Joana Varon is Mozilla Fellow in media and the Founding Directress and Creative Chaos Catalyst at Coding Rights.
The following is a conversation between Joana and Mozilla’s Commissioning Editor for Advocacy Media, Brett Gaylor, at the Refiguring the Future event in Chicago, May 2018.
- @joana_varon on Twitter
- “We’re Watching Back” — blog post from Stories of Surveillance workshop at MIT
What is your work?
What my work is and how I see it now was gradually shaped by the fellowship and the activities that we did. I always envisioned myself as a researcher and activist, not as a media person. You were the first person that called me a “media” person when we were doing the interview.
Oh, when we talked on the phone the first time?
Yes. I even talked to Dani (program officer at Open Society) after that. I was like, “Brett thinks I’m a media person.” Dani was like, “But you are.” I was like, “But I never studied media.” She was like, “You’re doing media stuff.” I was like, “Yes, but it’s to translate research findings into advocacy because research outcomes normally tend to be presented in a boring and gray way that nobody pays attention.” She was like, “This is media.”
It shaped also how we worked in Coding Rights over those months. We already had successful feedback from our zine “SaferNudes“, that got translated to a few languages and got us touring to discuss it and facilitate feminist workshops to teach women to send safer nudes, including in an arts environment. Then “Chupadados” was now being recognized as a media project. We were like, “OK, let’s assume that we are also a media organization and we produce visual things to spark change in views and behaviours”, because it looks like we are already doing it [laughs]. I guess out of the need to involve more people in the privacy debate, and out of the joy to try to have fun in such a hard topic, we were doing something different then our partners in the field.
With the recognition of the Media Fellowship, and the debates that emerged from that, we have changed our vision. In the beginning we were doing mostly direct advocacy activities and training with materials. Now we are also developing tools and media content for awareness raising on the power dynamics built into technology development and implementation. I think that we were able to reassure our media-centric focus as an institutional strategy because of the reflections of the fellowship.
Can you give a specific example of the work that you’re doing now that points at what you’d like Coding Rights to become?
I want us to keep strengthening these three pillars in our activities: transfeminist media production and technology development both focused on awareness raising and envisioning alternatives. These will help our advocacy strategies to build different futures. Futures that are transfeminist, guided by another set of values, built within a community. Yeah, that is it, I think I want Coding Rights to become one of the several rocking actors, or actresses, of the feminist revolution and have fun and care with each other along the way. For doing that, maybe our main skills are to keep building tools, or reshaping tools, to help advocacy, either through media pieces, but also through community building.
What you’re doing right now with the next Chupadados article, is there a methodology that represents how you want to work in the future?
I felt that in many of the first articles, we were just putting the problem and not giving the solution. What we are trying to do with our final article about gendered advertising is to include a tool, Fuzzify Me.
It takes more time, because it’s not sitting and writing, and creating an infographic. It becomes a platform where users have resources and tools to play with.
Adding the tool development part of the platform was something that did emerge from the discussions at MIT. It took time to process, to do it. As I can’t do all those things myself. But Chupadados was not something that I did by myself, it has always been a team work. So, it took some time to figure out how to add the tool development layer to it, but it’s something that we wanted to do. Then surprise, surprise, the solution was right by my side: Hang and Becca, awesome and inspiring women who were also fellows in my… what do you call it… cohort. Fellows in our gang sounds better.
What was one of the highlights of the fellowship?
The transfeminist activity, for me, was super crazy. Me going to to Chicago to present to the Museum of Contemporary Art as an artist. It’s shaping things that I already did before creating processes for collective brainstorming, and seeing that as something that you can frame in an artistic narrative.
We can talk about the trouble, but let’s also look at positive alternatives, because we are getting too depressed talking about privacy and scandals and everybody freaking out. With Cambridge Analytica I was like, “I’ve been saying that for ages. Why were you not listening?” [laugh] But, ultimately it is good to seen more people paying attention to these topics. Now we need to provide alternatives. Nobody likes to hear people that only complain about things and don’t bring any solution.
The speculative discussion about transfeminist technologies enters in this context.
What are the good scenarios? Because we love technology. We don’t want to only say “This is horrible.” This is something else that I need to develop, and I want to develop further. What are the alternatives?
What’s the intended impact for you of that work, concretely?
With Chupadados we wanted to have media material that was useful for people presenting the issue. For that, it has been useful, and the people in the community of gender and technology are now familiar with this project. It was interesting to be able to view some examples and cases that discuss gender and technology, and gender and data.
Chupadados, the intended impact is with the audience, but it’s also for the field of digital rights as well.
Yes, and also for the field of gender equality to see that digital rights are an issue for them!
