Mirror from Constant's etherpad <https://pad.constantvzw.org/p/elephant> (17/07/2019)


It has been a while now that Constant* is trying to address cultural institutions (that we love and respect!) about their use of commercial platforms and proprietary technology. It is always awkward to bring these things up, because it can easily feel like blaming and also Constant cannot but actually does not want to solve these issues for others. So how then to communicate the urgency for change, to talk about the potential but also the responsibility of institutions to do things differently? How to do that in a generous and maybe even poetic way? We started writing this letter, imagining that it can be completed, copied, changed and sent by other people with the same concerns. It is far from perfect, but this is how far we got. We’ll keep on trying!

All the best,


“Dear cultural institution,

There is an elephant in the room! You and many of your colleagues confided your institutions’ networked communication, some of your digital archives and also your collaboration tools to tech giants. You rely more and more on so-called ‘free’ services provided by Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook. You know already that these tools and platforms are infused with capitalist values, modernist ideas of progress and dreams of seamlessness. You are of course aware that the Terms of Use you once signed do not give you any agency over your data, let alone over the organising logic of the infrastructure. It raises issues of institutional framing and sustainability. What does it mean that you communicate through commercial platforms? What would become of your documents if Dropbox / YouTube / Google Drive / Facebook / WhatsApp ... radically changed its terms of service?

By ignoring the elephant in the room, you seem to accept that your computational practice depends on the fortunes of Sillicon Valley billiardaires. You allow tech giants to embed themselves into institutional life, into publicly funded cultural initiatives, including ones that are dedicated to transformation, political love and commoning. You pull your public, your participants, your co-workers, your students deeper into the intricate webs of commercial agencies that weave themselves into and around us. By continuing to unstate the presence of the GAFAM corporations at work in your institution, you contribute to the proliferation of personal and professional practices that constrain the possibilities of life, in order for everyone to be always available, optimised and surveyed, to provide ever more data, more quantifiable outcomes.

This is not just about replacing one toolset with 'fairer' ones, although it is part of it obviously. It is first of all about taking time to foreground processes that tech-giants want us to stay out of sight. To learn together how to experience technology differently, to develop convivial and critical relationships that foreground vulnerability, mutual dependency and care-taking. It means to study, to discuss and to experiment. Collectively, we can develop other imaginations for what technology could mean. It is a process of transition: from expecting efficiency to allowing curiosity; from scarcity to multiplicity and from solution to possibility.

It can be as simple as taking a moment to read the terms of use. Or to sit together with your team and discuss what could be different in your workflow. You can start using community-run decentralised services offered by one of the organisations listed below. Maybe you replace some of your proprietary software by Free, Libre and Open Source tools. Or install non-proprietary operating systems like Ubuntu on your office machines. You can start using an independent mailservice, share files through services hosted on your own server or on the servers of neighbouring organisations. You can quit Facebook, or cancel your Google accounts. You can report bugs, and collaborate with developer teams to give valuable feedback about the tools you use in or need for your institution. Of course someone has to take care of these processes, and sustain them. But you can collaborate with other organisations to make this happen.

This is where you as a cultural institution present an opportunity. A beginning of a transition towards affective infrastructures of people, tools, protocols, platforms, and practices.

Discussions, campaigns, further reading:


Providers of Free, Libre and Open Source on-line services:

*Constant is a non-profit association, based in Brussels since 1997, collectively run and active in the field between art, media and technology. Constant develops, researches and experiments on the intersection of feminismes, copyleft, Free/Libre + Open Source Software.




Manifestly Haraway, Donna Haraway discussing with Cary Wolfe, 2016:
cw: Let’s start with a problem that we all agree we share.
dh: We all share this problem, and we all have very different ideas about what to do about it. That’s already hard enough. That does not mean the science is not settled on climate change, or that relativism reigns; it does mean learning to compose possible ongoingness inside relentlessly diffracting worlds. And we need resolutely to keep cosmopolitical practices going here, focusing on those practices that can build a common-enough world. Bruno says this, too. Common is not capital C. "Common.” How can we build—compose—a better water policy in the state of California and its various, many parts? How can we truly learn to compose rather than decry or impose?

Ulises A. Mejias in Fibreculture Journal 20: Liberation Technology and the Arab Spring: From Utopia to Atopia and Beyond, 2012:
« A typical drawing of a network depicts a series of nodes connected by lines, representing the links. As a mental exercise, I want to call attention to the space between the nodes. This space surrounding the nodes is not blank, and we can even give it a name: the paranodal. Because of nodocentrism we tend to see only the nodes in a network, but the space between nodes is not empty, it is inhabited by multitudes of paranodes that simply do not conform to the organising logic of the network, and cannot be seen through the algorithms of the network. The paranodal is not a utopia—it is not nowhere, but somewhere (beyond the nodes). It is not a heterotopia, since it is not outside the network but within it as well. The paranodal is an atopia, because it constitutes a difference that is everywhere. »

Wendy Chun, Control and Freedom: Power and control in the age of fiberoptics, 2006:
« We must explore the democratic potential of communications technologies – a potential that stems from our vulnerabilities rather than our control. And we must face and seize freedom with determination rather than fear and alibis. »

Lauren Berlant, The commons: Infrastructures for troubling times, 2016:
« What remains for our pedagogy of unlearning is to build affective infrastructures that admit the work of desire as the work of an aspirational ambivalence. What remains is the potential we have to common infrastructures that absorb the blows of our agressive need for the world to accommodate us. »