Heavy Processing for Digital Materials (More Than A Feeling)
T.L. Cowan & Jas Rault
Part II: Central Processing Units: Trans- Feminist and Queer Manifestos and the Feminist Data Manifest-No Playlist
Feminists are rendered an always already obsolete technology that isn’t working properly.
– Sarah Sharma, “Manifesto for the Broken Machine” (Forthcoming Camera Obscura 104, Vol. 35.2, 2020, 173)
We refuse to operate under the assumption that risk and harm associated with data practices can be bounded to mean the same thing for everyone, everywhere, at every time. We commit to acknowledging how historical and systemic patterns of violence and exploitation produce differential vulnerabilities for communities.
– The Feminist Data Manifest-No, 2019
In August 2019, we were invited by Marika Cifor and Patricia Garcia to join the Feminist Data Workshop (a seminar awarded and supported by the Institute for the Research on Women and Gender at the University of Michigan). Along with other Feminist and Critical Race scholars of data cultures, politics and economies — Tonia Sutherland, Anna Lauren Hoffman, Anita Say Chan, Niloufar Salehi, Jennifer Rhode and Lisa Nakamura — we happily took part in three days of conversations which culminated in us all spending an extra half-day together making a first draft of the Feminist Data Manifest-No. Both during the days leading up to this collective and collaborative writing and in the months following as we re-wrote the Manifest-No, and in the months following its launch in November 2019, we did a lot of processing: a lot of talking about what would make it into the Manifest-No and how it would be structured; we clarified what we meant by talking, writing things out, then talking and writing into each other’s words as we drafted, and re-drafted and redrafted some more, reorganized, using the collaborative creation process not just as a conduit through which we got our ideas clearly on the page, but also as a process of iterative design and theory-building, coming to our ideas and changing them, as we worked on them together.
This was not our first manifesto. As a writing team, the two of us have come to think of manifestos as ‘Central Processing Units’ (CPUs). T.L. wrote the GLITTERfesto (2012), in which Jas had a significant advisory hand, and we are two of the authors of the FemTechNet Manifesto (2014). Why write in manifesto form? The CPU is the component which performs the processing inside a computer; and for us, the feminist manifesto form is often the site, source, product and generator of a whole lot of processing. Even when written by one (or two) people, we understand feminist manifestos as the output of hundreds of hours of process, of working in close conversation, collaboration, conflict and contradiction with others. They are also firestarters for even more processing, more conversations in pursuit of understanding and accountability, a reminder of unresolved differences of analysis both within trans- feminist queer (TFQ) worlds and beyond.
Shortly after the launch of the Feminist Data Manifest-No, several of the authors began to compile the Manifest-No Playlist — a collection of manifestos or similarly provocative texts that have shaped the current moment in Feminist Data Studies, Information Technologies, Science and Technology Studies, and Critical Digital Methods. The Manifest-No Playlist is drawn from ideas and contributions from our networks, solicited through Facebook and Twitter. In addition to texts that self-identify as manifestos, it also includes speeches, zines, essays and plenty of other forms. One of the ways that we framed our call for manifestos was in a post explaining that the Feminist Data Manifest-No was doing its “family tree.” Perhaps that is why we received the names of so many texts that might not typically be understood as manifestos, but, when read together, make sense as a collection, as a manifestation of a TFQ manifesto sensibility. Reading through the dozens of texts collected here, it became clear that our contributors interpreted the term manifesto in what the Oxford English Dictionary calls its “extended use” (and so do we): “manifesto, n. In extended use: a book or other work by a private individual [or collective] supporting a cause, propounding a theory or argument, or promoting a certain lifestyle” (OED 2000). In the brief introduction to the Manifest-No Playlist, we explain how manifestos function as information technology, as feminist processors:
manifestos are how feminists talk to each other, clarify our thinking. These are documents oriented to feminist accomplices, as we tweak our ideas, share risk, understand how privilege works to make life easier for white, cis-, settler, monied, educated, non-disabled women and queers than for Indigenous, Trans- Black and Brown, poor, working-class and disabled women and queers. Manifestos have been how we push our analysis and action forward, how we challenge each other, how we build our movements, our intellectual, social, artistic, community practices. They are how we confront and resist white supremacy, ableism, transphobia and transmisogny, homophobia, class privilege and resource-hoarding within feminist worlds, and how we speak to others, beyond feminist worlds about these manifestations, practices and structures of oppressive power. Manifestos have helped us to come to understand life in the digital era, in the era of big data, and to make connections between earlier structures of power, domination and oppression and liberation, joy, delight, solidarity, desire and pleasure. They also help us to respond, to refuse, to build our commitments. Manifestos are ways that we communicate rage and disappointment, abandonment and neglect by other feminists. Are they not one way that we yell at each other and demand better from each other? Certainly, manifestos are a way that we imagine and build new worlds and figure out how we want to be together in this world, as we learn from our mistakes. (“Introduction” Cowan, Rault, Garcia and Sutherland 2020)
Manifestos and their kin are the ultimate heavy processing genre. We draw from this Playlist, as an archive of heavy processing, from which to learn about and articulate this way of working together: this way of coming to understand what we are working on, why we are doing it at all, and why, indeed, are we doing it together. By calling in these texts, we are not seeking to create a new totalizing catch phrase, or to re-classify everything here as “heavy processing.” Rather, by naming our own influences, we hope to evince, imagine or build affinities based on ways of working, rather than based on academic disciplines, subject matter, nation, period, genre, and so on.
