Data & Society

Cryptoparty as Rent Party

Episode Summary

2018-19 Data & Society Fellow Jasmine E. McNealy compares Cryptoparties to the goals and aspirations of the famous rent parties of the Harlem Renaissance. Both represent communities filling in the gaps in infrastructure to support each other. While the rent party helped pay rent through nights of celebration, jazz, and revelry, McNealy's research shows that the Cryptoparty strives for a similar freedom through educating community members on how to safely navigate harmful surveillance technologies. Jasmine E. McNealy is an assistant professor of telecommunication at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. She studies information, communication, and technology with a view toward influencing law and policy. Her research focuses on privacy, online media, communities, and culture.

Episode Notes

2018-19 Data & Society Fellow Jasmine E. McNealy compares Cryptoparties to the goals and aspirations of the famous rent parties of the Harlem Renaissance. Both represent communities filling in the gaps in infrastructure to support each other. While the rent party helped pay rent through nights of celebration, jazz, and revelry, McNealy's research shows that the Cryptoparty strives for a similar freedom through educating community members on how to safely navigate harmful surveillance technologies.

Jasmine E. McNealy is an assistant professor of telecommunication at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. She studies information, communication, and technology with a view toward influencing law and policy. Her research focuses on privacy, online media, communities, and culture.

Episode Transcription

Rebecca Wexler: 
Welcome to Data & Society. My name is Rebecca Wexler. I'm a former fellow here and a current affiliate. I work on data, technology and criminal justice issues. It's my pleasure and honor to welcome you here for the final night of three Wednesdays where we're featuring this year's cohort of fellows to talk about their work.

Next up, our final speaker is Jasmine McNealy with a talk titled Cryptoparty as Rent Party. Jasmine is currently an assistant professor of telecommunication at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications, a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, a fellow at the Stanford University Digital Civil Society Lab, chair of the Communication Law and Policy Division of the International Communication Association, and recently completed a 6-month term as a visiting researcher with Spotify Research, working with the Algorithmic Bias Squad.

She studies information, communication, and technology with a view toward influencing law and policy. Her research focuses on privacy on online media, communications, and culture. Help me welcome Jasmine, please.

 

Jasmine McNealy:
Hello.

It's not lost on me that today is Juneteenth, so happy Juneteenth, you all.

If you don't know what Juneteenth is, June the 19th, 1865, the last people to find out that they were free, slaves in Galveston Bay, Texas, found out. The US Army had to trot into town and tell them that they were free. And so what I submit to you is that we have there a demonstration of a failure. A failure of information or access to information, access to data because slaves had to rely on their masters, who, at best, were apathetic to their plight, that at worst, had their worst interests at heart to tell them that they no longer were in bondage. We have a failure there.

What I want to talk about today are failures. But how communities are picking up the slack where there is a failure. Failure of government, failure of civil society agencies. What I'm interested is, in information, particularly the disposition of information as it relates to technology, emerging technology and media. What I want to know is how people in organizations actually behave so that, when there is law, when there is policy to influence, we actually know how people behave and the influence of law and policy and technology on people, but also how people influence technology.

My talk today is Cryptoparty as Rent Party with the subtitle Community as Technology, and peace to [Rigo 00:03:12] for that subhead right there. I think it's important to think about community as technology. What is technology? But technology is just a set of processes. A process that we go through to create something. We think of technology only in terms, I think, as the digital technology. So this Mac right here or this TV, these screens. But technology is more than that. It's broader than that and I think that's really important when we think about it. Particularly [when] we think critically about what technology is.

And why the rent party? So how do I get to this research in the first place? One of my favorite and foundational pieces was written by an urbanist slash sociologist slash anthropologist, AbdouMaliq Simone. This is a quote from it and it's a paper called People as Infrastructure: Intersecting Fragments in Johannesburg. What Simone did was he went to Joburg. He went to Joburg and he studied. He did some participant observation, interviews, [about] what was happening way back in 2004, what was happening in Johannesburg, South Africa. If you read the opening abstract, he talks about Joburg being as far away from the stereotypical, what we think of as an African village with huts and those kind of things. It's a cosmopolitan place.

But at the same time, post-apartheid you had the kind of ruins of urbanization. You had White populations who had moved out of certain areas and you had governments who were failing to provide the things that people need to help run a city or help make a city work and help make all the people in a city be able to function. But what you had instead was infrastructure that popped up to make the city run. And so this is a quote that I find fascinating from that piece. And he says, "A platform for providing and reproducing life in the city, in other words, a specific economy of perception and collaborative practice is constituted through the capacity of individual actors to circulate across and become familiar with a broad range of spatial, residential, economic, and transactional positions."

So where people have found that government fails, where civil society fails, we think of infrastructure only in the physical but there is a social infrastructure that undergirds all of this and that can step in or does step in, it has to step in for things to run for the people in the city. Now, I know I'm talking about city a lot and urban spaces, and there's a reason for that, but I think this also applies to the suburban or the ex-urban or the rural as well. There are social networks. There is social infrastructure that props up life in these areas to make it function for the people who live there. Otherwise it would not do so.

