Toward a Minor Tech:Niederberger
Taking and Giving Care.
Subjectivity of small technology in the Wishlist for *Transfeminist Servers
One of the first thing users moving to the Fediverse are encountering is the need to choose a server. The Fediverse is not a single app or service, it is a network of different servers, called instances. A server is a basic component of network technology, it is where data is stored, where protocols connect to and interaction is handled. However, when it comes to big technology platforms, servers have disappeared in favour of services that are abstracted from specific machines, their local contexts and the practices needed to make them exist.
Turning towards small technology in a lot of cases means returning to a server, returning from an abstract space to a specific context. When the Fediverse asks users to pick a server, it asks about what specific context they want to join. And in order to answer this, users need to identify themselves in different ways than on big technology platforms. There, everybody is simply a user, and this is enough to identify with in order to participate. But what is a user?
The subject position of the user
The user is a specific subject position offered to people participating in technological practice. It has been brought forward through decades of techno-economic development in computing, from its transformation from a practice into a product and then increasingly into a service. This process set the user apart from other subject position like the programmer, the hacker, or the nerd. Today, the user is a consumer, and user agency is mostly cast as consumer choice.
When users leave big technology, they are confronted with the limits of their subject position of the user as a consumer, which is often experienced as a crisis. Subject positions themselves are cultural imaginations (Goriunova: 2021). We can think of subject positions as role models or figurations, they offer a position in the world, a perspective, from which to make sense of the world and ourselves. They work as a background for individual subjectivity, but are different to it: they are not individual but shared, and they live and develop in the cultural domain. As Goriunova insist, they are not only descriptive, but also aesthetic positions in the sense that they formulate a position from where practice is possible, from where it is possible to remake the world. When small technology is asking for another subject position than the user as a consumer, how can such an alternative subject position be developed without falling into the old pattern of passive consumer vs active techie?
One creative way about thinking otherwise about technology is formulated by The Wishlist for *TransFeminist Servers (2022), which is an actualisation of an older text, the Feminist Server Manifesto (2014). Both texts are collaboratively written by communities of people „interested in digital discomfort“ as the Wishlist puts it.
Servers as protagonist
Both the Manifesto and the Wishlist choose the server as their protagonist. A protagonist is what Goriunova calls in reference to Deleuze a figure of thought that offers „a point of view, a position, from which a territory can be mapped and creatively produced“ (Goriunova: 2021). While we are stuck with the unhelpful subject position of the user, the Wishlist and the Manifesto offer a new perspective and a new territory by using the server as a protagonist.
At the root of the many conversations leading to the Manifesto and later the Wishlist lies a question: „Are you being served?“ was the title of a worksession, an extended event or workshop at Constant, an artist-run space in Brussels, happening in 2014. During three days, artists and practitioners met to discuss concepts and exchange alternative practices involved with servers (Constant: 2015). The question of servitude is central: who is being served, and under what conditions? Centering the server as a protagonist is decentering the user, and with it the notions of use-fullness and use-ability with their focus on functionality, efficiency, scaleability and immediacy that are markers of big technology’s abstraction. This change of perspective also sheds another light on consumerist big technologies and the subjectivities they invoke but never fully articulate: while users should be on the receiving end of servitude, they are so only under very specific conditions marked by privilege: the chances of being served are not equally distributed, and often vulnerable communities find themselves and their content not protected by consumer technology platforms. The extractive practices of data capitalism introduces new vulnerabilities to consumerism, and new subject positions have arisen also through critical analysis: „the data source“, which unadorned means „the exploited“ (Zuboff: 2019), or „the colonised“ (Couldry & Mejias 2019).
But for the (*Trans)feminist Server servitude is not something to avoid or to overcome. It is part of a set of „promisquitive practices of networking“, in „a swamp of interdependencies“. The territory offered by the (*Trans)feminist Server is not structured by a desire for autonomy, but by affection. As both texts insist: (*Trans)feminist Servers exist only because they are cared for by a community, because the need of having them is expressed in acts of making them exist. Use here is not an act of consumption, but of creation and re-creation. Feminist servers do not only exist as thinking tools, but also as inhabited spaces (Snelting & Spideralex: 2018).
Servitude is for the *Trans(Feminist)Server a relationship of care, and not of extraction. This foregrounds practices of care: administration, maintenance and moderation, the whole work of making a community work, cannot be abstracted away from the server (in contrast to big technology, where it often means outsourcing to low pay gig workers). Being part of a (Trans)feminist Server means being part of an ongoing negotiation of the conditions for serving and service. It is an ongoing practice of digital discomfort, but also of joy and love.
Constant. 2014. [Version 0.1] A Feminist Server. https://transhackfeminist.noblogs.org/post/2014/06/03/version-0-1-a-feminist-server-constantvzw/.
Couldry, Nick, und Ulises Mejias. 2019. The Cost of Connection. How Data Is Colonizing Human Life and Appropriating It for Capitalism. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
Goriunova, Olga. 2021. „Uploading our libraries: the subjects of art and knowledge commons“. In Aesthetics of The Commons, eds. Felix Stalder, Cornelia Sollfrank, and Shusha Niederberger. Zurich / Berlin: Diaphanes.
Snelting, Femke, and Spideralex. 2018. Forms of Ongoingness. Interview by Cornelia Sollfrank. https://creatingcommons.zhdk.ch/forms-of-ongoingness/.
A Wishlist for Trans*feminist Servers. 2022. https://etherpad.mur.at/p/tfs.
Zuboff, Shoshana. 2019. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. PublicAffairs.