Things I can't change

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I wrote the following post at the end of May, 2014. It took me some time to get the guts to actually make it public. As someone who tries to work towards social good, I often grapple with my own history and the different roles different people play in social justice movements, based on their backgrounds. This post can be read in that context, as an effort to understand the things I can't change about myself, but which change the way I'm able to interact with the world and with the causes and efforts I care about.

There are some things about myself that I can't possibly ignore. Here's the thing: my ancestors are mostly from the United Kingdom, with a little smattering of other chunks of Europe. That includes, relatively recently, a little bit of Sweden in the form of my great grandfather, and far less recently, the people from what is presumably now Germany, who gave me my last name, handed down from father to son and changed along the way. So, there's another one: I can't ignore the place of patriarchal structures in my formation of identity. The reason my mother's last name has come to an end is that her father had no sons. None of his daughters gave their name to their own children, at least as a surname, because that has not historically been how patrimony works in Anglophone countries, in countries descended from and built upon British colonialism. Though my mother may use her own last name, and though it may be one of my middle names, as few as 27 years ago, it would not be reasonable or normal in English-speaking Canada to give a child born into a married home its mother's surname. I suspect that, when my parents got married somewhere in the range of 35 years ago, it was not at all usual for a woman to keep her own last name. But my mother damn well did. And I appreciate her for it. So points on that one, I suppose. But let's get back to the issue of heritage, and an area where I can claim no points at all.

My father's family came to Canada during or slightly after the American war of independence. They were United Empire Loyalists, loyal to the British Empire, loyal to the monarchy, not interested in supporting the American bid for independence from that empire. Early Canada was built on cheap and plentiful land. It's entirely possible, if my father's family did indeed move to Canada (though it was not yet called Canada at the time) at the appropriate time, that they were given free land, as a present for their loyalty to the crown. I can't erase that. I can't erase the decision those ancestors of mine made to stay loyal to the Crown and thus, to cross the border into territory that remained under British control. The Coons family moved to Upper Canada from New York, and then, when the West was being opened, on to Saskatchewan, where they remained until my father decided to take a job with the federal government, during his university days. I can't erase any of that. I can't erase the fact that, in Saskatchewan still (and much of the rest of Western Canada and, let's face it, the whole country), the relationship between those of European descent, like my family, and those they displaced has been, to put it exceptionally delicately, imperfect and profoundly unequal. It still is.

Likewise, I can't change the history of my mother's family, far better documented than the story of my father's antecedents. Based on the evidence of family histories, the best we can assume is that Alexander Burnett was the son of a man who did not want to spend his life as a farmer. There is no documented evidence that Alexander's father was a victim of the land enclosures, which were taking place in his native Scotland at roughly the same time as he took his decision to move to the city, rather than cultivate the land. That apparently voluntary un-agrarian streak lasted less than a generation. In the 1830s, Alexander and his family made the trek across the Atlantic ocean to what was still, at that point, not yet Canada. They settled in what is now Ontario, what was then Upper Canada, and essentially did not budge for 150 years, taking up the farming that Alexander's father had attempted to leave behind. My mother and her sisters were the first generation to urbanize, and, as such, the end of the Burnetts farming in their particular portion of Southern Ontario. I cannot change any of this.

So, we have a litany of things I am incapable of changing. I cannot change my heritage. I cannot change the fact that the vast majority of my ancestors are of British Isles or other European extraction. I cannot change the fact that European settlers in Canada often did horrific things. I do not know whether or not my ancestors were active in such activities but, by dint of their decisions to make their lives in this country, I do know that they were complicit. I know that many of my male ancestors were pillars of their communities, for all that means. And, given that it means things like active participation in the church, holding elected office, and working in definitively Canadian industries like mineral extraction, I certainly cannot hold my antecedents blameless for the wrongs committed on behalf of colonizing nations.

