02:11 - Wampum.Codes
- MIT Co-Creation Studio
- Mozilla Fellowships
- Check out some episodes!
- Super-Group - Indigenous Tech, Indigenous Knowledge: Wampum.codes as a model for decolonization [Episode]
- Weirdness with MorningStar [Episode]
- Comedy in the age of Quarantine: A conversation with comedy writer and performer Joey Clift [Episode]
- Rock Hands with "Roo": a conversation with DeLesslin "Roo" George-Warren [Episode]
08:13 - Amelia’s Superpower: Being invited to cool parties!
11:26 - Storytelling & Performance
20:16 - “Indigenous Antecedent Technology”
- Decentralized Economies
24:16 - “Ethical Dependencies”
- Indigenous wisdom as a model for software design and development
- Articulating Values
- Community Accountability
- Policing vs Accountability
35:48 - Handling Disagreements and Giving Permission to Fail
40:55 - Robert’s Rules of Order
44:23 - “No Striving, No Hustling”
47:33 - Facilitating Communication with Peers
- Storytelling Cont’d
- Studio Ghibli Storytelling
- "Ma" – Negative Space
To make a one-time donation so that we can continue to bring you more content and transcripts like this, please do so at paypal.me/devreps. You will also get an invitation to our Slack community this way as well.
CORALINE: Hello and welcome to Episode 240 of the Greater Than Code podcast. My name is Coraline Ada Ehmke. I'm very happy to be with you here today, and I'm also really happy to be here with my great friend, Jamey Hampton.
JAMEY: Thanks, Coraline. I'm glad to be on the show with you, too, and I'm also here with my great friend, Jacob Stoebel.
JACOB: Aw, hello, and I'm going to introduce our guest.
Amelia Winger-Bearskin is an artist and technologist who creates playful work with XR, VR, AI, AR, AV, and other esoteric systems of story and code. Amelia is the founder and host of wampum.codes podcast and the stupidhackathon.com. She is a Senior Technical Training Specialist for Contentful and host of the Contentful + Algolia Developer Podcast DreamStacks. She is working on ethics-based dependencies for software development as a Mozilla Fellow embedded at the MIT Co-Creation Studio.
Welcome to the podcast.
AMELIA: Thank you so much! I'm so excited to be here. You all are some of my favorite people, so [laughs] excited to chat on record.
CORALINE: And today's going to be very technical; we’re going to ask you some very technical questions about XR, VR, AI, AR, AV and…
JAMEY: That's a lot of letters.
CORALINE: SP, everything.
AMELIA: [laughs] Yeah, we were at a function. Coding. Yeah, let's crack it. [laughs]
CORALINE: Amelia, just on a personal level, I'm so happy to have you here. You and I have talked before, we're both involved in ethical source, and I’m such an admirer of your work. I'm so happy to have this conversation in public with you today.
AMELIA: Oh, back at you, Coraline. I love ethical source and I've been so excited to join your team of rebels, exciting thinkers, and dreamers. So I'm really excited to be here with you and in community with you.
CORALINE: So Amelia, I first became aware of your work through your wampum.codes project that you did. Well, it's an ongoing project, but I guess, you started it with the Mozilla Fellowship. Can you talk a little bit about that? I think it's really fascinating.
AMELIA: Oh, thank you so much for the opportunity. When I started my Mozilla Fellowship embedded at the MIT Co-Creation Studio, it was actually pre-pandemic. So it was right, but not very much so it was only a couple of months. We got to go to London and meet each other and I got to hang out a little bit at MIT with the Co-Creation fellows. I'm the first full-time fellow at the MIT Co-Creation Studio, which is a really cool studio, imagined and led by Kat Cizek, who's an incredible transmedia storyteller and inspiring human that I get to be in collaboration with there.
So for wampum.codes as an ethical framework for software development, we had imagined a lot of things and then the pandemic hit and I wasn't able to be as close to them as I was. I also moved from New York to San Francisco. Before I thought I was going to from New York to Boston pretty regularly on the train and then moved to California and that's when I decided to have the Co-Creation portion of wampum.codes exist as a podcast.
So rather than flying to different spaces and meeting with friends and technologists on reservations, who are indigenous across North America, I was like, “Okay, well, let's do this via Zoom call as a podcast” as many people moved to different online formats during the pandemic and that's how the wampum.codes podcast was born. As I want to do research because if you're going to create an ethical framework for software development, based on indigenous values of Co-Creation, you need to do it in co-creation with those people. [chuckles]
I had initially planned to fly all of them to MIT and have this big conference and everything. But instead, I got to have weekly conversations with indigenous people, who are using technology in creative ways to make positive impact in their communities. And then we still did a big conference at MIT, but virtually and actually, a lot more people were able to participate in it that way. Big surprise, right? All of us who are internet natives are unsurprised that you have a lot of accessibility there.
So then that became the supergroup episode of wampum.codes where we had everyone who was going to be there physically at MIT and then I was able to distribute. Rather than using those funds to fly everyone to MIT, distribute those to all the different people who were on the podcast and just have weekly conversations with each of these people.
I guess, the technology projects range and I welcome anyone to go to wampum is W-A-M-P-U-M, .codes, C-O-D-E-S. If you want to listen to the podcast, you can go on Buzzsprout, but it's able to be found on Spotify, or Apple, anywhere you find a podcast. We have RSS feeds there.
If you go through the episodes, it varies where each of the indigenous people are coming from. Like, there's an incredible actress on there, MorningStar Angeline, and she is an incredible advocate and activist for the Albuquerque drag scene, also does really incredible art installations and happenings, and works in VR. But she's also the voice of the local area population in Red Dead Redemption, one of my favorite games. [laughs] So it's really interesting that she crosses all of these different media.
Then we have another person, Joey Clift, who's a comedian, who's an indigenous comedian and the first indigenous person to be on the—and I'm going to probably say this wrong, but the house comedy team of UCB in LA, I think they call it the house comedy team. The interesting way that he uses technology is he created the largest Facebook group of comedians ever and it's the comedians with cats, basically. [laughs] I just love that he has this and then he creates all this comedy through that Facebook group.