This becomes especially important for making connections within and across academic practice. Our focus here is on heavy processing within and across the ever-expanding fields of information studies, digital cultural studies, digital humanities, critical data studies, digital economies, internet studies, and so on. As we have indicated in an earlier essay, we believe that engaging with digital technologies in/as our research offers us a rare opportunity to defamiliarize and contest our often exploitative disciplinary practices and research norms (Cowan & Rault 2018).
Audre Lorde’s “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House” (1979) while perhaps not usually read as a manifesto, is a text that bears considering as a central processing unit. It is an address that calls for more processing and better action on the part of the white academic feminist organizers of the New York University Institute for the Humanities in 1979. While so many of us have been reading and teaching this text for decades, we want to consider what it can teach us about our digital research present. Lorde begins her address by offering context: this was a speaking invitation that she accepted “with the understanding that [she] would be commenting on papers dealing with the role of difference within the lives of American women: difference of race, sexuality, class, and age. The absence of these considerations weakens any feminist discussion of the personal and the political” (1979). She continues:
It is a particular academic arrogance to assume any discussion of feminist theory without examining our many differences, and without a significant input from poor women, Black and Third World women, and lesbians.
We want to suggest that Lorde’s rejection of the terms of this gathering — its arrogant exclusion of anyone who is not a white straight monied woman — is a call for more, better input. This conference has insufficient information. It strikes us that this foundational Black lesbian feminist text is a call for better information technologies.
What we are calling heavy processing is inspired by Lorde’s demand for better information technologies — for better tools of speaking and listening, for paying attention to how a gathering is designed, to whose knowledge, experience and information is solicited, who is welcome to speak and who is doing the listening. When “poor women, Black and Third World women, and lesbians” are excluded from feminist discussion, that discussion lacks the information that difference offers, or as Lorde puts it, it lacks “a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic” (1979). Heavy processing is this dialectical discussion, which requires difference, creativity and interdependence. As Lorde insists, “only within that interdependency of different strengths, acknowledged and equal, can the power to seek new ways of being in the world generate, as well as the courage and sustenance to act where there are no charters” (1979). Heavy processing is this seeking, this valuation of interdependent differences to build the courage and sustenance to act.
As Cait McKinney reminds us in Information Activism: A Queer History of Lesbian Media Technologies (2020), Lorde developed a theory of information that has been largely overlooked. Turning to the “Uses of the Erotic,” McKinney takes up Lorde’s argument that
the erotic “is a source of power and information” through which women can know the world differently in intimate collaboration. Lorde’s use of the term ‘information’ is not generally remarked on in turns to her theory of the erotic. Information implies that the erotic is in part a communication practice: the erotic transmits actionable knowledge between a scene and a woman who has opened herself to this kind of knowledge. (21)
Consentful heavy processing is a communication practice and information technology that can open us to this kind of knowledge. From Lorde we learn to orient ourselves to the intimate communication of difference — to more and different information: “As an erotic practice, providing access to information is more than just helping divergent publics find what they are looking for; it is a world-making gesture constructed by specific media interfaces and technologies to which users might open themselves” (McKinney 2020, 21-22). Heavy processing might be understood as one of the lesbian media inferfaces and technologies that McKinney traces back to Lorde.
