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A Personal Interest Statement.

Contribution to the PDC 2020 Interactive Workshop "Computing Professionals for Social Responsibility: The Past, Present and Future Values of Participatory Design".

Published onMay 24, 2020
A Personal Interest Statement.

A Personal Interest Statement

By Vanessa Thomas

Carleton University

Contact: [email protected]

When I first read this workshop’s call for contributions, I became captivated by one of its question:

“What should a CPSR for the 21st century look like?”

I had to re-read it so I could parse it:

“What should a CPSR for the 21st century look like?”

There’s a lot to unpack in that question.

To help me formulate my answer, I decided that it might be helpful if I knew what the CPSR of the 20th century looked like! I clicked on the link to the defunct CPSR homepage and was greeted by the warm nostalgia of its dated visual design. But that warmth quickly cooled; a heavy feeling of discomfort settled in as I read that “life member Joichi Ito has been selected to head MIT Media Lab”. I briefly lost my inspiration to write anything for this workshop, and felt trapped by the weight of recent history.

That’s why I’ve decided, instead, to shift my attention and offer a bit of a positionality statement. Who am I? I am a white, queer, non-binary, settler Canadian. I was born and mostly raised in a working class household located on Treaty 6 Territory. I started working at 12 years old and have since held a variety of jobs all over the world. Through a combination of luck and hard work, I am now a comfortably middle class(!), highly educated(!) computer scientist / designer / artist / public servant / activist. I work full-time for the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, where I undertake a broad range of technical research projects related to preserving, enhancing and protecting Canadians’ privacy online. In my abundant spare time, I work as a Sessional Lecturer with Carleton University’s School of Information Technology, as well as Algonquin College’s School of Media and Design. I currently live in a queer housing cooperative—until recently, I sat on its Board of Directors—that is located on the unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishnaabeg People. I am the co-organizer for Speculative Futures Ottawa (supporting the *incredible* founder and lead, Luisa Ji)(who also runs the fab Nomadic Labs) and volunteer with a few other organizations within Ottawa and online. Throughout the past fifteen years, I have volunteered my technical skills in support of a variety of activist organizations in Canada, the UK, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Europe. In short, I believe I am probably the type of person who should be aligned with the idea of creating a CPSR for the 21st Century.

And yet…

Having read through a sizeable portion of the CPSR’s defunct website, I am not so sure I see the need. Do we need an organization that centres “computer professionals”1 in anything resembling a “social responsibility”2 discourse right now? What could a revamped CPSR possibly offer that the hundreds (thousands!?) of existing “computer professional”-driven organizations aren’t offering? I am genuinely curious to know what other people think about this, which is part of why I am so interested in this workshop. I suspect I could sit quietly through the whole thing, if only to get a sense for what others are thinking.

I suspect I could—and perhaps should—sit quietly throughout the workshop for another reason: from my vantage point(s), I can see a much more pressing, substantial, and urgent need for “computer professionals” to take on background roles in a lot of places, spaces and organizations. We need to be able to sit quietly, shut up, and take on background / supporting roles in activist or civic-oriented organizations that have non-technical areas of expertise and focus. If this workshop offers me another opportunity to practice sitting quietly amongst some potentially like-minded activist-academic peers, then I would be delighted to partake.

Wolmet Barendregt:

Thank you Vanessa! I am looking forward to meeting you, even if you will keep very quiet (I might too).