So that's an interesting way that comedy becomes its own scene through the social media network all based around cats. I think that's pretty amazing, that an indigenous person is grounded everybody in our deep love of animals. He does a lot of really great activist work. He's also a writer of a couple of different television shows right now and one of them is the first all-indigenous writers room Everett
And then you have Roo DeLesslin George-Warren, who's creating an app with children. He's part of Catawba nation and the app is around language preservation and language education of Catawba language. But it's the fun thing that we talk about on the episode is, there's some words that don't exist in Catawba language and it's because they're last truly immersed indigenous speaker of Catawba language passed away in the 80s. So anything that wasn't created up until the 80 didn't have an official name, but that doesn't mean that the language is dead. It's alive and it's an alive on the tongue of every child that's learning and every person that's living.
But what it does mean is those children get to name some of these things, they get to name what a cell phone is, they get to name all these fun things, and one of the children said, “We should name cell phones rock hands,” and he's like, “Oh really? That's great. Why is that the word for rock and the word for hands in Catawba? And he said, “Well, because it's made of rocks and minerals and we hold it in our hands,” and I thought that was really beautiful.
So those are the examples of how each of these different awesome technologists, indigenous leaders are using technology in creative ways. So from that, all those conversations really contribute to the framework that I helped to organize and turn into a workshop and writings around an ethical framework for software development. Those conversations are really key and important to it, because I need to learn how are people making change with technology, because that really will contribute to the guidelines that we hope people can bring out in the process of creating an ethical framework for software development and value-based dependencies.
JAMEY: So we have one question for you that you may be expecting already, because we warn our guests about it, and that question is what is your superpower and how did you acquire it?
AMELIA: Oh, that's an excellent question and I'm cheating because I once was asked this question at Stephanie Dinkins’ AI dinner in New York and I just said the first thing that came to my head because I wasn't expecting it and the first time I said it, I said, “Wow, that's really stupid, Amelia. Why did you say that?” Well, it's because the first thing that came to my head, but then the longer I sit with it, the more I'm like, “I think it's true so I'm just going to say it,” again as if it's the first time which is, I think my superpower is being invited to cool parties.
JAMEY: That's a great superpower.
AMELIA: Yeah. how did I acquire it? I think you just have to have cool friends and then those friends invite you to cool parties. It's worked out for me so far because sometimes their parties are in Dharamsala hanging out with the Dalai Lama, sometimes their parties are doing some weird art show in New York, and sometimes their parties are awesome powwows that have been going on for hundreds of years. So I think that's the best way I want to live my life [laughs] so that's my superpower.
CORALINE: I love that.
JAMEY: I just wanted to say that I don't think that's a stupid superpower at all. I think it's a beautiful superpower.
CORALINE: I'm kind of jealous of that superpower, honestly. I think the last party I had, the big important, exciting thing was red velvet cupcakes.
AMELIA: Ooh, that’s awesome.
CORALINE: Oh no, you have red velvet cupcakes on the one hand, the Dalai Lama on the other hand, that's a tough choice to make really.
AMELIA: Yeah. Obviously, during quarantine I feel like I've definitely not had my superpower active in a while, so maybe I'm in like my cave of solitude. [laughs] Definitely. It's been a tough year for those of us who that's our only superpower, but I definitely been invited to a lot of Zoom parties, let me tell you. I've led a lot of Among Us things and I've been the one to organize a lot of Zoom [inaudible] outlook.
We all are Zoom fatigued, but I've been organizing what I hope could be something interesting. I started this thing called No-Funding.com as a virtual party where we could talk about, I don't know, it's supposed to be an artist support group where we talk about ways that we can support each other outside of gatekeeping and traditional funding avenues.
But honestly, it's like, if you didn't need any funding and you didn't want any funding and you just wanted to be punk rock and talk about our art and how we can help each other, that's a space. We do it and we ended up getting into some esoteric conversations. We talk a lot about ethics and the worlds that we want to build that have a community focus. But we also just kind of, we'll talk about creative ideas to feed our soul like, “Hey, why don't we write poems today?” and somebody in the group knows how to teach us how to write poem. Someone might know something about an artist and teaches us something. So it's definitely more an artist support group, but with the motto of not – our motto is no striving, no hustling. [laughs] So that's No-Funding.com, join us every week. [laughs]
CORALINE: Well, one of the things that really interested me, or interests me about your work, Amelia, almost everything you've said in terms of the things you're doing have a very strong community focus. As someone who came up in a very white Western technology environment where most of what happens is developer tooling and most of it is going to the companies in San Francisco, I think it's really interesting that people who are outside of that bubble seem to have stronger, especially people in different parts of their world, or indigenous cultures that are often ignored, or excluded, but you're doing community work. I see a lot of those non-white Western—what I’m trying to say—that's kind of unique in a way, or it's different from how technology is usually thought of in the US especially. I don't know where to go with that. I am so sorry. I just think that's so fascinating and so different and that's something I'm going to learn about.
AMELIA: Yeah, and I think it's absolutely everything you said about technology is true and it also is true for the art world, too, which I came actually from a background of performance.
My mom, growing up, was a traditional storyteller for our tribe, Seneca-Cayuga Nation of Oklahoma, Deer Clan and being a storyteller is something like being a politician, a historian, a performance artist, an actor, a writer, an educator. It's this combination because you need to be given the stories from elders. They have to trust you so you have to be a politician, or a leader and you're really required to make sure that the stories that you tell are relevant and significant for your current generation. You're taking information from previous generations, you're preserving it, and sharing it with your current generation so that it will have positive impact on the generations to come, but it has to be relevant.
So you cannot tell it the same way that an elder gave it to you. It's the core requirements like, I'm giving you the story for you to make it new and relevant for your generation and each audience you meet with it has to be relevant. Our storytelling is embedded in multimedia. It's obviously, spoken word stories. It has music, it has patterns, it has art, it has pottery, it has bead work; all of these things reinforce the stories.