But the world marches on. Values change. Ideas that were once held sacred are thrown aside as inappropriate for where we've now arrived. Were I to step into a time machine and pay a visit to my great grandparents, I strongly suspect that they would find me abhorrent. My values are not in line with the values of their time, the values that led them to do the things they did. There is, as I have amply catalogued above, a whole litany of things I cannot change and cannot excuse. And they are the actions of the people who made me. They are the actions of the country that made me. They are the actions of the empire that made the culture I live in. They are my history, but they are not all that I have, or am, or aspire to be. Crucially, the differences that would make me unpalatable, at the very least, to my own ancestors, are what gives me hope for the world I live in today. My ability to walk down the street with comparatively little harassment, despite my, short, coloured hair; ambiguous appearance; loudmouth, leftist; vegan; whatever, is an indication that our world has changed. And that is a hopeful thing. I have often recalled the story of my great aunt, who lived her life as a spinster, simply because she wanted to marry a Catholic man. Her father sent her away, rather than let her marry someone of a religion he considered wrong. The magnitude of that, compared against the circumstances which in my life are entirely normal, is so vastly different. Though change may seem incremental, fraught, difficult when we view it in the scope of our own lives, that incremental change eventually builds into huge differences. Fighting for change seems frustrating when we forget that there is a long game. Things we fight for in our lifetimes, things we get harassed about or abused for will eventually become normal, so normal that we barely remember that once, they weren't.

Print your own Gendered Turing Test cards

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Accompanying my post about the Gendered Turing Test/Strategies for Concealing and Identifying Gender Online game, below are PDF versions of the card blanks, which can be printed out on 8.5x11 pieces of card, cut, and used to run the workshop.


DSC01093.JPGCrossposted from my research blog.

In the prelude to How We Became Posthuman, N. Katherine Hayles describes two different variations on the Turing test. The most famous one, the one many of us may know, involves a person using some kind of computerized chat interface to talk to either a computer, or a human in another room. It is the task of the test subject to determine, from conversation, whether their interlocutor is human or machine. Passing the Turing test has long been seen as one of the holy grails of artificial intelligence. When computers are able to pass as human, the argument goes, one of the distinctions between humans and computers dissolves.

Hayles also describes another Turing test. This one starts in the same way as the previous, with a human participant talking to someone in another room through a computerized chat interface. But in this one, the discussion partner on the other side is definitely human. The goal of the participant is, instead, to determine whether their conversation partner is male or female. If this second Turing test has similar stakes to the first, Hayles asks, does an ability to fool the participant negate the gender of the human on the other side?

One of the crucial questions raised by the gender Turing test, to my mind, is about the role of rigid, socially defined gender binaries. The test is predicated on an understanding that there are two genders, male and female, and that they each behave in a certain way. If we choose not to take this idea for granted, and instead decide that there is a vast spectrum of behaviour and appearance running from that which completely and stereotypically matches a gender, to that which is entirely opposed, the gendered Turing Test becomes impossible. How do we decide, from a textual discussion, what gender someone is if we do not require all people to adhere to a strict social script about their gender?

That second Turing test does do some valuable work for us: it highlights the importance of the visual in making judgments about gender. Many people feel entitled to understand another person's gender, based on their appearance. We sometimes hear the distressed question, whispered behind hands, "Is that a man or a woman?" In a space where those visual cues are not required, where we can present ourselves textually, or in ambiguous photos, appearance--that popular tool for determining gender--is not available.

There's a huge spectrum of ways that gender is represented, discussed, made an issue, or turned into infrastructure on the internet. Different platforms construct gender as an issue of varying importance. In some software development communities (on mailing lists, in IRC), it's generally considered impolite to ask people for personal details that they're not readily volunteering. A comment raised by this is the idea that many women don't get noticed or counted because they don't mention or make obvious their gender, because the default or un-gendered stated is considered to be male. If someone does not make it explicitly clear that she is a woman, she is assumed to be a man. If someone makes it explicitly clear that they are something other than simply a woman or man, it starts a discussion, which may or may not be welcome to the person who has accidentally instigated it. So on one side of this spectrum, there's communities where disclosing gender is not structurally necessary and speculation is entirely a private activity by individuals; on the other side of the spectrum, there are platforms like Facebook, where including a gender is a required activity in profile building, and where the default is man or woman, unless you choose to start writing in an answer, and then there's an authorized list of possibilities. Gender is built into the bedrock of Facebook. We take for granted that we can find out what gender someone is on Facebook. Moreso, we take for granted that we can find out what gender someone is, in general.