It wasn’t like Safer Nudes. Safer Nudes was more tangible from the title, and more sexy from the topic. My sister said, “Now, I know what you do for a lving.” I was like, “Really? What do I do? Send nudes?”
When you think about your work, can you share a specific moment, an anecdote that made you feel a sense of success like this is working?
When I presented the article in period trackers in a conference in Brazil for women developers, and they decided “We need to build a feminist period tracker.” Then another participant explained that she had built one for Iran. Her idea was to have a Trojan Horse, in the form of a period tracker, to bring sexual and reproductive rights information for woman in a society in which you cannot talk about it.” So a whole debate of building similar technology with alternative values was initiated. That was exciting!
It was also funny, because the developer was concerned that I was saying how this is bad, this is not a good idea of an app, which I wasn’t! I just wanted them to respect privacy. Then everyone understood and they we’re like, “We want to develop this properly”. It was a good feeling to see that the things you were saying could spark an idea to someone else to create and build the alternative solution.
It strikes me that you’re finding a role of a translator between different communities. Is that accurate?
It’s funny that you mention translator, translation, because translating all the things that we do that is the most challenging thing that we do, translating across different languages and contexts.
We suffered a lot with Safermanas. We have the English version, the Portuguese version, and then in Spanish. We were like, “There are people that is understanding Safermana. Hermana freira. Nun.” I was like, “No.” [laughs]
I don’t know if its translation as building bridges. It’s accurate, but it’s hard, and I struggle a lot. It’s attached to cultural values.
You mean translating language is hard because there’s so much cultural context?
Languages across fields. Because people with a tech background have a vocabulary that is not necessarily inclusive. Then we need to find terms that are accurate but simple to understand. On the other hand, we feminists also tend to be super strict in lots of the wordings. For example, if we are writing for women, for some audiences we need to stress that we are not talking just about CIS women. CIS, trans, and anyone self-identifying as a woman are included in our definition.
All the terminology in feminism is very carefully selected because of the political weight the word can have, particularly from colonial perspectives.
There was a project that APC led called The Feminist Principles of the Internet. Andrea del Rio, she brought it to MozFest to create tweet length versions of this very dense academic feminist text. It was an interesting session because you definitely had people that were unfamiliar with that discourse or language. The concepts, the people felt like, “Everybody can get behind this. Everybody’s equal. I get that” But the language can be impenetrable for noobs.
Grabbing languages, and wording from here and mixing, and seeing what happens. That’s how you create a new field. [laughs]
Mozilla is a few years into using this framing of Internet Health. I was going to ask you if you think this framing works.
In framing health, if you translate to Portuguese, is going to be saúde. You get segmented in a particular lifestyle that some magazines sell you. Yoga, fitness.
In English, it makes sense. In Portuguese, this wouldn’t work. Where does it come from?
It comes from trying to find a holistic way to bring issues that are intersectional. Open competition policy or open standards, is that the same issue set as privacy? Not really. From Mozilla, we care about both of those things.
Is it because it’s sick? Then you’re also talking about health.
That’s also the reason that it’s been proposed is because it’s not a binary. Health is like that too. Your lungs are fine. Your liver, not so much. It’s chosen for that reason.
Like a system that has many parts.
If you’re the doctor for the Internet and you had to give the diagnosis, do you think it’s healthy right now or not?
No. This is a different time. It’s a shift of paradigm. I don’t know if I missed it, but are there receipts for the Internet to get healthier in the end of the report?
Prescriptions. Go exercise, eat.
That’s the goal — that there are some prescriptions for a healthier internet.
Yeah, it’s easier for English speaking people to understand, figuratively. You can go to the hard topics on privacy, competition, freedom of expression, openness and all that.
Do you see it, in the future of the foundation, that discussing Internet is going to continue to be the focus or it’s going to go to other areas of technology?
It’s also a reason for that framing is to specifically focus Mozilla on the Internet.
That’s going to be the strategy.
Because Mozilla can often be pulled in different directions. Its constituency is complicated because Mozilla is a member of the Silicon Valley community. It’s also a civil society actor. Neither of those two sectors have the Internet as their exclusive focus. We should at least be talking about the same thing among all of our constituencies.
What do you think is most concerning right now for you regarding the Internet?
So much…surveillance, capitalism as the core internet business model, centralization, digital colonialism, polarization of views, and lots of hate… But let’s take freedom of expression, for example — it is going to be more and more controlled due to this whole discourse on fake news. I see that some companies and governments are taking a very paternalistic approach. Saying, “No, you should see that and should not see that.”
For me, it’s very dangerous to have others telling you what is fake or true. Taking the health analogy, what are the prescriptions? We shall not only make the diagnosis because that’s just depressing…
It’s the cancer diagnosis.