When my mom would travel around, her superpower is being that leader, historian, educator. She has that voice that as soon as she says, “Hello, I would like to tell you a story today,” every person in the whole room sits down. You know what I mean? I don't know, that's her superpower is she can just, not even with a mic and she has a quiet voice. She can just be like, “Hello,” and everyone just sits down. She's like, “I'm going to tell you a story.” [chuckles] It's that incredible storyteller voice and then I would perform the songs and the music with her since she's not a musician, or a musical person at all, but she knows the songs and knows this is the story that has the song that goes live. So I would be the musical one and then I became an opera singer. At 15, I went to the Eastman Conservatory of Music at a young age and became a professional opera singer at a young age.
So I came from a performance background and then once my work became so weird in the sense of, I had so much coding involved, projections and video. I'm a nerd and I've been a self-taught coder since I was very young and since my work became more integrated with multimedia, people were like, “You're not really an opera person anymore, or a director of new opera. You're kind of a multimedia artist.” That title was somewhat thrust upon me and I was like, “Oh, this is great. I'm going to go get my Master's degree, my MFA in art.”
Once I went to school, they showed me my studio and then they lock you in there. They close the door and then you're supposed to live in your studio. I would pop my head out and like, “Hey everybody, what are we doing?” They're like, “Go away, like go back into your studio.” We're all in our studios heads down and then I said, “Oh, well, let's collaborate.” No one wants to collaborate with me. The only people in the entire, like above me, or below me, or my same year that want to collaborate with me were indigenous people. Interesting! [laughs]
So we all wanted to collaborate and start making things together and our professors were like, “We're not even going to consider that for your grades, or for your thesis, or for – that doesn't count, that doesn't even exist. If you made it with another person, it doesn't even exist,” and I was like, “Are you kidding me?” The whole entire world doesn't work when it comes to the way that most media we consume isn't created that way.
The only exception really is more the solitary artist, which also doesn't always work that way either. When you go and see things in a museum and it has one person's name under it, there's a thousand names that are not mentioned. When we see a film, we see the director, but we see the thousands of names come over us with the credits. When we go to a play, we open that cast book and we see all of those names that are behind that object.
So it's really, the art world and the technology world overlap in that myth of the solitary genius, total myth that they perpetuate it. I definitely had a crisis, what I went into the art world and then again, as I've continued my journey throughout tech, where I'm like, “It's not true that one person has made these things,” [laughs] but we believe that. We believe that that's how things work and that was always a big shock to me and something that I've maybe found ways of integrating a more collective mindset into each of those spaces.
I recently was meeting with this incredible group. The US Department of Art and Culture, I don't know if you've ever heard of them. They're not a real government agency, but they perform really incredible service to our collective dreaming, which is they build things, like the People's State of the Union, or they've created the honoring native land initiative, which is an incredible toolkit for people to do land acknowledgements. They've recently hired me to bring on a new page of this honoring native land initiative to think about how do you bring something from land acknowledgement to action so it's not just making a verbal statement, but you're making a commitment that can come with action.
When I was meeting with them initially, they were like, “Well, you do categorize yourself as an artist, but this role is a lot about community building. So can you talk a little bit about that?” And I thought, “Oh, that's so interesting because my whole life, I have felt like more of a community builder than an artist.” That's interesting that they assume that an artist isn't a community builder because it isn’t because there’s usually that separation. So I was very happy to find this role.
One of the fun things that you do at the beginning of working with this group is to work with them to define a title and I don't have one yet. I'm going to share with you some of my ideas, [laughs] let me know what you think of me.
JAMEY: So let's workshop them right here on the show.
AMELIA: Right. I’m looking for your opinions because the other people have these incredible titles, like one is the Chief Ray of Sunshine. That's one of her names, she's the Chief Ray of Sunshine. One person is the Director of People and Possibilities. Another one is Director of Decolonization and Honoring Native Land. I thought, I think that's the title. And then I've been throwing around a lot of different ones.
So one, I think was good as something around a land acknowledgement lab, because I want to make it a place where I can collaborate with lots of different people around how they can imagine, and give a framework and tools for people to imagine how you can change land acknowledgement thinking of this something that you say, something that you do, and something that has action. So that was what I've been thinking about. I don't know. What are some of the coolest titles you guys have heard? [laughs]
CORALINE: Well, not exactly the same thing, but a friend of mine, Astrid Countee, who's also one of the panelists on our podcast. She is trained as an anthropologist and she got into tech. So she and I have been workshopping [chuckles] a title for her and we're coming up with sociologist engineer, anthropology engineer, things like that because the thing I like about that and the thing I like about what you're saying is that the impact that we have is a lot broader than the work that we do. We don't acknowledge the connections either and we tend to lionize the pure technical – I'm speaking as like the industry. We lionize that is the lone genius, like you were talking about, and I'd like to see us bring more of ourselves into how we describe the work we do, as opposed to just the, “Oh, I write code.”
So Amelia, one of the things that you and I talked about in our conversation of couple of months ago, you introduced me to an incredible term that I'd like you to share with us and talk about and that is antecedent technology.
AMELIA: Yeah. I like to think a lot about the continuous line that we have for technology and the way that oftentimes, when we're learning about a new technology, people will use metaphors that are connected to the technologies in history, but frequently, it's from a Western perspective rather than seeing a continuous line from technologies that were invented in indigenous communities.
One of the reasons that I say it's important to look at indigenous antecedent technology is we don't want to colonize our future. We don't want take something and project it to the future with a limited understanding of how the world works.
An example of that is that we've had, for thousands of years, decentralized economies that use decentralized ledgers and had large data systems that were able to be incorporated into consensus building contracts that led to peaceful communities. Like for instance, Wampum with the Haudenosaunee, Iroquois Confederacy, or even Quipu, we had in South America, which was a Turing-complete data system 500 years before Alan Turing was born.