Using the analogy of the Turing test, I've devised a workshop which explores how we parse gender and gender representation when others are divorced from our bodies. I am trying to make legible issues around the gender binary and its supporting structures. There are a few concepts to work with in service of that goal: the gender Turing test and the idea of judging gender based on text-based interaction; technical systems which occupy different places on the spectrum of gender disclosure and, as a subset of that, the attitude of those systems to the inclusion of descriptors other than male or female; the ever-present comparison of the gender binary to binary, and the real spectrum of gender alignment as more like analog.

The workshop is structured around a kind of Turing test, in this case called the Strategies game. The Strategies game is a deliberately obfuscatory Turing test. Groups take on the role of either the agent trying to ascertain gender, or the agent trying to hide gender. All groups start by exploring their own cultural assumptions about gender and listing things that they see as essential signifiers. Some groups devote themselves to defining strategies for concealing gender online, others devise strategies for identifying gender. The agents trying to ascertain gender use their list to devise a system of winkling the information out of their opposing agent. The agents trying to hide their gender do similarly, attempting to devise systems which prevent the other side from ascertaining their gender. Strategies are listed on cards, which look like the cards used in card strategy games, or sports trading cards. Each strategy, whether its goal is to be revelatory or obfuscatory, goes on a card. Once the card-development session is done, groups nominate cards to go into a deck which will be used by one of the players in the Turing test.

Once the decks are made, based on educated guesses by the groups and each group contributing an equal number of cards to one of the two decks, everyone in the room closes their eyes. A volunteer is sought to play the role of the identifier. They are taken to a chair in the front of the room, facing a projection screen, and facing away from the rest of the group. With eyes still closed, another volunteer is sought, to be the concealer. They are taken out of the room, to a separated area equipped with a computer. The two players connect to some kind of chat client or collaborative editing platform (so far, I've used etherpad). Taking alternating turns, the two players use strategies listed on their respective decks of cards. Each strategy can only be used once. At the end of the session, when both players are out of cards, the identifier is asked if they believe they can identify the gender of the concealer. 

In asking participants to consider strategies for concealing and identifying gender, and in playing out a modified Turing test, this workshop tackles ideas of gender binaries, cultural gender scripts and requirements, the violence of forced disclosure, and the differing conditions under which we identify ourselves as gendered.

A stub on the naturalization of mixed case

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I'm writing something at the moment about why I don't capitalize my name. More on that little project soon. For the time being, a bit that I don't think will make it to the final version, but which I like enough to at least post here.

It's fascinating the way we naturalize mixed case names. Of all the government-issued ID I own, not a single piece shows my name in mixed case. All of those pieces of identification render my name all upper case. Based on the official registration of my name, there's a stronger case to be made for my name being GINGER COONS than Ginger Coons. Initial capitals are just a matter of convention.

If I turned my website into a taxonomy...

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ginger "all-lower-case" coons (a taxonomy)
    A. Writing
        A.0 PERSONAL
            - Blog
            - Twitter
            - Other
        A.1 ACADEMIC
            - Blog
            - Papers
            - Abstracts
            - Longer works
        A.2 OTHER
            - Libre Graphics magazine
            - Other

    B. Talking
        B.0 ART & DESIGN
            - About Libre Graphics magazine
            - About other projects
        B.1 ACADEMIC
            - Recorded talks
            - Slide decks
            - Workshop documentation

    C. Art & Design Work
            - Images of illustrations
            - Source files
        C.2 OTHER

    D. Contact Information
        D.0 EMAIL
            - General:
            - Academic:
        D.1 SOCIAL MEDIA
            - Twitter: @ossington

About putting up with harassment, and why we shouldn't

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There are very few things that make me feel this way now, but at the moment, I feel profoundly sad and disempowered. There's a discussion happening on the mailing list associated with a meeting I attend every year. Or at least, I've attended four out of the last five meetings. I've attended when I've been invited and felt welcome. And when I've hoped it would be a good experience. The discussion is about whether or not we should adopt a code of conduct for our upcoming meeting. There's some funding that's contingent on having a code of conduct. But aside from that, many members of the community feel (quite rightly, in my book), that having a code of conduct is important all on its own, even if there's not money attached to it. The conversation could be so simple. We need a code of conduct. Yes. Let's look at some existing ones. Instead, it's turned into a small minority trolling, trying to argue that a code of conduct is not only unnecessary, but is trampling their rights.