Then, “OK, what is the solution?” It’s always going to go to somewhere else that’s not the Internet and we can follow its soul to another life of something. Maybe it will be reincarnated as something as cool as the Internet used to be. Is Mozilla focused only on the Internet or there will be other Internets, further actors?
Do you think there will be?
Eventually, if things start to get too closed, monetized, and monopolized.
It’s the same as environmental issues. People decide to leave the cities and go create their own communities. We should go and check the environmental movements. They have a lot of pessimistic diagnoses as well.
How do they cope with that? What are the strategies? What do they do with those pessimistic diagnoses? Can we learn some strategies, transpose them? Reinvent our interaction with digital technologies?
People that have been working on climate change their whole life, how do you get up every morning knowing that all signs are pointing in the wrong direction?
In the Internet, at least we have more control. The damage to the environment is way out of our hands in a way to recover things. With Internet, you can build another from scratch if you really wanted.
Humanity created the Internet. It didn’t create the earth.
We have more goddess power to reshape things with technologies than to recover the mess humanity did with the environment. Unless our technologies for redressing environmental damage improve that much to be able to fix what we destroyed.
Can you point to something that makes you feel more optimistic about the Internet or our movement?
I feel that before it was very hard to talk about data. Now, everybody wants to know what is this about, why am I giving away all these things?
People are more sensitive, on one hand. On the other hand, looking at one of my particular fields of interest which is building those bridges within the feminist movement and digital rights movement, I think there’s also more people mobilized, more awareness on the overlaps of the agendas, and trying to work together to address this.
If we take particularly my Brazilian context, in which the society seems very polarized and even violent in the digital interactions, particularly if there is a gender component in the debate.
We are the country that is in the top ranking of killing trans people. We are having military intervention in Rio. We have seen in the last months community journalists being threatened, feminist councilwoman representative from black and LGBTQI movement Marielle Franco being brutally killed by militia, and corruption scandals dismantling our young democracy. Dissident voices are getting more concerned about surveillance.
It’s a all part of a sad story, but also that’s keeping people together and bringing people together to address the issues that are more in your face. And, of course, Internet plays a big role for these emerging political forces. And as the situation is critical, people are more concerned about privacy and surveillance.
It’s more urgent.
How do you think Chupadados has contributed to that shift or to a new discourse?
With Chupadados we have shed a light in some cases — studies to show the need to discuss the gender dynamics of surveillance performed by both states and mostly by companies. Some of the discussions got more tangible when we talked about period trackers earning money with our blood or target ads focused on pregnant women.
But, there are other aspects of surveillance targeting women that are not addressed in Chupadados but that the socio-political context of gender violence have shown urgency as well. And, as I’ve mentioned, people want solutions. In the Brazilian context we are also kinda known as references for talking about digital security tools.
What happened in the last month was a huge increase of demands for trainings and for advice. It’s almost impossible to deal with. Luckily, we are part of a bigger awesome community of feminist digital security trainers. It’s crazy because you want people to pay attention to what you’re saying about privacy. Then when they come out together. “Oh, I need training, how do I get completely secure?”
Then it’s a bit frustrating because we don’t have a ready, easy answer. Although there are hints, we can never be completely safe in life. So it’s more like involving people into a process of rethinking habits, understanding the politics of data and then being able to think about ways to multiply the knowledge. The idea of Safermanas, digital security tips in the format of gifs, emerged from that.
We can always sit with groups of 20 to explain the difference of the three main chat apps. I’ve been repeating those lines for people in many trainings. It’s quick, but I think that some practical knowledge on digital security can be spread without the need of diving to a workshop and going through the whole threat modeling process. We all need strong passwords, right? So…
Let’s answer those demands with media.
It’s more scalable.
It’s scalable, and then let’s use the will of people to articulate, to work on community building. How do we get together to collaboratively reply to those demands?
In what ways have connecting with other fellows and Brazilians impacted you? How do you think you have grown?
Hang is amazing. I’m a huge fan. She has a mind that’s very direct and organized in steps. It’s very interesting to have a creative process with someone that is a media fellow, but works like a developer in steps and stages with very large cycles while not losing creativity. It was super helpful to organize my ideas answering her questions because I’m not like that. [laughs]
I’m not either, Hang looked at my notebook this morning and she was shocked.
She was like, “What does any of that mean?”
My alternative title at Coding Rights is Creative Chaos Catalyst… Chaos, you know, some of our magic emerges from that. So I’m like, “Let’s do this. This looks cool,” and then other questions, projects, goals, targets, money and measurements issues will follow from that instinct. Hang is analytical – I am kinda impulsive! There is a lot of fire in my astrological map. [laughs]
Anyways, I’ve learned a lot with her… I’m still learning… I hope that this and other inspiring interactions that emerged with the help of Mozilla continues after the fellowship.