conference report: OLITA’s Digital Odyssey

Two weeks ago, I attended my first Digital Odyssey, an annual one-day conference organized by OLITA (check out the full program here). This year’s theme was Liberation Technology, and included various explorations of the relationship between information technology and the pursuit of social justice.

I was intrigued by the term “liberation technology” – I’d never heard it before. It’s a clear reference to liberation theology, a radical Christian movement originating in Latin America in the 50s and 60s (wikipedia page, decent summary from BBC). Many years back, I did a year-long internship with Franciscans International in Geneva and became more familiar with this history.

I googled a little to see who is using this term and how. Many write-ups point to a 2010 article by Larry Diamond for the origin of the term. And it looks like Stanford has a Program on Liberation Technology — they define the field like this:

Lying at the intersection of social science, computer science, and engineering, the Program on Liberation Technology seeks to understand how information technology can be used to defend human rights, improve governance, empower the poor, promote economic development, and pursue a variety of other social goods.

I also came across an interesting little blog post by Mary Joyce distinguishing between liberation technology and digital activism. This was useful in helping me reflect on the OLITA conference. So yes, let’s get back to the conference.

A highlight for me was Fiacre O’Duinn‘s presentation Inside the Black Box: Hacker culture, librarians and hardware. I’ve heard many people speak excitedly about hacker spaces, but this is the first time I’ve heard a thoughtful consideration of where there is ‘room for improvement.’ Fiacre discussed many issues including gender, the isolated and “uniquely invisible” location of hacker spaces, and the outsourcing of physical labour to places where human rights standards are poor. I took away a few key thoughts (forgive my poor paraphrasing, Fiacre was much more eloquent):

  • In libraries, we have the social capital to break laws. We need to do it early and set the precedent.
  • Making something open source does not make it hackable. People need to understand, then be supported and encouraged.

All four thunder talks were impressive. I found Rebecka Sheffield‘s discussion of ‘citizen archivists’ to be especially memorable. She filled us in on a National Archives (USA) project crowdsourcing the transcription of historical documents: http://transcribe.archives.gov/. In her brief talk, she raised issues of inclusion and exclusion, and how both are present in this project. It’s a pretty fascinating website & worth a look.

The conference closed with a very strong talk on digital copyright in Canada by Carys Craig, a law professor at Osgoode Hall. She argued quite compellingly that we need to resist the property metaphor and ownership narrative when discussing copyright. Instead, she insisted that authorship is an expressive act that is social in nature — therefore, copyright is actually about the regulation of speech, not property.  Moving from theory to legislation and licensing, she had two strong statements that had special resonance for me:

  • We should not herald the passing with C-11: It features the addition of piecemeal exceptions rather than what is needed: a broadening to allow for a more principled, common sense approach.
  • Resist the AUCC model license : there is no need for it. She called upon librarians to speak out, be involved, and be vocal.

I left this talk feeling pretty fired up, which was great!

All in all, a very strong day and a great opportunity to meet colleagues across sectors (sometimes I get a little too siloed in the academic library universe). My full notes are here.

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