Lorde also recognizes that “[a]nger is loaded with information and energy” (“Uses of Anger” Sister Outsider 1984, 127). In particular, she writes of the anger of women of colour in the face of the racism and narcissism of white women within the feminist movement, and in consciousness raising groups (hello, heavy processing). As Lorde explains, “Any discussion among women about racism must include the recognition and the use of anger. It must be direct and creative because it is crucial. We cannot allow our fear of anger to deflect us nor to seduce us into settling for anything less than the hard work of excavating honesty” (128-129). Processing information through, as, in anger requires feminist communication technologies for processing this information, directly, creatively, honestly, especially to deal with racism within feminist organizing.
The information and experience that produces, and is then communicated through, anger requires further feminist technologies of listening that process information into something more useful than (white) guilt:
Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it becomes no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge. Yet all too often, guilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness. (130)
It strikes us that when we begin to think about heavy processing as an information technology, this enables a whole range of possibilities for communication, learning and action. As white, settler queer scholars who first encountered Lorde’s Sister Outsider in Women’s Studies undergraduate classes in Canada in the 1990s, Lorde’s theory of information has shaped our adult lives, research priorities and values. We have both carried these texts as powerful tools in the never-ending process of re-training ourselves against the racist, white supremacist settler colonial beliefs that were imprinted on and into us in our childhoods and that we have absorbed throughout our lives. Trust between women of colour and white women, between Indigenous peoples and settlers, between heterosexual women and queers, between trans and non-trans feminists, between tenured (monied, over-resourced) and precariously employed (unmonied, de- and under-resourced) scholars, artists, and activists, can only be built with a respect for the learning that is possible when we understand how information is not only communicated in a low-key vibe, a quiet tone, with a calm demeanour, a disembodied voice, sitting still and pretty in pearls (though much awe to femmes who can pull off some raging pearls). Sometimes information yells. Sometimes information is seriously pissed off. The manifesto form teaches us this.
We might think of heavy processing as an information technology that runs what Kara Keeling (2014) has called a ‘Queer OS’. For Keeling, this operating system takes
historical, sociocultural, conceptual phenomena that currently shape our realities in deep and profound ways, such as race, gender, class, citizenship, and ability (to name those among the most active in the United States today), to be mutually constitutive with sexuality and with media and information technologies, thereby making it impossible to think any of them in isolation. (153)
Of course, this is an operating system that already exists and has been running work at the intersections of queer theory, new media studies, and technology studies for many years now. In this essay, we want to draw attention to heavy processing as one of this operating system’s core information technologies. We turn to TFQ manifestos to consider histories of scholarship, art, activism and community organizing together as a set of process-heavy efforts, analyses and praxes that power the OS.
The work we draw together here helps us to identify and break the common sense research norms that are co-constitutive with centuries-in-the-making social, geopolitical, sexual, cultural, and economic violence. For Keeling, “queer offers a way of making perceptible presently uncommon senses… [which] would be hospitable to, perhaps indeed crafted from, just and eccentric orientations within it” (2014, 153). Perhaps heavy processing, or a proclivity for and commitment to dialectical discussion sparked by difference and creativity (again, going back to Lorde), might just be one of the technologies Keeling had in mind when she writes about Queer OS as “a society-level operating system […] to facilitate and support imaginative, unexpected, and ethical relations between and among living beings and the environment, even when they have little, and perhaps nothing, in common” (2014, 154). Heavy processing describes a collective attempt to listen, speak and build understanding interdisciplinarily, intergenerationally, and across differences of race, class, gender, sex, citizenship, Indigeneity and nation.
Heavy Processing: A Painful Pleasure
In “The Transfeminist Manifesto,” Emi Koyama writes, “[e]very time a group of women previously silenced begins to speak out, other feminists are challenged to rethink their ideas of whom they represent and what they stand for” (2003). Furthermore, “[w]hile this process sometimes leads to a painful realization of our own biases and internalized oppressions as feminists, it eventually benefits the movement by widening our perspectives and constituency” (2003). Koyama identifies the exclusionary tendencies of (white, cisgender) feminism and emphasizes the reparative act of speaking (and speaking out) and its challenge for a concomitant collective knowledge transformation. But transformation always involves loss — the loss of what you thought you knew, who you thought you were, who and what you felt safe with — and this is painful. Indeed, feminist processing deals in pain because ‘realizing our own biases’ and ‘widening our perspectives’ means learning:
This is a learning made from the encounter with the hard-to-name affect and therefore involves making a relationship to the otherness of knowledge. Learning, in this sense, is the crisis of not being able to hold on to what you think you know and bearing it enough to make way for insight. (Georgis 2013, 17)
In her book, The Better Story: Queer Affects from the Middle East, Dina Georgis calls those hard-to-name affects queer, and learning means being undone by the queer disruption of otherness, of the dissolution of what you think you know. When the story that I’ve told (to myself) about myself — my relations to others, my place in the world, who, how and what I am — is put into crisis by the experience of (an encounter with) hard-to-name affects, a challenging otherness (sometimes the challenge issued by others), I can either hold on to my story (to what I think I know), or I can bear the crisis of letting it go for long enough to make way for something new (perhaps a better story). Heavy processing invites us into this painful, risky, transformative, relational experience of learning — of creating the better story.
