FACT///.forum review , March 2019

FACT///.forum @Sussex Humanities Lab, March 2019

In March 2019, we held our first FACT Network event. FACT, Feminist Approaches to Computational Technology, was born from a desire to form, and support, a community around issues related to representation, diversity and 
inclusion within the broad area of computational practices and thinking. It seeks to create an active network and community that supports, and encourage alternative demographics in current digital spaces, environments and practices from which computational thinking is made possible.

Our inaugural event was an informal meet-up which asked participants to discuss a number of questions based upon our assumptions of why FACT/// is needed. We asked, for example, why is there a need for feminist approaches to technology, what might a feminist approach look like and what are the unconscious bias’ that exist in our current environments (on campus, in industry, in education, in society). We were interested in identifying, and thereafter challenging, our own as well as others’, unconscious cultural bias which undermine broader demographic participation in the broad field of computer science and computational practices and theory which influence the world we live, and “compute”, in.

Unsurprisingly, we were prompted to position the perspective of the forum - that is which field or experience informs our current thinking on FACT///. For example, Sharon’s experience with computer science as an undergraduate 
student is a different to Cecile’s experience of computational art. Both clearly locate a similar problem but are grounded by and through different challenges and responses to those challenges. We found thinking through discipline specific experiences restrictive - there are overlaps but also significant disjoints or nuanced disconnections (i.e. are there irreconcilable practices and thinking that make trans-disciplinary discussions impossible in the first instance?).

Additionally, at which point do we see a feminist approach or intervention necessary and/or required? Several members pointed to algorithmic bias as the logical outcome or conclusion of cultural and societal bias in  computational systems and environments - how might we intervene in this area when it is the underlying systems, which are at fault, feeding, and perpetuating, bias’ in the (computational) world.

We posed a question around ‘unconscious bias’ which prompted a useful response - if we claim bias is unconscious are we removing agency or responsibility from the individual? Caroline Bassett, with Kate, Sharon, Rachel and Heather, provided an alternative view on the question, ‘What are unconscious bias in these environments?’ Instead of a static question around unconscious bias, the group proposed a dynamic formula as follows:

What <<insert type>> bias exists in <<insert environment>> in <<insert context or time>>?

For example, What <<structural>> bias exists in <<computer science>> in <<the 1980s>>? What <<gender>> bias exists in <<computer culture>> in <<the home>>? What <<willful>> bias exists in <<digital humanities>> in <<the 
contemporary moment>>?

Bias are not static, nor are the environments and context in which they exist and perpetuate. Framing our discussions with an adjustable context and experience driven range of questions on bias allows us, as a network, 
to include and react to the broad range of questions and individual or collective perspectives. We asked whether bias was centred on technique, ability, cultural capital, social capital, demographics or something entirely different. So what can a network like FACT/// do in these aggravating circumstances and build upon the positive work also highlighted during our discussions? For example, building on the work of the STS reading group and the various local coding initiatives.

The group identified the following actions:
- A feminist coding project (e.g. hackathon, wikithon, re-tooling, activism …) that builds capacity for sustainable skills.
- Capturing the story and history of women now retired from Sussex Informatics to celebrate and acknowledge their contributions.
- An STS redux which invites members to re-circulate existing publications among the group in order to discuss each others work.
- A writing group where members could share and review work in progress.
- To create a variety of different regular investments for individuals to participate in since it is not always possible, given time constraints and family commitments, to attend day long or extended seminars or events. For example, a lunch, a code, reading group, mentoring workshops
- Create a core organising committee but ensure parity in the division of labour.
- Some of these actions require funds while others requires our time and of course, our labour. Most important, however, is that we begin to meet regularly so we can establish the network’s remit. So, our next meet-up is a social event on Thursday 9th May in the SHL garden.

Sharon Webb, Cécile Chevalier & FACT/// 2019