Let's be clear: I have been harassed twice at this meeting. I have had men yell at me and use me as a stand-in for all of the injustices they perceive women level against them. It's not a nice feeling. And that harassment happened the first year that I otherwise felt really welcome. I was invited by the organizers. I arrived a couple of days before the event started. I got to participate in all kinds of great things and meet amazing people. On the whole, it was a pretty good meeting for me that year. But that doesn't detract from how powerful the harassment was. I have been harassed since, in other places that should be safe. In all of these circumstances, I have had no real recourse. Generally, I'm a pretty strong person. I stand up for myself, I believe in my own worth, and I am more than capable of both fighting back and mobilizing support. These are traits that I've had to learn in order to exist and do work in F/LOSS communities. I have had to learn to have a thick skin and ignore things like people insulting me or suggesting that I should die (both have happened). I have had to learn to put up with men (always men, it seems) shouting in my face.

Not everyone should have to learn to put up with these things. These are not things that should be admissable in the course of daily life. These are not behaviours we should go to the walls to protect in the name of free speech and liberty. The last time I was harassed, I gave my own back. I calmly argued against my aggressor. I was in a crowded coffee shop on a university campus. He was yelling at me loudly. He went on for some time. I tried to stay rational and to meet his arguments. He was yelling at me because I'd said "Excuse me, but you were standing a little too close for my comfort when we were in line." He took this comment as an excuse to give me a tirade about how privileged women in university are, and how they assume sexual harassment at the smallest incident. I didn't. I just didn't like him stepping on my foot. I wanted to politely tell him so, in case he simply hadn't noticed. It didn't go well, clearly. No one intervened. No one paid attention. I was entirely on my own in a crowded coffee shop full of students. I walked back to my office, feeling angry. And when I sat down, that anger dissolved into tears. It's not easy to have someone verbally assault you in public. It's worse to have no recourse. I didn't know his name, and it's a big university. There was nothing I could do.

What distresses me about the mailing list discussion that started out this post is that there are people (like the man who verbally assaulted me in the coffee shop) who believe that the things they do aren't harmful. In F/LOSS communities, people bring up free speech as a means of protecting aggressors. They assume that a code of conduct will somehow make them less free. Unfortunately, the lack of a code of conduct makes many other people less free. I have learned to put up with or fight back against a hell of a lot in the five years I've been actively involved with F/LOSS. Not every new entrant to a community should have to do that. An interested newcomer should be able to discover the community without harassment or assault. There should be some recourse available to those who are on the receiving end of harassment. It should not be okay to tell people that they are lesser, that they don't belong, that they are deserving of hatred and bile.

I've never actually committed to writing before the fact that I was harrassed at a meeting I still attend. Or that I was verbally assaulted at the university where I study and work. Now I have. But the one thing I can't bring myself to do is participate in the mailing list discussion. I wish I could. I want to. But it scares me that the discussion is all in the abstract right now. No one has come out and said "I have been harrassed at our meeting." I worry that in an environment where safety and protection are being written off as unnecessary, an admission that I've been harrassed will not be well received. It will instead be the beginning of a potentially long and painful discussion, replete with ad hominem attacks, straw men and victim blaming. So here we are. The best I can do right now, short of exposing myself to more of the same.

Why I plan to bring poetry into my classroom

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This winter semester, for the fourth time in two and a half years, I'm going to be a teaching assistant on a first year writing course. Basically, I help teach new university students how to write properly. Most of them think they already know how. They mostly don't. Even though most of them have spent their entire lives operating in English, going to school in English, and reading and writing to what's defined by government curricula as an appropriate level of English proficiency, they just don't yet know how to operate at a university level. That's totally fine. One of the things you learn in university is how to read and write at a higher level than what's considered adequate for a high school graduate.