To engage in heavy processing is, again borrowing Lorde’s words, to “descend into the chaos of knowledge and return with true visions of our future, along with the concomitant power to effect those changes which can bring that future into being” (1979). A willingness to attend to (descend into) the chaotic nature of knowledge and how we might bring that knowledge to bear on our futures — our relationships, politics, research, aesthetics and ways of working — is a TFQ processing core. It all requires a bit of hope and a perverse orientation to the painful pleasure of complexity.
In “Whose Feminism is it Anyway?” Koyama notes, “It is not the lack of knowledge or information that keeps oppression going; it is the lack of feminist compassion, conscience and principle.” As an information technology, heavy processing is not only about accessing, collecting, storing, sharing, and circulating information, but about being transformed by that information. As Koyama reminds us, more information is not always better information. One of the central fallacies of liberalism is the promise that all information will be treated equally, and so access to more information will necessarily lead to fair and just decisions. This has never been true. Heavy processing is a technology designed to recalibrate common sense valuations of information — where, as Keeling has put it, “common senses… secure those presently hegemonic social relations that can be characterized by domination, exploitation, oppression, and other violences” (2014, 154). Heavy processing works by creating value for information that is regularly, hegemonically, devalued — or reorienting us to uncommon senses of information.
In “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttransexual Manifesto” (2000), Sandy Stone offers us another gleaming gem. Reflecting on the emergence of Queer Theory, she writes, “beginnings are most delicate and critical periods in which, while the foundation stones are still exposed, it is necessary to pay exquisite attention to detail” (2000, 17). Heavy processing requires not only exquisite attention to detail, but an orientation to the pleasure in these foundation stones — an attraction to the details of citation, decision-making, planning, creating, feelings, and organizing that allows you to experience it as exquisite. This is echoed in the Zine Librarian’s Code of Ethics, where the authors brag, “[t]his document emerges from years of challenging and joyous conversations” (2015, 19). It is a special kind of orientation that experiences the pleasure of this way of working — and this special pleasure comes from a rigorous commitment to this orientation.
Let’s be clear: heavy processing is no picnic. It is a form of working that constantly interrogates relations of power, our complicity in those relations and our commitments to imagine and enact their transformation. As the Lesbian Avengers note, “The LACROP [Lesbian Avengers Civil Rights Organizing Project] model is one in which each lesbian is a part of the decision making process — each member helps determine what should be done and how. It is not a model of leaders and followers” (1995). However, they importantly acknowledge: “Our approach can be very trying. It can take a lot of time to make group decisions, while there are also some decisions which have to be made quickly without lots of time for processing” (1995). Even moving quickly takes a foundation of patience and time: time for explicit attention to the details of power within a group, and conscientiously, collectively signing on for the uncomfortable work of taking turns running meetings, making coffee, taking notes, booking and cleaning the space, speaking to the press, drafting the documents, and so on. Rather than simply falling into default settings of leaders and followers, heavy processing means figuring out how the meeting (or project) is going to run, and who is going to do what, before it even gets started.
The Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR) documents these commitments in their “Lab Book: a living manual of our values, guidelines, and protocols” (2018). CLEAR signals their “orientation to process”:
This means two things: first, we are focused on processes and methods rather than outcomes and findings as processes and methods are an opportunity to insert feminist politics/practices; and secondly, that we are devoted to change, and to flexible processes instead of fixed and rigid structures or rules for doing things. There are important differences between a rule bound structure and a system of processes and practices. The former is authoritative and resists humility, and the later is situated — responsive to what is happening, when, and with whom. (11)
Prioritizing what Stone calls the “exquisite” details of process in order to generate accountable, situated, responsive and better outcomes and findings continues in a long history of feminist science. For example, in Seizing the Means of Reproduction (2012), Michelle Murphy traces these politicized process-forward scientific methods through 1970s feminist self help collectives:
Feminist self help, as a protocol feminism… assembled together bodies, feelings, tools, modes of politicization, social interactions, relations of exchange, and emerging biomedical logics converging on questions of reproductive health in the 1970s. Unlike medical protocols, offered as rational and apolitical technical achievements, feminists saturated protocols with politics.
Feminist self help did not emphasize the term protocol, but instead talked of process, structure, procedures, and practice. Turning to the term protocol here helps to highlight the standardizable and transmissible components of feminist practices. (29)
Saturating protocols with politics means recognizing that every detail of research process is bound with assemblages of power and approaching each of these details as opportunities to address and intervene in those dynamics.
For example, the details of meeting. As CLEAR indicates, the work of re-organizing and re-orienting our practices away from forms that centre the individual, reproducing norms of domination (even within feminist organizing), requires collectively learning other ways of working. CLEAR runs meetings using
[f]acilitation [a]s a discussion method that aims to bring collective knowledge together. […] Facilitation addresses how different people in the room are more or less likely to speak, be heard, or be interrupted, and works to address those disparities. Facilitation is not intuitive. It’s a skill, and it has to be trained. (33)
This attention to the learned skills of facilitating discussion, of running a meeting so that more people can speak and be heard — to have better input and output — has long been central to feminist research process and protocol (ie. The Lesbian Avengers had rigorous feminist training for their meeting facilitators and changed facilitators every four weeks). An orientation to heavy processing means recognizing that even the smallest of details in how we work together can reproduce and normalize abusive relations of power and create bad findings, false outcomes, and incomplete information. “Seizing the means of reproduction,” to riff on Murphy, refers not only to reproductive health and justice, but also to which forms of organizing and which research values we choose to reproduce, and which we choose to prevent or abort.
Do No Harm
In their “Crip Technoscience Manifesto” (2019), Aimi Hamraie and Kelly Fritsch remind us that transformation and reinvention of knowledge is bound with the transformation and reinvention of materiality and worlds. They “call[…] attention to the powerful, messy, non-innocent, contradictory, and nevertheless crucial work of crip technoscience: practices of critique, alteration, and reinvention of our material-discursive world” (2). Reading through the texts gathered in the Manifest-No Playlist we see again and again, references to the crucial, transformational knowledge practices, training, skills-building, methods and protocols that are required for building better ways of building knowledge, better material-discursive worlds. These often require a recognition of the ways of working that we hope to not reproduce, and defining and identifying what we choose and commit to instead. Seeking out and working against what Lorde identifies as “the theory of racist feminism” is to refuse the Master’s Tools of “divide and conquer” and commit to an information technology of “define and empower” (1979). It strikes us that this is the method we tried to materialize in the Feminist Data Manifest-No. Each statement in the Manifest-No is constituted by a refusal paired with a commitment, or set of commitments — this configuration works as “critique, alteration, reinvention” (Hamraie and Fritsch 2019, 2). At its best, process begins with critique, crisis and conflict; takes that information and works towards a new, altered analysis; this new analysis creates a change in direction, tactics, and commitments; and comes up with a transformed way of working, better sets of questions, and more accountable ways of doing things and being in the world — reinvented protocols, relationships, renewed respect, redesigned and reconstructed spaces and norms.
Each statement of the Manifest-No identifies a critique, crisis, conflict or refusal and introduces the transformed, accountable ways of working to which our work is committed.
The Manifest-No is a declaration of refusal and commitment. It refuses harmful data regimes and commits to new data futures.
1. We refuse to operate under the assumption that risk and harm associated with data practices can be bounded to mean the same thing for everyone, everywhere, at every time. We commit to acknowledging how historical and systemic patterns of violence and exploitation produce differential vulnerabilities for communities.
9. We refuse a data regime of ultimatums, coercive permissions, pervasive cookie collecting, and blocked access. Not everyone can safely refuse or opt out without consequence or further harm. We commit to “no” being a real option in all online interactions with data-driven products and platforms and to enacting a new type of data regime that knits the “no” into its fabric.
