I've been wanting to read The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet for a while, and a number of folks on twitter said they'd be interested as well. Here's all the information you need to know for the book club.

Book Availability:

  • Amazon $7.99-10.47
  • Local bookstores - may need to contact to order ahead, as it's a relatively new book
  • Libraries - may need to put reservations on the book, as it's likely in limited quantities and fairly new

Important dates:

  • August 1: begin reading!
  • August 31 - 8:30pm EST/5:30pm PST, Sept 1 - 12:30am UTC: book club begins!

Come prepared with questions, thoughts, and what you liked/didn't like about the book. We'll be tweeting under the hashtag #lwsap. Feel free to follow me for reminders and the general discussion. I've started a twitter list for the folks participating. Tweet at me if you'd like to be added.

Ashe's favorite books of 2015

I read far fewer books this year than I did last because I had a ton going on in my life, but still came out with some clear favorites. If you weren't around for last year's list, I make a concerted effort to read books written by and about marginalized people. The books below are in no particular order.

If you're looking for good books to take with you on winter vacation or to give for the holidays, I'd recommend these ones.

1. The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth #1) by N.K. Jemisin [speculative fiction, fantasy]

“Tell them they can be great someday, like us. Tell them they belong among us, no matter how we treat them. Tell them they must earn the respect which everyone else receives by default. Tell them there is a standard for acceptance; that standard is simply perfection. Kill those who scoff at these contradictions, and tell the rest that the dead deserved annihilation for their weakness and doubt. Then they’ll break themselves trying for what they’ll never achieve.”

I read this on recommendation from a friend. Fantasy isn't usually my thing, but I feel this falls more squarely into the general speculative fiction category. I'm looking forward to reading more of her stuff.

2. Strikers [Strikers #1] by Ann Christy [YA fiction, dystopian science fiction]

“Life is entirely too short for fear to be a factor in how we live it.” 

I've read a lot of YA over the past few years and like that many aren't nearly as graphic as their adult counterparts. This one was different than the Hunger Games-y niche that all dystopian YA seems to fall in these days. The author is working on book 2 in the series.

3. The Internet of Garbage by Sarah Jeong [technology/internet, culture, feminism]

“When we seek to build truly equal platforms and marketplaces of ideas fit for the 21st century, we are trying to create things that have never existed and cannot be constructed by mindlessly applying principles of the past.” 

Sarah Jeong is brilliant, funny, and her work is always insightful. This short book (literally took me ~2hrs to read) centers around the garbage that is created and builds up on the internet and why, culturally, we allow it to happen. Good read for people trying to understand the issues around harassment and abuse online and why no one is doing anything about it.

4. The Leaving of Things by Jay Antani [YA fiction, general fiction]

“We steadily endure our lives and ultimately we are alone in our endurance. In this aloneness, we find our strength.” 

The book centers on the life of a teenage Indian American boy whose family decides to leave their home of many years in Madison, WI to move back to India. I read this when I, too,was moving away from Madison so it had interesting parallels. Vikram's voice around loneliness, isolation, and unlearning American-centrism/exceptionalism is profound.

5. Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable [history, biography]

""Victims of racism are created in the image of the racists," Malcolm argued. "When the victims struggle vigoroulsy to protect themselves from the violence of others, they are made to appear in the image of criminals, as the criminal image is projected onto the victim." Liberation, he implied, was not simply political but cultural."

I tend to read at least one biography a year and like to choose figures I only know surface facts about. This is a long book, but well worth the read. It covers Malcolm's early life, through his Nation of Islam days, and beyond. Being able to see all of the moving pieces around his life (his family, the NoI, his politics and work) as well as to read his speeches is important to see the whole man - his power, his intelligence, his determination, as well as his issues.

6. The Gate to Women's Country by Sheri S Tepper [science fiction, fantasy, dystopian feminism?]

“(ghost of)ACHILLES: How can I force obedience on this? In other times I've used the fear of death to make a woman bow herself to me. If not the fear of her own death, then fear for someone else, a husband or a child. How can I bend this woman to my will?
(ghost of)POLYXENA: I think I will not bend.
IPHIGENIA: You see, it's as we've tried to tell you, Great Achilles. Women are no good to you dead.” 