For reference, to get into a university in Ontario, an Ontario resident (which is what most of my students are) needs to have completed a course called ENG4U. That's grade 12 University Preparation English. That course follows three other academic-level English courses. Like any course, it comes with a set of expectations and learning outcomes. These are classed in four general categories: Oral Communication; Reading and Literature Studies; Writing; and Media Studies. By all accounts, the curriculum for ENG4U is pretty solid. The expectations for the four areas map closely to things that really are relevant in a university context. There's some great stuff on the importance of flexibility and skill building. The curriculum emphasizes the importance of seeing limitations in understanding, identifying areas for improvement and recognizing how skills from different areas can be applied to reading and writing. It's not the curriculum that's the problem.

The problem, to my mind at least, is the way current expectations about a university education colour the attitude students have towards learning. The increasing focus on employability as an outcome of a university education is a well documented and hotly debated problem. Some people think it's great that universities should focus on skills relevant to the current job market and useful to the economy. Some people think it's a shame that universities are becoming a source of vocational training, with specific, job-related skills being prioritized over more general critical thinking and research skills. Whichever side you come down on, there's one thing I think is less contestable: some skills are really difficult to teach in a routinized and measurable way.

Writing is a tough skill to teach and learn. Yes, English grammar has a huge collection of rules. But the rules aren't actually exhaustive. There is no one definitive book a student can read in order to become a competent writer. Writing is delicate and contextual. Writing is based on both an understanding of rules and a sensitivity for the situation in which it's being employed. Though I hate the word "intuitive," because it normally stands in for a whole collection of other desirable traits, becoming a good writer is a process that has a lot to do with intuition. We develop that intuition and contextual sensitivity by exposing ourselves to other competent writers. In other words, we become good readers and writers by practicing. We learn to discriminate between different kinds of writing by reading widely. That's how we learn what's appropriate in different contexts and, crucially, how we learn what we like.

One of the biggest influences on my writing when I was in high school was Douglas Adams. He's clever, spare and sarcastic. He's brilliant at incorporating a diverse set of influences into books that, even a couple decades on, still feel current. And he introduced me to the Romantic poets.

What's more, reading has always given me ammunition. When I was told in grade school never to start a sentence with "And" or "But," I ran to an example I found in an L.M. Montgomery book. What authority could my teacher possibly have when she was directly counter-indicated by the author of Anne of Green Gables? Reading helped me question rules and received wisdom. Reading allowed me to compare facts and form independent opinions.

Now, neither Douglas Adams nor L.M. Montgomery appear to directly explain why I think my students should be encountering poetry more often, especially since the two are known for their contribution to prose. What those two figures are, in my life, are examples of reading without a clear learning outcome. I read them both for fun. From their fiction, I not only got entertainment, but a lot of indirect learning. From both, I got an understanding of vocabulary and diction that I would not have encountered in my normal life. From Montgomery, I got a kind of English that hasn't been spoken in Canada in a hundred years. From Adams, I got words like "lucite" and "estate agent," terms that refer to concepts I know, but which were utterly foreign to me when I first read them. In short, the books and authors who have been most seminal in my life have been the ones who have broadened my horizons. I learned about different ways to approach and see the world, and it was fun.

I recognize that seeing reading as fun is not a universal. The increasingly practical nature of a university education makes it even more difficult to explain to students that having apparently aimless encounters with the written word can be useful. Getting them to do assigned readings, which have a clear relationship to the course content, is tough enough. They're overburdened and haven't yet developed the time management skills they need to accomplish what we ask of them. Generally, unless they can see an outcome or happen to have a passion for a particular subject, getting them to do more work than necessary is a tough sell.

This is where poetry comes in. Though I won't categorize all poetry as aimless, at the very least, it comes with fewer overt learning outcomes than most of the things my students read. By its nature, it is well crafted, walking a careful line between formal rules and creative interpretation. It requires careful diction. And it is determinedly foreign. For the population at large, poetry is not part of life. It is distinct from the kind of reading that most people do. This foreignness is the most compelling reason I see for bringing it into my classroom. Every decision in a poem is clearer. The deliberate nature of the language in a poem is highlighted by its deviation from the prose of assigned readings. It's distinct from the journalistic writing in the papers they read on the subway, from informational writing and from prose-y status updates.