I think the reason why it's important is not because of primacy, or saying that's because something happened first it's better. But if you are thinking of making giant leaps in the future with some of these new emerging technologies, you could say, “Well, we don't have any data in the past, so we're just going to have to wing it.” Or you could look at it as a line and a string that connects to our ancestral histories and say, “Well, actually we did have successful distributed economy, decentralized economies, right in the location where I'm standing now. We could study how they worked in collaboration with the environment in this environment and learn from there.” Or we could just throw that out and say, “Wow, this is the first time California is ever going to use a decentralized economy. Let's just wing it.” Or you could say, “Actually, there’s precedent here we can learn from that, from this very location, from this very land.”
Something that a lot of indigenous activists are talking about is understanding the connection and giving back agency to indigenous groups is not just racial justice, but it's also climate justice. So I think people who deeply want to make positive impact for our environment, or are looking at some of these possibilities for different types of economies in a less extractive format for your state, or for your nation, or for your continent, or your region, it is important to include indigenous knowledge in those discussions.
So that's what I mean when I talk about antecedent technology is like, are these innovations that you're building? Do they have deep roots, and do you have a mechanism of looking at them in historical context? Can that give you more data to make more successful models for how you might make innovation in the future?
CORALINE: But Amelia, how can people do that and also solve every problem from first principles?
AMELIA: I know, right? [laughs] And that's the funny thing is we see this is an issue in Silicon Valley already. Already, people are like, “Oh my gosh, they're reinventing buses,” or they're reinventing these things that already existed not a 100, or 200, or 300 years, or a 1,000 years ago, but people are reinventing something that happened a month ago, or a year ago. That is what we do. We pile slight innovations on top of each other in an extractive format to create competition and I think that it's a slowing down of that. It's like, what if it's not about reinvention, or just rebranding, or remarketing, but if our goals have of real long vision of lasting for seven generations, can we think then about innovation in a different way?
JACOB: I've never heard the phase ethical dependencies. Could you educate me, if you care to?
AMELIA: [laughs] Yeah, sure. I think about it like I love to use technological terminology to describe ethical, or creative practices and I love to use creative and ethical terminology to describe technological practices. I like to be a bridge between these two worlds because it's somewhere I sit in the middle of.
So when people aren't technical and they're like, “What is an ethical dependency?” Then I'll start talking to them about how certain computer programs can't run unless they have all of their check-dependencies and I explain that to them. And then when it's a technical group, I'll talk about when you go through your package.json and you're trying to communicate to someone who might be using your GitHub repo, you might have a bunch of different choices of things that you can connect them with in your package.json. Maybe it's just basic, “Hey, this is the version I'm using and make sure you use this node version.” As you go through it, the only ethical choice I've had, at least as a web developer, is this MIT open source, or is this CANoe, or what is the licensing for this is, or is it just closed source so it's for the company that I'm working for.
The reason why I wanted to make an ethical dependency for software is I wanted there to be more options and more choices there that you could say, not only do I have license, which really is just adjudicated through the legal process of international law of copyright. If someone violates the MIT license and close sources my open source project, maybe I can sue them. But if I'm a small developer, I probably don't have the resources to some people. But what if I don't even believe in that process?
I'm somebody who truly believes in a horizontal organization that is a mutual aid network and we don't want to spend our funds on lawyers suing people. But we do want to have a way in which our community is held responsible to each other and maybe we have our own process of guidelines that this group adheres to and we want a resource where people can say, “Okay, what are the values behind your code that you imagine people should uphold?”
And then my article that I wrote for the Mozilla blog, I mentioned an example, which is a cat shelter. Like, what if I made a really great website for my friend's cat shelter and then they reach out to me and say, “Hey, my other friend would really love to use your code. Is that totally fine?” “Yeah. It's open source. No problem.” “Okay, great, great, great,” and then I say, “Well, actually, I did a lot of work on this. I'm totally fine anyone using it for free, but I don't support kill shelters.” If it's a no-kill shelter, then totally cool with them using my code, but if there are not a no-kill shelter, I don't know if I wanted to spend all hours that I did making this and the time supporting it and everything else that I do. That's my values. Like, you can use my code for free, but not if you're using it to do something that I don't want to see in the world.
I think we see that a lot in open source projects for research where researchers have done incredible systems for looking at the stars and star mapping, and then those same systems are used for military guided missiles and they're like, “Wait a minute. I use all those graduate students and we spent years and years and years building this incredible thing to look at stars and have this be an educational tool and now it's being used in a way that is absolutely not how we anticipated, or what we thought would exist in the world.” And there's not a mechanism because they didn't necessarily close source it; they're just using it as a guidance system. [chuckles] o it's like, how could you hold people accountable?
I think the first step is to make explicit the values to begin with and a lot of times people will say to me, “Well, if you can't enforce this, then what is the point of doing this?” I think that's an interesting thing in our culture that we immediately go to policing before we can even think of the imagination of what is our value? Oh, you're not even allowed to think of what your values are, because if you can't police them, they don't matter. Well, that's actually a very strange skewed worldview to imagine that you can't hold values unless you can police them. Because in a world of post-policing, we have to have ways that we hold values, right? [laughs] We can't just throw out values.
So the first step is articulating and agreeing upon the values and creating an ethical dependency, and then through the process in wampum.codes, I talk about how accountability can work within a community and what you want accountability to look like. It shouldn't be the default that the only way you can hold someone accountable is to sue them, or is to police them through a court system, or international court system.
There should be a way in which you can hold people accountable that is more aligned with the values of your group. Maybe you can say, if you have found someone that has not followed these ethical guidelines, invite them to this town hall where we'd like to talk about it, or meet us every week at the Zoom link. There's lots of different ways you can put an accountability link in your package.json, which is, this is how I expect my community can hold me accountable. This is how I want my community to hold me accountable. This is how I want my community to hold each other accountable. So we talk through that process.
I don't think it should just be a default outsource thing to a government that you have no influence on the copyrighting law that exists. It’s like well, it's either open, or close. So that’s a bad – now I've lost my place, but feel free to ask me questions. [laughs] These guys have stopped running.