The story centers around a matriarchal society and the world they maintain. Some of the story's themes are told through a recitation of a retelling of The Trojan Woman (like the quote above).

7. Split by Swati Avasthi [YA, fiction, abuse]

“But I’m not the one digging her grave; I didn’t open her hole in the earth when I drove away that night or when I couldn’t make her come with us. My dad dug it years ago; he forced her to lie down in it and kept her there by fear and beatings. And when she tried to get out, he stomped her back in. She has been lying there for twenty-five years. Her muscles have atrophied, her joints have stiffened, and she can’t see anything except him and the tight little space she calls home. I don’t know how she’ll get out; I can tug and pull and yank, but it won’t make any difference. She was right: she’s gotta solve it her own way.” 

This is the book I cried the most for in 2015. The story centers around a teenager escaping his abusive father, choosing to move in with his estranged brother. TW for abuse, stalking, harassment.

8. Parable of the Sower (Earthseed #1) by Octavia Butler [dystopian science fiction, post-apocalyptic]

"Every time I understand a little more, I wonder why it’s taken me so long—why there was ever a time when I didn’t understand a thing so obvious and real and true."

I'm so sad that it took me so long to finally read this book. I couldn't put it down! I loved the way religion was treated in the story - it's rare to see fiction that shows the community and solace that faith can create. The book follows a young woman whose life is torn apart as she crosses the country, trying to create the community and home she's always wanted.

9. Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love, & So Much More by Janet Mock [autobiography]

"The crux of our conflict lay in the fact that we each couldn't be who we wanted the other to be."

I was lucky to have seen Janet Mock speak last year where she read an excerpt of her book. Her story is heartbreaking and heroic.

10. Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work by Melissa Gira Grant [non-fiction]

"To truly confront this type of violence would require us to admit that we permit some violence against women to be committed in order to protect the social and sexual value of other women."

This year I wanted to learn more about the politics around sex work and I got tons of recommendations for this book. The book is an easy read - lots of history of sex work and anti-sex work legislation, understanding the rhetoric around sex trafficking, as well as the social justice movement to recognize sex work as work and the workers as people.

11. The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus (The Myths) by Margaret Atwood [mythology, fantasy, feminism]

“Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can't go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does.”

The Penelopiad is a re-telling of The Odyssey from the viewpoint of Penelope, wife of Odysseus. Penelope and her murdered maids tell the story of how they survived during Odysseus' journey and how he punished them for their survival upon his return.

12. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates [memoir]

“But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.” 

Coates writing is haunting and poetic and powerful. It's written as a letter to his teenage son about the world they live in and how best they can actually live in that world. You feel Coates pain and anger and hope for the future of his son in every paragraph.


This piece was originally written for Model View Culture's Surveillance issue in October 2014.

Tech news articles preach the dangers of sophisticated programs at startups misusing data we give them, performing sociological experiments on us, or the NSA spying on everything we say and do.

But those things are barely on my radar.

As an outspoken, queer woman, the internet is a terrifying place. Can I trust myself, my friends, or my family not to inadvertently harm me through the information shared on social networks? What will ill-willed colleagues do with that information if and when we unintentionally trip up?

Photo of the author standing in front of a whiteboard illustrating her many social connections.Photo CC-BY John December, filtered. 

I want to tell you the story of how we came to unwittingly self- and peer-surveil, allowing the internet to near-simultaneously make our worlds bigger and smaller. I know this, because it’s my story, too.

In 2004 I moved across the country, away from everything I’d ever known. I was in a new city where I knew no one, so I turned to the internet as I’d done most of my life. This was an interesting time for the web; sites relying entirely on user-generated content were becoming big and would herald in the era we find ourselves in today. When I found out about Meetup and Upcoming, I happily told them about all things I was interested in.

I soon found myself in a community that relished sharing a physical space with internet people and we were drunk on the feeling. We took pictures, happily tagging them with both our actual and internet names, dates, events, and geolocation data. We embraced hashtags not just for events, but impromptu collaborative art projects. Social networks were uncharted territory,  a make-it-what-you-want-it-to-be atmosphere where we were explorers and inventors, discovering ways to connect, share, and feel closer to each other. In a way, the internet itself became a new friend to me – one that wanted to see the whole picture of who I was. It wanted to know what music I listened to when I was sad, what pictures made me happy, and what I wanted out of life. I found myself sharing every article I found interesting, information on the charities I donated to, and what concerts I’d be attending. In a bizarre sense I felt the more I shared of myself, the stronger that relationship could be.