This semester, I plan to bring more poetry into my classroom. Short, sweet poems that highlight careful choice and decision making in writing, while being so utterly foreign as to jog my students out of their normal way of reading and understanding. 
Once, when I was about 20, a close friend referred to me as "always right." She didn't mean it as a derogation. She simply meant that more often than not, when I came out with a fact, it would be one in which I had confidence. If I were to characterize that trait, I'd say that I like being able to believe in the things I say. That characterization as "always right" came, if memory serves, before I decided that I wanted to pursue a career in academia. The four and a half years I've now spent in grad school, first doing my master's degree and now in my doctorate, have changed the nature of my desire for rightness. On one hand, I've come to recognize that "right" is not necessarily possible. Facts are contextually dependent and often easily contested. On the other hand, that recognition of the difficulty of rightness has made me a pretty insufferable conversationalist when I talk to people about the things I study.

There are things I feel self-conscious about. Because one of the ways academics in my area achieve legitimacy is by reading, I often feel like a walking literature review. I worry about the amount of education that slips into my conversation. What's more, because expertise and depth of knowledge are necessary traits for scholars, I find myself obsessively passionate about things that are almost unknown to others. And I collect facts. That much hasn't changed, even if my conception of facts and truths has changed. All of this results in extreme caution on my part. I often avoid talking about the things I study and work on because I want to prevent myself from slipping into a lecture.

I can have a normal conversation. There are lots of things I care about and can talk about without having it become an accidental lecture. I can even talk pretty coherently to non-academics about some aspects of my work without feeling the need to substantiate my every statement. But there are areas that get me into trouble. There have been times, when a conversation starts turning towards my areas of study, that I've said something along the lines of "Watch out. We're getting into what I work on." That warning comes from a desire to not bulldoze the person I'm talking to or kill the conversation. It also comes from memories of previous frustrations. Walking the careful border between actually letting my expertise out and having the patience to not assert myself too forcefully is tough. It's my job to become expert in the areas I study. By necessity, there are subjects about which I have a different and deeper body of knowledge than most others do.

The worst case scenario in a casual conversation that moves too close to my work is frustration on both sides. We're having a totally normal conversation. It's nice. We're talking about subjects of mutual interest, on which the two of us have a pretty uniform level of knowledge. Chances are good that our knowledge comes from what we've read or watched in popular media, stuff meant for a generalist audience. Maybe we both read a feature article about it in a magazine or newspaper. Maybe we've dipped into some Wikipedia articles, or seen a documentary. We talk about the subject and, if things are going really well, maybe we discuss our different interpretations of what's going on in the situation. We supplement each other's knowledge with information we've collected from other sources. Your documentary, my Wikipedia article. "Gosh! I never knew that, but it makes a lot of sense." It's great.

And then the conversation veers. Somehow, we stumble into the thing that's currently consuming my life. Your knowledge is still on that general-but-interested level. You're into the subject, you've read around a bit. You have some opinions on the subject. It's leisure for you, something you look into a little in your off time. Somewhere below the level of a hobby. For me, it's not even just my work. It's not just the thing I read and think about at my desk every day. It's what I'm thinking about in the shower, on my walk to work, what I'm talking about with my colleagues when we have lunch or take a coffee break. It's something I spend months constructing careful arguments around. And those arguments are based on the work of all the academics who came before me in the area. My job is to synthesize a huge amount of other arguments, and my fieldwork, and turn it into something new, but grounded in the existing knowledge on the subject. It's not just the scholarly stuff, either. Because people know what I study, and because I'm connected into a network of people studying similar things, I'm constantly sent articles about the subject. I know academics who keep Google Alerts set up for keywords relating to their subjects of study. In short, one of the symptoms of doing the kind of work I do is being obsessively knowledgeable about one very small area.