JAMEY: I really like the distinction that you make between policing and accountability, which I think are words that have similar meanings, but very different vibes. I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about how those two concepts like work different in practice.
AMELIA: Yeah, absolutely. I think if you can imagine that it's – I always start from a point of imagining that it's the community, that we are all part of a community and that we care about the values and we care about each other. Like, you're starting from a point of imagining. Everyone's a good actor before you start imagining how someone is a bad actor. It's like saying, “I need to explain to you why this game is fun and what the rules are before I start.” If I start off being like, “Okay, everyone who's going to cheat at this game, this is what's going to happen to them.” Then people are like, “Well, wait, what game is this and what even are the rules?”
So just start from a point of like, “This is why the game is fun. This is why we want to participate in it. These are the rules of the game and the rules are part of how we have fun.” The rules are a part of how we engage with each other. The rules are part of the point of why we're even playing. It makes it fun, constraints are fun, and then you can start thinking about like, “Hey, and if you cheat at this game, these are the fun ways you can cheat at this game and these are the ways that are actually not fun and everyone in the group would rather you just not do that and if you do do that, then maybe we talk about what we do.”
I think that's a more of a process of thinking about the ideas, the end, and the means exist within the community and are part of the community. I think a lot of activists organizations have been very involved in rethinking community accountability without policing and oftentimes, they're communities that either indigenous communities on reservations don't have policing in the same way that other spaces do and/or their places where policing does not benefit those communities. They're not actually defending the rights, or the needs of those communities.
So they've had to start thinking about like, “Well, we still have to think about what we do when we have something in our community that we don't want to have.” Like, if we have domestic violence, what do we do in a way that still protects and maintains our community, that we can still make sure we have help and needs?
That's an issue that I think a lot of reservations have looked at because it's like we don't have police, or police don't help us when they come and so, how do we figure out ways that we can support our communities and make sure that we can minimize domestic violence and they have lots of different initiatives all over Indian country that are really amazing. So I think that's a good example.
JAMEY: I find it really refreshing, the attitude about the game, like these are the rules of the game before we talk about cheating, because I find myself feeling a way that's jaded that my brain does go to. But I know there's bad actors and I've dealt with bad actors and I stress about that. I think it's a stressful thing that it’s reasonable to stress about, but putting that value lower than the value of well, what's the ideal and how do we start with that, I think it really feels good.
AMELIA: Yeah. I know as a young developer and probably all of you have had a very similar experience, but as a very young developer, you'll enter into a space and be like, “Oh, I have a question about this,” and then you just get a hammer on your head like, “This isn't the space where you ask questions! That's the space where you ask questions and you don't ask this question on Tuesday. You only ask them on a Wednesday!” and you're like, “Ah!” We've all had that experience, too, which isn't a very accessible way of someone wants to join your party and you're like, “Oh, you really aren’t to join on Wednesdays and not with that question.” and it’s like –
So I think it's important to make things accessible to someone who's a new, or an outsider and give them a way of being a good actor because otherwise, if they don't, then everyone new will be a bad actor without any option of otherwise and of course, there are bad actors. We've all grown up on the internet, [laughs] so I think we know.
Another thing that is interesting is I've been doing these workshops with development teams, at companies, startups, blockchain companies, or financial companies, or nonprofits, or academic departments, or groups of artists. It is always interesting that people are like, “Oh yeah, who should be here that can articulate our values for this exercise?” My answer is, “You,” and they're like, “Oh, well, no one gave me permission to do that.” “On behalf of who?” “I don’t know on behalf of who,” and I'm like, “Well, you get to do it on behalf of everyone.” You get to articulate it and then someone else gets articulated and then we get to talk about that.
I'm always surprised that this is sometimes the first space that anyone's given them that permission, it's like, “Well, what do you think are the values?” They go, “Well, I think our values are X, Y, and Z,” and someone else can say, “Well, I think it's this other thing,” and they can say, “Oh, interesting.” And then the founders, or the directors can be there and be like, “Wow, I had no idea all these different opinions,” and then we'll say to them, “Well, what did you think it was?” They’re like, “I actually now, I realize I don't know. Now I'm liking these ideas,” or “I'm thinking about this differently.”
So it's square one is that articulation and everyone thinks that that's a given. They're like, “Oh, well, that'll be easy. That part will take 5 minutes.” But that is almost the entire time. [chuckles] Usually, it’s that beginning of like, “Okay, we are articulating our values.” Then once you articulate them, it's actually quite easy to just embed those into your source code and then think about accountability and all that.
But getting on that same page, it's often the first time that – and coders will say things like, “Well, I think the UX person was supposed to decide this.” The UX person said, “No, no, no, I don't think it was me. I think it was somebody else who was supposed to decide this!” I'm like, “Well, if actually no one on your development team thinks they're allowed to express this, then that's probably a problem because how are they supposed to design code that meets your values of your team if no one thinks they're allowed to articulate that?”
JAMEY: Something I find striking about the story that you just told is that, I think we often feel disagreements are a really bad thing to have and you just told the story where having disagreements was a very good thing to be experiencing because it's like more ideas and more discussion. I wonder what your thoughts are on like, well, how can we get past that feeling of like, “Oh, well, if someone disagrees with me, that's a bad thing.”
AMELIA: I think it's different for different people. I think all of us have probably worked on international teams. I work on an international team with a lot of German coworkers and they're not in any way afraid of disagree [chuckles] in the beginning of a meeting, but they are very hesitant to disagree later on. They have this great way of clashing in the beginning with lots of ideas. Like, “No, I don't think that!”
They're really, really clashing in the beginning, but then once we've all agreed to move forward with something, then they would be more hesitant later on to be like, “Hey, I don't think this is working out” because they're like, “No, we made a commitment, we're going to do this. We'll just keep doing what we decided.”