It seems unimaginably naive to say I didn’t realize how all of that information could ever be used against me. I remember remarking to people who were dismayed by Twitter having made oversharing popular, “no one will care what I did today a month from now; we’re living in the moment.” But a few years provides a wealth of perspective: today, people constantly exploit little pieces of information from social networks I’ve participated in over the years to DDoS attack my websites and physically threaten, harass, and abuse me.

An obvious example of this is my income, which has become nearly fully supported by micro-donations from hundreds of people all over the world. For quite a long time, that income came through a site that advertised exactly how much money I was making and from how many people. At first this was a positive thing – people could see how much financial support projects like mine received and understand that it wasn’t as widely supported as many thought. But when I was visibly in the site’s leader board and eventually the top person receiving on the site, it became a huge problem. Reddit and Hacker News had a field day. I’d get comments and emails from people claiming my work was panhandling, prostitution, trickery, and theft. People berated me if they found out I went to a movie with my partner, feeling I was squandering the money I received. Others who had previously supported me were angry when I wouldn’t immediately drop everything I was doing to give them advice, because in their eyes, I worked for them. My ability to maintain a work/life separation effectively disappeared.

Having received threats and abuse online, I have to take extra steps to protect myself offline. I pre-emptively tell new acquaintances that they can’t post information online about where I am, where I’m going, or who I’ll be with for fear of confrontation or worse. Friends with the best of intentions asking publicly on Twitter for me to meet them at a specific place and time means having to decline a lot of invitations. It’s awkward to explain to people that they may be inadvertently putting you in danger.

I recently stopped following anyone on Twitter and replying sparsely because people graduated from attacking me directly to going after my friends and family to cause me harm. I semi-jokingly tell people that being near me is risking radiation exposure; I’ve been blackmailed into giving up relationships and fully living my life for fear of indirectly hurting the people I care about. In essence, social networks have manipulated the relationships I have with others.

Social Networks as a Panopticon

In the late 18th century, the philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham designed the Panopticon, a building that allowed a watchman to observe every occupant from one vantage point. This led occupants to act as if they were being observed at all times, regardless of whether a watchman was in the tower or observing them; the mere potential of constant surveillance altered occupant behavior.

Foucault discussed his social theory of Panopticism in Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, noting that the occupants of the Panopticon are “the object of information, never a subject in communication,” and that

He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.

In the 1970s, a piece of software called DIALOG was designed to replicate the Panopticon effect and tested at a large pharmaceutical company as part of a psychology experiment. The software allowed workers to not only report the work they were doing, but to socialize with peers. When users realized the software was allowing management to monitor them continuously, many stopped using it. Others decided to continue, “raising the question of whether remaining users modified their behavior under the threat of surveillance, as prisoners in Bentham’s Panopticon would, or whether they believed that the benefits offered by the system outweighed the possibility of punishment.”

Photo of a panopticon prison with guard tower looming before dozens of cells.Photo CC-BY Friman, filtered.

Social networks operate in much the same way. Thanks to open APIs and the limited technical talent needed to use them, the ability to monitor someone’s every activity can be easily automated and analyzed for patterns. A few weeks worth of data can give you an idea of when someone leaves for work, what coffee shop they stop at in the morning, and even what route they drive to get home. Using additional data – something as simple as a selfie – it’d be easy for a relative stranger to “recognize” you on the street.

Barring that level of sophistication, a simple observer to our online lives can still learn a lot about us. I was shocked the first time I met someone and they asked about each of my four cats by name. I’d willingly put that information out there, but I didn’t fully comprehend what someone using it would feel like.

Knowing the risks, do we alter the way we act within these systems? I’d argue that too few of us do, myself included. Only after the information I’d put out there was used to hurt me did I realize exactly how much I’d shared and how difficult it was to get back.

I don’t doubt there are dangers lurking around corners I haven’t thought of yet.

Social engineering

What allowed all of this to happen? How was I so easily fooled into living in the Panopticon? A shared and interwoven set of tenets between social networks and the people who use them create a variety of subtle pressures.

