MLS vs. respect for all library workers shortly after ALA Annual. In it she addresses credentialism and solidarity in the profession. Farkas refers to a widely-held "sense of our profession being under seige", and attempts to restrict entry for those without reognised qualifications - "...frankly, that attitude makes me ill." But Sam Popowich takes a broader view (CW: Marxism) in the Journal of Radical Librarianship1, arguing that this kind of protectionism is inevitable because of the 'double bind of capitalistic relations' pitting workers against each other. This article may seem a little intimidating at first, but I found it quite clarifying - if not particularly hopeful. One thing I personally think might help at least a bit with the issues Popowich outlines is wresting control of our technologies away from the market, as Koven Smith suggests in relation to museums, but Low←Tech magazine seems to agree more or less with Popowich, reminding us more broadly that, We can't do it ourselves. For a different perspective combining Popowich's concerns about worker solidarity, and Low←Tech's points about impending climate doom, check out Miriam Lang's The migration crisis and the imperial mode of living: Notes toward a degrowth internationalism

If radical politics is your thing, you might also be interested in Jared Davidson's article on the role of strikes and class conflict in the 1918 Armistice. I'm not holding my breath for that to be highlighted in Australia's $500m ANZAC theme park when the renos are finished.


Ian Clarke writes about solidarity of a different kind, in The role of the library in decolonising. Clarke argues, essentially, that librarians' reach is further than our grasp on a lot of things:

It’s very easy as a library worker to over-estimate the centrality of the library within the academy. It is our work and we can seek to imbue it with a degree of importance that is perhaps over-stated.

Ian Clarke - The role of the library in decolonising

I agree with this sentiment and decolonisation is just one example. However, Clarke is not here to tell you to simply pull your head in and give up. "What the library can do" he tells us, "is help to build connections and solidarity."

In Meanjin's Autumn edition last year Patrick Stokes wrote about The moral moment. This introduced me to the philosopher K.E. Løgstrup, who I think I'll want to read at some point:

For Løgstrup, the source of ethics lies neither in principles nor virtues, but in the simple fact that we find ourselves having power over others, and that this imposes a demand that we act for the other’s sake instead of our own. Patrick Stokes - The moral moment

Making space

Kim Brillante Knight wrote a really interesting article about minimalism, visibility and community in Making space: Feminist DH and a room of one’s own. It was published in 2017 but I only recently came across it. Brillante Knight's article reminded me a little of Bonnie Wildie's LCA2018 talk Wearing access, and the subsequent conversation we had there about 'Generous GLAM'.

Also in 2017, In the library with the lead pipe tells us that the University of Western Ontario made space for their entire staff to be involved in a new Open Access statement - resulting in a stronger statement that everyone understood and felt personally invested in.

Scott Young provides a really honest and useful retrospective on a Participatory Design pilot project he lead working with Native American students at Montana State University. Kudos to Montana and Northeastern for allowing him to publish such a useful and honest account.

In 1973 André Gorz wrote an article about what cities make space for called The social ideology of the motorcar. Last August Uneven Earth republished it and depressingly it is still just as relevant as it was when it was first published. On the plus side, the City of Melbourne just released a bold plan to transform many CBD streets into shared zones and reduce the speed limit to 30kmh.

Ways of understanding

"There is no such thing as an algorithmic decision; there are only ways of seeing decisions as algorithmic." So says Nick Seaver in a fascinating article in Cultural Anthropology. Meanwhile, Dan McQuillan writes about how "Artificial Intelligence" really works on his blog:

AI is political. Not only because of the question of what is to be done with it, but because of the political tendecies of the technology itself. The possibilities of AI arise from the resonances between its concrete operations and the surrounding political conditions. By influencing our understanding of what is both possible and desirable it acts in the space between what is and what ought to be. Dan McQuillan - Towards an anti-fascist AI

When it comes to humans understanding things, Daniele Procida has written the best thing I've ever read about technical documentation and why it usually sucks. There's also a video of his talk at Pycon Australia from 2017.

Wrong about everything

Last summer Jennifer Mills wrote against realism:

The compulsion to be realistic shrinks our sense of ourselves as historical actors, as protagonists in our own stories, as agents of change in a functioning democracy. Increasingly at odds with democratic processes, capitalism prefers to show us a funhouse mirror of ourselves as small and ineffectual, and of our organisations as isolated bands, out of touch with ‘the mainstream’, unable to effect change except by turning inward, and preferably by making purchases. The dystopian and the utopian novel both present an interest in collective power that contradicts that model. Jennifer Mills - Against realism

Around the same time, Laura Hazard Owen told us that Few people are actually trapped in filter bubbles but we all like to pretend we do for social signalling reasons.

If some of this left you a little depressed, there is some good news: Rutgers University academics tell us that there is no scientific proof that war is ingrained in human nature


While we're here, can I mention how frustrating and not-really-very-radical it is for JRL to be publishing all their articles as PDFs? Come on, team, get it together. I'm reading this on the web, gimme HTML.