And so when I think of people as infrastructure, again, I think of, and this graph is going to change your life. We think of bridges, we think of the physical. But where there's a failure of the physical, I have a hole in the bridge, right? People have stepped in. People fill in the gap. And this is going to be important. A failure in Joburg was that when White people moved, you had a lack of chain stores. Grocery stores would leave. So you'd have places where people wouldn't be able to get groceries, so you have markets popping up. So that's the people as infrastructure. People seeing a need and filling in because of failures.

And I submit to you that we have some failures that are happening right now. We'll talk about it in a second. But the project I'm looking at is related to not just this city, but related to across the United States and little bit of Canada, as well. And how, as technology has emerged and been deployed by not just city governments, but corporations and other organizations as well, how their failures with technology or at last how our approach is to technology and how that implicates surveillance. Not just implicates surveillance, it is surveillance.

These technologies have disparate impacts on particular marginalized groups. I'm thinking of Black folks and Latinx people and queer people and religious minorities and a lot of other groups that traditionally have been marginalized. But the impact on these groups is disparate in comparison to what we think of as mainstream. And I submit to you from this research that I've been doing that what is happening now is the emergence of community infrastructure - I would say reemergence of community infrastructure - that is filling in the gaps where these failures are happening.

And so I analogize it to the rent party. So we're in New York City. If we take the R, the W beyond the construction happening and some of the other subways, we could go up to Uptown and we could go to Harlem. And Harlem is a storied place. It is a place that you can read about. You can talk about the Harlem Renaissance and Langston Hughes and all of these other great people. But Harlem is a product and benefited from a movement of people from south to north. Both social and economic refugees, quite frankly, from very real issues that were happening. And so you have this abundance of people who were going north not just to Harlem, but Chicago and Detroit and Cleveland and California, and they moved into these spaces because the north was promised to them as a place with a whole lot of economic opportunity. But when they got there, the same old oppressive forces were at work. So the north was not utopia.

And so people were living in these conditions where it cost a lot. The rent is high now, the rent was high back then as well. And so to sustain themselves, people would come together, communities would come together and they would throw parties. A rent party, which is exactly as it is. How are you going to pay your rent? You throw a party, people pay a cover, you drink, you eat, you listen to music, you Lindy Hop, you dance. And then you go to church the next day as if nothing happened.

This is a painting. You've probably seen it before. It is Mabel Dwight's 1929 painting of Harlem Rent Party. People would go to these parties, but if you look at what a rent party [is] there are a couple of keys that I want to talk about that are important. Number one key was that it was hyper-local. I'm talking specifically about Harlem, but other places as well. You don't have a rent party just any old place. You need to bring people to the spot where people need to pay their rent. It was a house or somebody's house and you wanted people to come to that particular location. Hyper-locality.

There was a value exchange. So to dance the night away, to eat, to drink, you needed to pony up some money. So there is value exchanged and that's important. And there were goals. Community and sustainability. So we wanted to keep the people that we knew in their house. We wanted to sustain the community that we were building. We had already left the community down south. We wanted to keep them in the community up north. And then virality. Virality meaning we want a whole lot of people to come. Come out and support. But also you should know that rent parties weren't just parties for making rent. Some musicians that we know well became famous from playing at rent parties. We're thinking of Duke Ellington. These are people who became famous playing at the rent parties.

And so these factors are really important because you see these same factors with today's technology. Through the project I did this year and am continuing to do is a look at the emergence slash reemergence of community groups and people whose task, whose mission it is to educat[e] their communities about the very real dangers of surveillance technologies, both corporate and kind of civic related technologies. And so what they'll do is, they'll put on things like crypto parties. They'll put on things like [a] kind of skill share, how to use your technology safety. How to use your phone safely. How to use the Onion browser, the Tor, and how to think about what's happening.

And then they'll also go to the city council meeting and say, "You know what, we think that you all shouldn't be allowed to use ShotSpotter. We think that the government shouldn't be using facial technology." If you've been paying attention to what happened in San Francisco recently, the result of the ban was because of community groups working really hard over a number of years, saying, "You know what? We can't have this in our community." So these are the functions of these groups. What I've been able to do is interview members of these groups and people who are doing these crypto parties themselves and to see why they are participating. I'm going to skip this, but note that all four of those things apply.

I want to leave you with a quote from an actual interview I did and they say, "So many people I know constantly feel surveilled, constantly feel the shame and paranoia, are dealing with PTSD. I'm not trying to add to that. I actually really want to live in a world of trust." The reason that they give for participating, for holding these skill shares, for teaching people how to safely use their technology is because they want to change the community. They want to be able to give to their friends, to give to these people a sense of trust in the world, to be able to live in a world more free than they were.

And as we relate it back to Juneteenth and to the rent party, we think about freedom. Freedom from surveillance but also freedom to just live without the weight of being watched, the weight of always been surveilled or always thought of in a negative light. And I think that's an important thing. So how am I doing this in the future? I'm continuing to interview people and to watch and to participate in these parties for continuing research. Thank you.