While researchers and teachers with PhDs do not sign the hippocratic oath like medical doctors, justice-oriented scholars of digital culture, data, platforms, information systems, social media, archives and internet studies, are increasingly moving towards ‘do no harm’ methods. These scholars and the research communities they work with (students, research participants and collaborators) are increasingly calling for process-heavy methods, towards accountability with collaborators, and with a harm-reduction politics. These ways of working are informed by the recognition that process-light methods, which prioritize productivity, product and publication, tend to produce harm in research communities, especially in communities that are over-researched and under-resourced including Indigenous peoples, impoverished people, disabled people, sex workers, transgender and queer people, especially trans- and queer youth, and social media-makers, especially Black, Indigenous and other racialized and minoritized creators.
This renewed or reinvigorated commitment to harm-reduction might be in response to the augmentation of harm, risk, and dispossession enabled by internet economies — by platform capitalism but also online research publications and projects. That is, we continue to suspect that this relatively new environment of online research — both where we find materials and where we put materials — has intensified very old, normalized, legitimized, familiar and foundational forms of harm. And this intensification has reinvigorated collective calls (within and beyond academic research cultures) for more processing, more accountable process, for better digital methods to generate and use better information, and to use information in better ways. The call for more processing has, necessarily, come with the call for researchers to interrogate relations of power within a research project, and to interrogate and interrupt research temporalities.
For example, in 2015, the Centre for Solutions to Online Violence (CSOV) built a set of tools for researchers and educators thinking of using social media in their classrooms, projects or publications, particularly focusing on the ways that mis-use of social media posts constitutes a form of online (real) violence. The tools were created through a collaboration between members of FemTechNet and The Alchemists. The tool that most directly calls for better processing is the Respect Wheel, produced by Alchemists Bianca Laureno, I’Nasah Crockett, Maegan Ortiz, Jessica Marie Johnson, Sydette Harry, Izetta Mobley, and Danielle Cole:
This guide is intended to help creators slow down and consider the ways they cite and utilize information both on and off the web. Any educator, social media user, researcher, artist and/or writer could benefit from taking the time to consider these questions when utilizing citation in their work, particularly if it comes from marginalized individuals and/or communities. (2015)
The Alchemists recalibrate research temporalities from the perspective of broader research communities — including the people whose work becomes our data, evidence, or other research materials. Produced in the form of sixty questions distributed across eight rubrics — Self-Awareness, Equity, Communication, Self-Care, Intention vs. Impact, Accountability, Solidarity — the Respect Wheel gives researchers a helping hand to initiate their research process, by doing the work of researching backwards, and inwards. Before we even begin to interrogate our own research agenda, we need to ask ourselves questions like:
Who do you work for? Are you being paid for your work? Was the person/people being cited paid for their work? What communities are you citing from? Do you plan to cite the communities you’ve gained knowledge from at all? Is it accessible to communities with limited access? How can your work be used to gain more equitable access to resources from the communities you may be making a career from? Why are you creating what you are creating? If your work cites or focuses on a particular community or group, are you willing to receive critique around the language or use of citation? How can you best protect those you cite or utilize for shaping a project from a potential negative impact? Who receives credit for their work and who doesn’t? Did you inform the person you were using their work? Are you willing to have a conversation about how you may/not be able to use the work? Are you willing to accept NO for an answer? (2015)
These questions are an invitation to refuse conventionalised academic and journalistic research processes, and commit to what we are calling heavy processing. Prioritizing the research values that The Alchemists identify means asking the kinds of questions that might stall a research project or stop it altogether.
Heavy processing has consequences for researchers, involves listening to research communities, prioritizing the risk analysis and desired benefits of research participants and collaborators over those of the researcher’s career, brand, or professional prestige. Having been in precarious academic appointments ourselves for many years, we know that many researchers are not securely employed, and might feel just as insecure as their research participants. For this reason, in one of our first essays about digital research methods and ethics, on “The Labour of Being Studied” (2014), we we concluded with a set of processing questions that seek to unsettle the normalized economic disparities that exist within research culture and to figure out ways to work reciprocally, not only through the faux cultural capital logics of an exposure economy, in which academics coax (and hoax) underpaid artists, activists and media-makers to do work for free in exchange for a citation and the “exposure” of being included in academic publications. As the artist Alexis O’Hara has wisely noted, “You can die of exposure” (qtd. in Cowan 2017). In addition to building consentful relationships we also need to recognize and contend with the many forms of power that inflect our research.