Rusty barbed wire.Photo CC-BY LongitudeLatitude, filtered.

Tenet 1: Well if it’s free, I guess I’ll take two

After just a couple years of becoming actively involved in social networks, I had a social media list that boasted nearly 30 differentactive profiles (I have no idea how many I’ve made total), but I wasn’t concerned. “It doesn’t cost me anything to try a new service”, I’d tell myself. I could play around, test the boundaries of the system and how it let me interact with people before adding it to my always-open tabs list or abandon it completely — along with my data that lived there.

Tenet 2: One identity to rule them all, and in a closed system bind them

Coupled closely with the desire to try everything is the compulsion to stake a claim to your identity on every service available. In manufacturing the scarcity of things like usernames, social networks create an anxiety on the side of the potential user; the assumption being that demand will always be higher than the supply, so urgency in account creation is required.

On top of that, larger properties have done well for themselves by creating a closed ecosystem to connect them. Google and Facebook are both good examples of this, allowing users to connect their email to their social calendars to their social networks to their contacts and so on. Participation in any of the sub-properties requires participation in the main one and encourages staying within the ecosystem by exploiting user laziness.

Tenet 3: Public is default

It’s easy to forget that the idea of privacy controls are a relatively new concept. I think the first social network I saw them on was Pownce, and even then I treated it less as a form of security and more as filling a niche need. I could share this post with that set of people and no one else can see it? How novel! At that point it didn’t even occur to me that someone could or would want to manipulate my willingness to share every detail of my life.

Social network growth is driven mainly through public sharing – the ability to see things outside the walled garden and want to participate. It should come as no surprise that startups wanting to show potential financial partners exponential user growth encourages public-as-default to the point of making it difficult or impossible to hide data.

Tenet 4: Share everything early and often

I’m just as guilty as the next person for actively encouraging my friends to share, share, share. In a world that we experience primarily through technology, we feel connected when we learn more about someone through their everyday lives. This isn’t something artificial and constructed by a marketing department, we aren’t as compelled to share because of A/B tested button color or slogan. It’s a subtle pressure; something that feels natural and familiar because it’s how we make friends, how we become better friends.

Tenet 5: Shoot first, ask questions later

Even knowing the dangers, we feel strangely safe and at home on the internet. And what feels more safe than scrolling through tumblr on your laptop in your warm bed, instagramming that weird thing your cat does, or telling your friends what you’re up to today?

In an industry where shoot first, ask questions later might as well be tattooed across the shoulders of startup employees, none of this is very surprising.

The industry has shown some hints at self-awareness of the problems it magnifies, but creates as many as it solves. Anti-social networking apps like Cloak, ostensibly used to avoid people you follow on social networks, can just as easily – and perhaps more obviously to those of us most vulnerable to confrontation or altercation – be used to stalk contacts.

Many marginalized people are using services in ways the creators may not have expected. When I received death and rape threats this past summer, it was important for me that my partner always knew where I was. I used Apple’s Find My Friends to constantly share my location. But in doing so, I’m forced to give up more privacy. It’s easy enough to forget that it’s always monitoring me; what danger could I be in if my partner knew I visited an abortion clinic, the home of an ex, or an intimate violence shelter?

There is no “outside the system”

Miraculously (and perhaps ignorantly), all of this hasn’t made me a social recluse. To this day I use services that share photos, videos, microblogs, what I read and listen to, my exercise habits, and even what I knit.

A bridge enclosed in wire fencing.Photo CC-BY Daniel Oines, cropped & filtered.

There’s no doubt that social networks use predatory practices masquerading as friendly ones to extract what they need from users and that people will exploit that easily available data to victimize marginalized people in slightly more sophisticated versions of the old ways. As marginalized people, we’re often on the safe side when taking the cynical view of things, so assuming social networks and predatory people will be out there, how do you protect yourself? A growing sub-genre of self-help books focusing on internet privacy, including Violet Blue’s The Smart Girl’s Guide to Privacy, may hold some of those answers.

But we shouldn’t discount what participating in social networks means for our identities. Can we celebrate and share our identities – all the little pieces that make us who we are – without sacrificing our privacy and safety? Are our identities forever altered by defiantly living within the Panopticon?

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