It's harder for them later on to like flag a problem and say, “I think we should go in a different direction,” because it's less part of their culture to do that. It's like, “Well, we all agreed. So if we all agreed and we're all together, then we all agree and we're all together. You don't later go on and decide something else on your own.”
Whereas, I feel like in American culture, it's not as big of a deal for someone to raise the hand and be like, “I think we're going to go into a brick wall if we keep going this direction so we’ve got to veer to the left.” Everyone would be like, “Thank goodness.” But if you showed up at the brick wall, they'd be like, “Why didn't anyone –?” “Oh, we knew we were going to run a brick wall. Why didn't you say anything?” “Oh, we didn't want to disagree.” That wouldn't be appropriate in American culture, but they make jokes all the time in Germany that that's what happens sometimes because people agree and then they'll just keep going. [chuckles] So it's very interesting clash of culture.
I think different cultures have different points at which they feel comfortable. That's just one example. You can imagine how all of us have so many different cultures when it feels okay to have disagreements and sometimes explaining that in the beginning could be helpful, too.
Because in some of these groups, you'll have people that are international that are speaking more in the beginning and I'll call that out, too and say, “I hear a lot of Europeans are disagreeing in the beginning. Oftentimes, Americans don't feel comfortable doing that, but this is a helpful way of making sure we have alignment and it's not seen as that you think someone's idea is not good, but it's a way of contributing, or adding.” Sometimes I throw that out because I know even based on different parts of the US that you're in, you might have different ways when you feel more comfortable sharing a descending of opinion. [chuckles]
CORALINE: Amelia, how does that intersect with permission to be wrong?
AMELIA: Oh, I like that permission to be wrong. Tell me a little bit more about that. What do you –?
CORALINE: I think it's tied to what we talk about a lot about psychological safety and safety to fail. Things don't always fail just for environmental reasons.
AMELIA: Oh, yeah.
CORALINE: Sometimes someone had an idea and it ends up that idea isn't workable, but we have such attachment to the idea that I think we oftentimes are likely to run into that wall because we don't want to admit that we didn't think of something, or we didn't see something coming, or we didn't think it through correctly and that’s a lot of pressure.
AMELIA: Oh, totally. Absolutely, it is. I feel like I find that a lot when I was a professor and I still am a trainer. I work at Contenful as a technical trainer and I think as a teacher, you see that a lot with people. It's like that first moment where students have learned something and they want to apply it and sometimes, our first idea is great, but usually our first 20 ideas are terrible. [chuckles]
So it's like when you're first learning something, you don't always have the best ideas and what I usually have tried to do in my classrooms is give people just an enormous space to create a lot of bad ideas quickly. If it's in an art class, I might say, “Okay, I've taught you how to do this animation. I need you to make a 100 in the next hour,” and they're like, “That's impossible.” I'm like, “Well, then make them really bad and really crude and just find out how to do volume,” and when you find out how to do volume, you get over a lot of the preciousness of the first bad idea that is usually really bad, but you're really precious about it because it's your first and that can push past that.
Similarly, in technical training classes, it might be the same where it's like, “Okay, all 50 of you have to do this impossible task in an hour,” and they're like, “That's impossible.” I'm like, “Great. So let's start with, where should we start?” Often, where should we start is a bad idea. People are like, “We should start with writing down everything that we need to do!” It's like, “Well, if you only have an hour, that's probably going to be the hour of just writing it down, or you could start somewhere.” There's lots of different options.
So I think permission to fail, or permission for bad ideas sometimes can be overcome by that brute force of just being like, “Well, do the first 100 bad ideas, get it out of your system.” [laughs]
JACOB: I was just thinking about how I've worked in an organization in the past that really wanted to have that very collaborative beyond the same page about values. There was one issue that came up a lot, which was that we had this culture where if anyone wanted to blow up the entire thing and make us all talk about it from ground zero, they could. I think that, whether on purpose, or not, was abused and what ended up happening was not really able to go anywhere. Effectively, what happened was the person who wanted to just keep bringing up their thing got their way because you know.
JACOB: When you were talking about that earlier, I was thinking about what's a way for one of the values of a group to be like, “We want to be able to have everyone's input, but we also want to move forward,” and I was just thinking about how we would do that.
AMELIA: Yeah, absolutely. Well, I think this is why so many mutual aid networks, or activist groups, or anarchist groups will use different formats like even Robert's Rules of Order, or they make their own versions of that where they say – and then I've seen in some artist groups, they'll have the 10 not commandments, but things on the wall where if a certain thing in a conversation is going there, they might point to it and say like, “Hey, is this number eight derailment? Are you derailing our consensus through number seven only being concerned with your own idea?” And then they will be like, “Yeah, I think that's it. I think that's what you're doing here. Number seven and number eight and right now, so we're going to move past that.” Or with Robert's Rules, you might say like, “Yeah, your emotions on the table doesn't have a second. So we're tabling that.”
I think that's why it's important to have some of those ground rules when you're in an activist organization and maybe we should take some of those activist language into the product space at companies as well to say, we can have formalized ways. It doesn't mean we're not listening to people. There's a balance between “You're never allowed to question our values,” or “Yeah, you can bring up your own pet project at any time and derail everyone else's process and project and progress.”
So I think there's definitely a balance there and people can always make addendums to that. People can say, “Hey, we're going to pause Robert’s Rules right now because it looks like we're getting kicked out of the space in 5 minutes so we're going to move to this section. Does everyone agree with that?” “Yes, we agree with tabling those rules that we already agreed to make a supplemental rule for this section.”
I don't know how many of you have worked in an activist organization. Sounds like all of you see what I’m talking about. [laughs] Sometimes it's a lot of saying that and saying it really fast, but you get used to it. You get used to being like, “Oh my gosh, we only have 5 minutes. Okay, should we table this? Yes, or no? Do we have a second? Okay, we do. Great.”