Fail to Deliver
Heavy processing is not an efficient information technology. Refusing efficiency, it operates as what Sarah Sharma calls the Broken Machine. In her forthcoming “Manifesto for the Broken Machine,” Sharma traces some of the techbrocultural conflations of technology with women, and asks, “What happens when the machine world no longer reciprocates man’s love and instead questions his power? (Sharma forthcoming in Camera Obscura 2020, 173). When “[f]eminists are rendered an always already obsolete technology that isn’t working properly” (Sharma 2020, 173), we find the ripe imaginative grounds for a technological revolution we can get behind. The Broken Machine refuses to work properly because
[s]ocial injustice is inextricable from the specific machine logics of reigning technologies. And if the medium is indeed the message, then the perspective of the Broken Machine also offers feminism a mode of resistance (Sharma 2020, 174).
Rather than processing an initial set of information and spitting out an expected result, a finished project, a final product, the Broken Machine might choose to permanently set itself on heavy processing mode and never achieve or not even seek to achieve any of these deliverables. Broken machines fail or refuse to deliver.
Taking up Keeling’s Queer OS in terms similar to Sharma’s Broken Machine, Fiona Barnett and collaborators explain, “QueerOS thereby embraces uncertainty. It welcomes crashes” (Barnett, Blas, Cárdenas, Gaboury, Johnson, and Rhee “Queer OS: A User’s Manual” 2016). QueerOS will only accept apps that prioritize “Process, not product: QueerOS apps are not black-boxed and they are not commodities; rather, they are collectively worked on, never in a state of completion” (Barnett et. al. 2016). TFQ broken research machines, for example, might choose to work backwards: go back for more information, interrogate its conditions of formation, ask for context and consent and find ways to reciprocate before they will even start to process the input. Broken machines are self-critical about how they might process that information differently. Broken machines talk to each other and ask questions of themselves.
Broken Machines process together: “What greater threat to the abuser than to learn that their machines would talk to other machines? You can almost hear the haunting sound of the true new machine learning going something like this: ‘Me too, me too, me too’” (Sharma 2020, 175). They talk to each other to generate new power sources,
Broken Machines have capacity for others when others are drained because they seek and find communal care rather than return to those original power sources that are simultaneously draining. Convenience, time-saving, and reveling in the novel temporal modes of new technologies are a technocapitalist and patriarchal ploy. The Broken Machine knows this. (Sharma 2020, 176)
This time-consuming, inconvenient, heavy processing — talking and researching ourselves beyond technocapitalist patriarchal power networks — is our sustainable energy. As a function of the broken machine, heavy processes work to divest from unsustainable power sources, and not only fail to produce and reproduce output in common sense ways, but also unsettle and break the codes of our contemporary research cultures and knowledge economies.
In Part III of this Heavy Processing series, we focus on the collective, community, pedagogical and academic work in critical data studies and digital humanities that foreground praxes of process and contextual accountability.
Our ideas about heavy processing have been encouraged, informed and re-formed in the context of many important relationships and friendships, and ongoing discussions with students including Jessica Lapp, Carina (Islandia) Guzmán, Itzayana Gutiérrez, Moska Rokay, Henria Aton, Stephen Lawson, Elisha Lim, Nelanthi Hewa and Chido Muchemwa; as well as research fellows Jessica Caporusso, Sara Shroff, Naveen Minai, Cass Adair and Emily Simmonds; and many, many colleagues and friends including those here at the University of Toronto who we met in the context of the Refusal and Repair Working Group, the Consent and Its Discontents Working Group and the Monday Night Seminars at the McLuhan Centre for Culture and Technology; the Technoscience Research Unit (TRU); everyone involved in “The Labour of Being Studied/ The Labour of Refusing to Be Studied” workshop at U of T (thank you Jackman Humanities Institute); friends and colleagues near and far in the Feminist Data Manifest-No Workshop, the Feminist Technology Network (FemTechNet) and the Centre for Solutions to Online Violence (CSOV); everyone involved in the Digital Non-Neutrality: Decolonizing and Queering DH series (WGSS) and the DH Lab at Yale University; and our Feminist Mutual Mentoring group at The New School. Special thank you to Cait McKinney for a massively generous early reading of this series.
In the coming weeks and months, we will be posting new work on heavy processing in this More than a Feeling series. Watch out for upcoming posts, including Jessica Lapp’s take on Heavy Processing in feminist archiving.