That obsessive knowledge and constant learning is great for getting things done. It's a survival trait. It's less good in casual conversation. That's why I get a little flustered when our nice chat suddenly gets close to my area of study. Suddenly, I'm worried that one of us will come out unhappy, either because I've held back or because I haven't. It often feels like a no-win. I'll either end up accidentally lecturing, making you feel condescended to, or I'll come away from the conversation frustrated, feeling that there was so much I could have said but didn't, because I didn't want to come off as a pompous jerk. In these circumstances, the one thing I want to avoid doing at all costs is pull rank. I don't want to say that I probably know more about the subject than you do. I don't want to make you feel smaller. Sometimes, when trying to avoid that, I accidentally slip into it. It's tough to explain why I'd want to disengage just when the conversation is getting to something I know a lot about and am deeply interested in. The attempt to disengage may sound like I don't believe you can hold up to the conversation, like I don't think you're capable. But that's not it. I shy away from the subject because I've experienced the consequences before. It's tough to find a balance between the expertise that serves as credibility and currency in my vocation and the desire to be a polite, social human being having a nice conversation. For some subjects, I've learned coping mechanisms. I've gotten really good at handling discussions around the social impacts of 3D printing. For other subjects, especially the ones that are a little more obscure, it's more difficult. Sometimes, it's easier to attempt a polite disengagement, to avoid tension and stress. What may seem an interesting little conversational avenue to anyone else is, for me, a consuming passion and, for a time at least, the thing receiving the vast majority of my mental and emotional effort.

Why I opt out of full body scans at airports

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On average, I travel outside of Canada every other month. About half of those trips are to the United States. Many of my trips, both to the US and to the EU have involved the assumption on the part of security agents that I should subject myself to a full body scan in addition to the standard x-raying of baggage and walk through a metal detector. In the three years that I have been flying frequently, I have not yet chosen to accept the full body scan. I opt either for a pat-down in public or, if I happen to have extra time on my hands, a private pat-down. Time is key. My trip through security would certainly be faster if I acceded to the scan. In addition to a quicker, more hassle-free screening, I would be able to avoid having security agents do things like touching the area immediately below my bra band, or feeling inside the waistband of my pants, occasionally in public, in front of other travellers.

Given the inconvenience entailed, one might wonder why I opt out of the full body scan every time. Indeed, security agents often ask me why I am opting out. There are two frequently-cited reasons for opting out: fear of radiation, and concern over privacy. Neither of these are strictly my reason. Though debates about safety surround both backscatter scanners and millimetre wave scanners, I don't worry unduly about their impact on my body. Neither am I worried about a security agent seeing me "naked." If anything, the pat-down is more immediately and viscerally intrusive than any image a full body scanner might produce of my body. I am not worried by full body scanners. I object to them.

In particular, I object to the idea that anyone but me should have the power to create, control and potentially keep a highly-detailed image of my body. One of the features that makes full body scanning valuable, not just in security but also in consumer applications, is the precision of its imaging ability. Outside of their applications in airports, full body scanners are used in the apparel industry to take highly detailed measurements. Consider the sheer precision of measurement required to produce an accurate 3D model of a human body. Human bodies are detailed. All it takes for a woman to move from a size small to a size medium in a dress is an extra half inch on her waist measurement. We are creatures of small measurements. A meaningful 3D scan conforms to our scale, producing images which detail all of our external curves. Thus, part one of my objection: in submitting to full body scanners in airports, we allow ourselves to be minutely measured, but have no access to those measurements.

My objection is not to the idea that an unscrupulous agent might download an image of my body or in some other way use my image to prurient ends. Instead, the concern is what can ultimately be done with highly granular data about my body. In the course of daily life, no one normally has access to such data. The closest anyone comes to knowing my body is me, thanks to my embodied experience. Taking that privilege out of my hands, making it something I trade in order to fly, seems excessive. It goes beyond the questions asked at borders, which at least are germane to my trip. I object to using detailed information about my body as currency to speed my travel.

Detail is the determining factor for me in choosing to opt out and be patted down. Though the pat-down may be a temporary indignity, it is imprecise. The agent who pats me down has a momentary experience, focusing her attention on finding contraband or irregularities on my person. She is not taking thousands of measurements and writing them down. She does not have the capability to collect and remember highly detailed information about my body. She pats me down, finds no irregularities, and then forgets shortly after. Though governments using full body scanners make claims that their machines do not store or transmit images, display necessitates storage. It may not be long term storage, but it is a longer, more detailed memory of my body than that of the agent. It encompasses everything, not just the particular areas the agent covers. It is a far more perfect representation of my body than the agent can hope to achieve. This is why I opt out. I object to the production of highly detailed replicas of my body over which I have no control. I object to the assumption that others have the right to know more about me than I do.

A note about feeling valuable

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For the last few months, I've been having a crisis of self-confidence. I've been worrying that I've lost my politics, that I'm no longer sure exactly what I care about, and what matters to me.