It takes more verbiage, but it is a way that we can agree on the rules of play and that people feel safe being like, “No one seconded that idea. You have brought it up for the third time, you’re bringing it up again, no one's going to second it again. So it's okay, we get it. You still want that idea. That's okay. We're writing it down in the minutes, but how it goes. [chuckles] You're also welcome to start your own group and have that be a focus and that's always possible, too.” So not everything has to be done by, for, with, and with approval of the group and I think that's what's great, too.
JAMEY: So Amelia, you were talking earlier in the show about your No Funding group. That's what it was called, right?
JAMEY: And the phrase that you said, I wrote it down was, “No striving, no hustling.”
JAMEY: I liked that so much that [chuckles] I wrote it down and I was hoping we could talk about that because I think that that's something that people really struggle with, too. Anxiety about productivity and monetizing hobbies is something I see a lot. I'm also in the tech space and the art space, and you see that a lot in comics like, how can I make this thing that I want to do into my career? Which like, there's something beautiful about that, but it's also really tough when you're doing that with everything in your life that should bring you joy. So this isn't really a question, but I was hoping you could talk about no striving, no hustling.
AMELIA: Oh yeah, thank you so much, Jamey. So I'll read you the little statement that we made, just because it's funny, but we say, “No Funding: Be the crypto-anarchist digital artist collective you want to see in the world. The mutual aid network that aims to help creatives radically rethink our relationships to funding, grants, and gatekeepers. In an arts and media culture increasingly focused on securing patronage from institutions, corporations, and wealthy individuals, No Funding asks what creative life would look like if artists were fully liberated from money and the self-censorship imposed by its pursuit? Rather than experience the soul crushing lifestyle of striving, rejection, and constant jockeying for position, could we instead find new ways to support one another and what would we make?”
As part of the official announcement, I wrote a short story called Child's Play, where I imagine a world in which children seize control of the global economy with nothing more than a Minecraft server and their grandparents’ goodwill. [laughs]
“No Funding is a public group. You can visit no-funding.com to get in on the fun and participate in weekly online conversations where members present on topics near and dear to them. No Funding is primarily a BIPOC creative technologist group, but it's open to anyone who's ever needed a day job to make something cool that they believe in. Our motto is no-striving, no-hustling; No-Funding.com a creative collective.”
So that's our little statement. [laughs]
JAMEY: I love it. I love everything about it.
AMELIA: Yeah. I've had a lot of fun because I don't know how you felt during the pandemic, but I feel adrift in a sea of information where I don't know where land is. I don't see a lighthouse. I can't tell if I'm 5 minutes from shore, or a 5 miles and having a check-in with people with this format that it's like, no striving, no hustling, you're not pitching your project for a group of adjudicators.
This is a group of people for people by people and I've been able to get more of a temperature on how people are feeling, what people are thinking. For me, it's helping that lighthouse of how far I am adrift. When I have my own notions of, I think this is going on and then I go to a No Funding meeting and I'm like, “Okay, I'm totally wrong. I can adjust myself to the shore.” So for me, it's been really helpful in that way.
JAMEY: I think that there's two pieces of what you just described that have a similar result, but are different, which is trying to get funding because we live in capitalism and you need money to survive and to do things, which sucks and it's hard. And then on the other side, I think you have just this feeling about whether, or not you're being productive in that way.
Even if an artist doesn't need to make money off of something to pay their bills, I think there's a feeling of like, but if I'm not making money, then it’s not valuable, or it's not real, or it's not as valuable as something else that someone else is working on. Actually, that is also capitalism that made that happen, but I think that's a little bit more solvable maybe. It's hard for us to just decide that we're going to have a community without that kind of global economy. But I think we could decide that we're not going to hold ourselves to that in the way that we do, but that's a tough step to take, I think and it sounds like you have a whole group of people that have all taken that step.
AMELIA: Yeah. It's pretty incredible. I think we're all very diverse and don't agree on a lot of things, but the one thing that we do agree on is that the definition of having a full and creative life is only available to someone who does never need to work. Even if there are people in our group that might be true for, we all agree that that's not true, that you can have a full creative life and do many different jobs at many different times in your life for many different reasons.
That is the one thing that we've committed to is like having a day job doesn't kick you out of the club of being a activist, a creative, a dreamer, a thinker, and a world that that exists is a world that is actually quite creatively stifling. It's very stifling and we see that it ends up just reproducing a lot of commonality and there's only a small demographic of people then who gets to participate in it and they have a very small narrow grasp on the world.
I think we see that in a lot of our media that in order to participate in media, you have to be independently wealthy enough that you don't need to make any money from it and then those people tend to be a very small narrow demographic. And then you say, “Well, why don't we have all of our stories are told from this one perspective?” It's like, “Well, those are the only people that are allowed to do that work because it requires a full-time job where you don't make money.” Then of course, you 're going to get the same group of people [chuckles] that are going to tell the stories then.
So that's why we think about it of like, well, what could we make if we assume we have day jobs, if we assume we don't need money, what kind of projects can we make together, or how can we support each other and each other's projects all coming from a notion of there's not someone coming to save us and we're not looking to grab the attention of someone high up there. Rather, we're looking to our right and to our left of us and the people that are standing beside us and saying, “How do we move forward?”
JAMEY: I find that incredibly inspiring and empowering and it's something similar that I think about in comics a lot where people who are new to comics are often trying to get in with people that are already names in comics and really talented people that of course, you want to work with those people, but those people are doing something different than you if you're just a beginner.
I heard the advice when I was new, that's like, “Hey, don't reach out to me, reach out to people that are your peers, because me and my peers used to be like that and we all became successful together and what you need to do is make a group like that and then you become successful together.” I thought about that a ton since I heard it and I think I'm getting a similar vibe from what you're talking about that and I think it's beautiful.
AMELIA: Well, thank you so much, Jamey. You literally described the exact impetus for me forming this is I get a lot of talks weekly at universities and I had so many students after my talks be like, “Can we grab coffee? I'd love to pick your brain.” I look at my schedule and unfortunately, just because I have a full-time startup job and I do lots of advocacy and activism on the side, I was like, “Yeah, I'm going to be able to meet with you in like three months and that's not good.”
