by Lauren Lee McCarthy
Each year, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), a nonprofit organization where web technologies like HTML and CSS are designed and standardized, organizes a week-long meeting of its entire community. This meeting, known as TPAC (Technical Plenary & Advisory Committee meeting), has one portion dedicated to public breakout sessions, where topics range from how to get started contributing to W3C, to privacy and security in HTML, web accessibility, WebXR, and other new technology standards on the web. This year, I worked in collaboration with W3C and Bocoup to curate some newbie- and artist-friendly sessions. These sessions opened wide-ranging conversations between W3C contributors, p5.js and Processing community members, and many that were participating in the W3C community directly for the first time. Here’s my recap of the sessions.
Creative Imagination for an Ethical Web
Mindy Seu introduced her recent cyberfeminismindex.com project, which aims to trace cyberfeminism from the ’90s to today, bringing together global and intersectional perspectives, working in a way that is permeable, open-source, and crowd-sourced. I especially appreciated Mindy’s comments about design and form when considering how the index would be presented, and her reference of Paul Soullelis’ idea of “download as an act of protest.”
Ashley Jane Lewis presented her practice, which is grounded in ideas of Afrofuturism, and her thinking about speculative justice and community engagement within art and tech. In Investing in Futures: Beyond Policing, Ashley worked with a team to create a card game of creative constraints that asked participants to collaboratively imagine a world where community is based not on policing but on care. She also discussed her work with ml5.js, which is an open-source machine-learning tool and a sister project to p5.js. Within that project, she has been leading an effort to reconsider the role of codes of conduct and community agreements, asking “How do we articulate our responsibilities to the community?”
Amelia Winger-Bearskin opened by noting that when Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were drafting the U.S. Constitution they spent time learning from the Iroquois Confederacy. Many of the principles of the Constitution were directly based on their confederacy, but they left out ideas about the social and cultural networks that sustain the Iroquois Confederacy. Amelia points out how this “I see it, I like it, I want it, I take it” approach is still embedded in tech today, which she likens to building a project without checking its dependencies. As she put it, “The problem with colonial mindset is one of underfitting: extracting an idea without the context that made that idea work in the first place.” She urged us not to ignore data, but to seek data and perspectives from diverse sources. “Don’t colonize our future!”
Finally, shawné michaelain holloway read from her paper, “Of the Web as Homefront: In Regard to Freedoms of Speech and Freedoms In General,” which urgently called for a rethinking of the web. She pushed us to become aware of our encoded expectations, saying “When [the web as we know it] became the internet standard, the white, linear, page-focused, copycat structure of the book became locked into our imagination and has since dictated what kinds of content can and should be created for the entirety of the digital space.” Instead, she proposed a model of “refactoring” to rearrange the web.
I always think of refactoring as ripping apart a codebase down the middle and holding the raw chunks in your hands, while at the same time trying to stitch it back together in a different form. Some pieces inevitably get left behind and we discover new ones that must get made. It’s a process that feels messy and exhilaratingly risky, but you take on that risk because you’ve recognized that the current structure is broken and can’t continue with patches alone. I’d describe the feeling of a successful refactor as limitless. And as shawné says, “Such limitlessness is also what makes [the web] such a beautifully mysterious, risky, and desirable place to be.”
Accessing WebXR Through Art
Valencia James, Stalgia Grigg, and Evelyn Eastmond presented their work developing platforms and tools that open access to WebXR through art, in a time when remote experimentation is desperately needed.
Evelyn Eastmond presented her work with M Eiffler, where they worked with art students to develop an XR platform that supported a remote critique space. They collected data about the classroom experience and incubated new tools, including a prototype in Mozilla Hubs where students dropped in virtual models, videos, and sounds for discussion. They found that by using this tool, students could again find a sense of connection to their peers and art work and regain a sense of community that Zoom wasn’t offering. Evelyn also questioned Microsoft’s role in this space, asking if “Microsoft wants to support not just the future of the open web for developers but if it also wants to support the future of the open web for spatial and embodied making as well.”
Valencia James introduced her project AI_am, which explores how artificial intelligence (AI) and contemporary dance can inform and advance each other. In a duet between AI and human dancer, Valencia blurs the distinction between virtual and physical as well as student and teacher. This work informed her current project, the Volumetric Performance Toolkit, which is a set of tools that allow movement artists to capture and stream their performances in real-time from their own living spaces, using minimal equipment, to be viewed by a virtual audience of real people. Central to this work is creating an accessible tool that supports “artists of all ethnicities, cultures, and abilities to participate.”
Stalgia Grigg questioned how tools articulate a worldview and center a set of values for creative expression. Looking at XR pedagogy, Stalgia contrasted the Decolonizing Augmented Reality syllabus, compiled by Jessy Escobedo and Selwa Sweidan, with the commercial tool Spark AR filters. They asked, “How can we create tools that inspire deeper forms of questioning? Tools that make people want to learn how to critique power instead of further entrench it?” Stalgia walked us through a demo of p5.xr library they created that enables people to easily make an immersive sketch. They spoke to the need for more tools in the XR space that offer accessibility without restrictions on content, or predefined judgements of value.
Consentful Communication on the Web
How do we foster consentful communication on the web? Xin Xin, Evelyn Masso, and Aarón Montoya-Moraga shared their experiences working to welcome newbies on GitHub, centering developer discussions around accessibility, considering the cultural implications of internationalization, and building open-source chat tools that think through security and memory in conversation.
Evelyn Masso talked about encoding values in open source. What often gets lost on GitHub is the fact that there are two or more people on each side of an interaction. How do you set boundaries for maintainers and contributors, and how do you document policies to support these boundaries? They offered the p5.js Access Statement as one example of using documentation to maintain a project’s values in development. The statement makes explicit “a commitment to only add features to p5.js that increase access (meaning inclusion and/or accessibility). This means considering the vectors of diversity (e.g., gender, social, economic, race, ethnicity, language, disability, etc.) that can impact access/participation; and taking action to acknowledge, dismantle, and prevent barriers. We prioritize the needs of historically marginalized groups over the continued comfort of more privileged groups with p5.js.”
In a very personal talk, Aarón Montoya-Moraga talked about their experience as a Chilean, non-native English speaker working in open source. They shared their constant doubtsˇ: “Am I doing enough / too much? Using the right tone and words? Is it colonizing to write in English? Is it a transparent way to communicate? Do I come across as nice or condescending? How do I think through the side effects of what we do?” They pointed toward key documents that guide them, including the p5.js Community Statement, p5.js Contributor Docs, Berlin Code of Conduct, and Chatham House Rule.
Xin Xin discussed their project Togethernet, which starts with the question, “What would social media look like if it prioritized users’ intentions behind every instance of online communication?” Through a deep dive into technical infrastructure, interface design, and user testing, Xin is building a communication tool that aims to transform digital rights policies into embodied practice. Key to this work is an exploration of consent, learning from wide-ranging precedents, including the FRIES framework (Freely given, Reversible, Informed, Enthusiastic, and Specific), the Fediverse, and kinky, feminist sexblog The Pervocracy.
Read more in the session notes by Dorothy R. Santos.
Special thanks to Dominique Hazael-Massieux, Boaz Sender, and Sheila Moussavi for the support in organizing these sessions! We look forward to future collaborations and continued work together with W3C to make the Internet more inclusive and accessible.