If I were to write a letter to myself, reminding me of my values and politics, what would I highlight? Regardless of the relevance of those values and politics to my research, what do I care about? What are the features of my belief system that I think are totally invaluable and necessary?

There's a laundry list of items that I think matter. Equality. Agency. Choice. Self-determination. Caring for others and for the world around us.

Maybe most, I care about equality. It matters to me that everyone should have the ability to live their life without undue hardship. It drives me crazy that we live in a world in which some are wealthy beyond their needs and others are stretched beyond their means. It bothers me that the wealthy and privileged are consistently more able to live comfortably and achieve their goals than are the poor and unprivileged. In a sense, equality ties into agency here. I want everyone to have the opportunity to make real, significant decisions for themselves, and to feel that they have choice in their own lives. It doesn't seem like that's the prevailing condition for most people.

In fact, it may be hopelessness and disempowerment that bother me more than anything else. It bothers me that many people go through their lives doing the things that they feel are required of them, living as if they're constantly running on a treadmill of gradually but constantly increasing speed. There's an inequality issue here. For people of means, and for people with the empowered mindset that comes of privilege, there's very little question that life comes with choice. I see myself as an example of this. I have never doubted that I have a choice about what to do with my life. I have never had any doubt about my ability to earn a living wage. Though I may have debt, I have no doubt that I will be able to pay it back in short order. My choices are not crippling. They're adventures. I'm surrounded by people in the same position. Which makes it all the more difficult to realize that this is not the case for most people.

Lack of choice, lack of power, lack of flexibility: All of these are things I see increasingly in today's students, but cannot see in myself or my own peers. When I did my undergraduate degree, I had the luxury of studying design, getting a BFA. I didn't do it simply because I thought it would get me a job. The prospect of employability was a bonus. I did it because I was interested in it, because I cared about it. I chose my degree because I liked and was passionate about the subject. I don't see that passion in many students entering university now. So many of them seem to approach university as a value proposition. They're concerned about their employability, and about getting a good return on their educational investment. University is not optional now. The degree is a barrier to entry. It's yet another thing that young adults need to do in order to enter the world. My privilege came in the form of making a choice based on interest. My privilege came in the form of my parents supporting me. There's something both bourgeois and exceptionally WASPy about the system in my family: You get one degree for free, and then you cover any further education yourself. The fact that the children in my family get supported through an undergraduate degree is a supreme form of privilege. I had the luxury of moving across the country, of living on my own, of growing up and becoming an adult on my own terms, while pursuing an education that interested me profoundly, without having to worry about my return on investment. The degree is a bonus. I went to university because I wanted to learn. That's another kind of privilege. I had no doubt, coming out of high school, that I could make a go of my life somehow. I have never doubted that I will be fine. I have never doubted that my efforts will result in success.

That extreme confidence and comfort is something I've discussed with friends, other people who come from exceptionally secure upbringings. Even more secure than mine. My friends who went to private school have it in spades. They have no doubt that they're capable of succeeding at any pursuit they choose. So it may be that one of the most profound injustices I see in the world is one based on attitude. No teacher ever pulled me down so much that my parents or other caring adults in my life couldn't raise me back up. No one has ever been capable of convincing me that I am valueless. I am capable of being individual, of choosing for myself, because I have a built-in faith in myself and my choices. I believe that I am right in my decisions or, if not always right, at least able and capable. I have ownership over both my own success and my own failure. I believe in myself. It's not a blind self assurance, but it is a prevailing one.

The profound inequality is that not everyone feels this way. This may actually be the inequality that I care most about. The inequality is that people are routinely made to feel valueless or incompetent or stupid or unwanted and unsuccessful. As if their potential and ability somehow don't matter to the world. As if they can't make substantial change and impact. As if their actions don't change anything. As if they don't have the power to make substantial decisions. As if their lives are just collections of decisions made by circumstance. So there's a sort of inequality in self esteem, personal value and agency. That may be the inequality I care about most. In a way, I think what I'd like to see more of in the world is people believing that they have value, and that others have value. We suffer hugely from small-minded, bigoted and just plain vindictive people putting others down. The act of convincing someone that they are valueless is, to me, on of the most insidious forms of oppression.