I want to be able to give more time to these people who have really valid questions, but I also don't think that I hold anything that they need. Like, I don't think that I'm the person standing in the path for their progression and I need to give them a hand up. In fact, I think what I do need to do is to give them a space where they can communicate with their peers, like you said, and I say that to them.
I say, “Look, I'm not brushing you off because you're not important. I'm taking myself out of this equation because I'm not important and you don't need me to tell you how to move forward, but you do need your peers and luckily, I've collected all of you from all of my talks into a group that meets weekly and you can all talk to each other, which is a much more valuable thing and I facilitate this. I've created this as a way of giving you a Zoom link that everyone can connect to each week, but you're going to connect with each other and you're going to meet hundreds of people around the world that are your peers, that will be your network, that will be the person to your left and to your right.”
I always say to people, “If you look to your left and your right and you don't see anyone, that's because there's somebody behind you, you need to pull up that you need to give a hand to.”
CORALINE: Oh, yeah. I've been doing a lot of that, thinking and talking about storytelling, and the value I place in storytelling and I'm also thinking about how can I give agency to other people to tell their stories? But one of the things that struck me when I was thinking about storytelling is for example, look at superheroes. Almost every white superhero is a lone actor. They don't have a community connection. They don’t have a family; they all died in a terrible accident.
AMELIA: Origin story, yeah.
CORALINE: Yeah, and that's the kind of stories we tell and it’s what we’re telling people. You have to be the hero. You have to be the most famous. You have to be the most rich.
I learned there's actually a name for different kinds of stories, there's a German word for it called bildungsroman, and I'm probably pronouncing that all wrong, but this is more what our stories used to be like. The entire story would be about the development of the hero and it's not the hero's journey like a Joseph Campbell thing, it's literally how they learn how to be who they are. We don't tell the stories, or the origin story that's highly dramatic and left behind as opposed to acknowledging that we're all flawed and that hopefully, we're all growing and that hopefully, we'll just be better people and that's enough.
AMELIA: Yeah, absolutely. My son, when he was a baby, he used to hate Disney movies because he would say [chuckles] they always have like the mom, or the dad always dies, something bad always happens to them in the beginning, and then the rest of the story is running from a trauma to find a perfect ending and this is like a 4-year-old telling me this. I'm like, “Yeah, that is the problem with the Western myth of the origin story,” and he was like, “But I want to just watch friends having fun together, telling each other jokes, going on a journey. I want it to look like my life. I want to see stories that look like my life,” and I'm like, “Yeah, well, you probably will find your stories in other spaces,” and he did.
He finds Minecraft, which is much more of a similar thing to his experience is we're collectively building our story through participating in a world on a server that we've negotiated the terms of and that's his fictional world and he still is that way. His generation is still that way. The Zoomers, I think tell stories in a more interactive and collective format and they're not as interested in media that comes from a single voice, which I think is cool, so. [chuckles]
JAMEY: I read some discourse recently about Studio Ghibli movies and people were talking about Studio Ghibli movies don't really have conflict and I thought that was confusing because obviously, there's lots of conflict in many of them. There's lots of problems and they solve the problems. I think that the thing that people mean when they say that isn't that there's actually no conflict, it's that there's room in those stories for quiet moments of reflection and that makes people feel like it's not conflict because you're having that space to sit with it and think about it and then continue. I think that's what is so relaxing about them. People will feel like, “I'm relaxed and so, it's not stressful and it's not conflict,” but it's giving yourself space to, I don't know, I already said it what I was going to say, so. [laughs]
AMELIA: That's really beautiful. I met this screenwriter once when I was in LA and I was really surprised by his point of view because he said a lot of people think that drama is violence, aggression, death, hardship, and he says the best drama that most people want to watch is a good person has to make a tough decision. I just loved that statement because it's true. That kind of drama, it doesn't have to just be this doom and gloom, or I'm taking in trauma and trauma there.
As soon as he just said that phrase to me, I was like, “Tell me more. What is the story?” I was like, “Tell me, I want to know the end of your story,” he's like, “No, no, no, that's every story I tell on TV. That is my story is like –” He's like, “This is why we love hospital dramas because it's like these doctors, they need to make a tough decision and it does have life, or death consequences, but they're saving lives, or the core concept is not about death and destruction and violence. The core concept is about them trying to save a life and make a tough decision and people love that.”
So the concept that people only like entertainment that has a lot of violence, or trauma and is like, okay, that's true and [laughs] actually people love to see a good person making a tough decision. So I always remember that when I think about storytelling.
CORALINE: Amelia, I really appreciate your sharing with us your story today and I think it's very inspiring and I think it's also really wonderful that it seems to connect to other things. It's not just your story, it's a collective story, but you are a force for bringing those stories to life and I really appreciate that. Giving people the space to tell their stories and [inaudible] their stories.
AMELIA: Oh, awesome. So thank you so much, Coraline and I see that Jamey thought of the name.
JAMEY: The term I was looking for is Ma. I don't actually know if I'm pronouncing that correctly, even though it's only two letters, M-A, but it's a Japanese word for negative space. Negative space is so important in design, white space is important in code, and the idea of negative space being important in a story, I think is really valuable.
AMELIA: That's really beautiful and I think as a collective, we always move slower and we move at the speed of the community and it changes the speed, or the way in which we tell stories, but it changes the value, I think in a positive way. Those of us who want to connect to our community can then see stories that reflect our own reality. So I think that's really beautiful. Maybe the Ma, or the space within community storytelling will be defined and have some terms someday. That'd be cool.
JAMEY: Maybe the kids from your story at the very beginning who made up the rock hand word will come up with a word for it for us. [chuckles]
AMELIA: Totally. Absolutely.
CORALINE: Amelia, thank you so much. It's been such a pleasure to have you on the show.
AMELIA: Thank you so much for having me. What a beautiful conversation and a beautiful afternoon conversation for me. So thank you for making sunshine happen for the rest of my day.
JAMEY: Thank you so much. This was really great.Support Greater Than Code