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Spain’s current political impasse

October 13, 2016

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Yesterday, 12 October 2016, I took part in a seminar titled “Resolving Spain’s political deadlock” held at my home institution, RMIT University, in Melbourne. I presented alongside Marta Poblet and Antonio Castillo, both from RMIT. We each spoke for about 15 minutes and there was a lively discussion with the attendees. Here’s a blurb announcing the event:

Spain’s political deadlock continues… In this seminar, Spanish and Australian experts from the Centre for Communication, Politics and Culture (CPC), the Digital Ethnography Research Centre (DERC) and the European Union (EU) Centre at RMIT University, will make an attempt at unlocking some of the issues behind the political crisis in Spain and its impact.

And here is a rough version of my handwritten presentation notes, pictured above (with many thanks to Elisenda Ardevol, Arnau Monterde, Ismael Peña-López, Laura Pérez Rastrilla and Annalisa Piñas for their views and suggested readings prior to the talk – any errors and omissions related to these responses are my own).

*****

Seen from a Spanish civil society perspective, the current political impasse in Spain arguably the third in an ongoing series that started in 2004 with the Madrid bombings, followed in 2011 by the 15M (indignados) protests and now in 2015-2016 as a result of the irruption of two young political parties, Podemos and Ciudadanos, onto the parliamentary scene, putting an end to the till now seemingly eternal two-party arrangement by the Conservatives (PP) and Socialists (PSOE). All three have contributed to the end of the ‘PPSOE’ (to use a favourite 15M term) duopoly we have witnessed since the Dec 2015 general elections.

At stake is the end of what the Catalan journalist Guillem Martinez calls Spain’s ‘transition culture’ (Cultura de la Transición, or CT): the post-Franco regime based on a broad consensus among the main political parties (from right across the ideological spectrum) and trade unions around territorial integrity, regional autonomies, fighting ETA, joining the European Community and NATO — with a ‘market economy’ as the only possible economic system. In exchange for a place at the top table, the political left deactivated its mobilisation power, whilst the leftist cultural sector blunted its critical edge so as to secure state subsidies. The outcome was stability, a docile population and substandard cultural products. As a sociocultural anthropologist I cannot but be drawn to Martinez’s CT model.

I argued that there are 5 main forces for change in Spain, in no particular order:

  1. Podemos, now 3rd party, yet lost votes in second election when joined United Left = Unidos Podemos. Current dispute between Pablo Iglesias faction (pablistas) and his deputy Íñigo Errejón faction (errejonistas). Iglesias the upper hand at present, took a leftist turn, went down to grassroots (circles) and reasserted his charismatic leadership. Meanwhile Errejón reeling from aborted ‘coup’ and his moderate stance towards PSOE now discredited given that PSOE seem ready to abstain so that the Conservative (PP) leader can become once again PM (see Esther Palomera analysis, 10 Oct 2016, in Spanish).
  2. New local governments rooted in 15M (indignados) movement in Madrid, Barcelona and other major cities. Extraordinary democracy labs, social justice agenda, trying to curtail worst of neolib capitalism. Not a lot of people know about them outside Spain. Important not to reduce politics to national level.
  3. Occupational or industry-specific movements known as ‘tides’ (mareas), e.g. health, education, etc. born once again from the 15M protests and filling the gap left a long time ago by co-opted trade unions like UGT or CC.OO. – though some argue that they haven’t achieved much (text in English).
  4. Politicised nerds, polnerds for short, i.e. people who like to mix their politics with their tech, aka freedom technologists. Spain boasts an extraordinarily vibrant techno-political scene, with a large variety of initiatives in four main domains of political action: digital rights, social protest, data activism and institutional politics, e.g. former activists like Gala Pin or Pablo Soto who are now local councillors or political newbies (in English).
  5. Catalan secessionists, a grassroots mass movement (like Scotland) that kicked off in earnest in 2010. PP viscerally anti-Catalan, PSOE too dependent on Southern voters to contemplate concessions to Catalan national aspirations, Podemos is unionist but accepts notion of pluri-national state, open to federal model. Secessionists currently in power at the regional level, calling for referendum on self-determination, but always thwarted by Madrid.

… pitted against 4 status quo forces:

  1. PP (Spain’s Conservatives) led by Rajoy. Corruption scandal ridden, now finally reaching the courts, after backbreaking efforts by X.net techno-political activists, or polnerds. By millions of Spaniards, and against all the evidence, seen as the only guarantors of stability of economic growth, and the only party able to keep the allegedly Marxist-Bolivarista threat of Podemos at bay.
  2. PSOE (Socialists):  excellent piece (in Spanish) by historian Juan Andrade, 3 Oct 2016: current leadership crisis, with abrupt departure of leader Pedro Sanchez, is 1978 regime crisis (see CT above) – PSOE weakened in regions, too dependent on Southern voters who against plurinational model of Spanish state favoured by Podemos – old regime now coming to an end based on PP-PSOE consensus on fundamental issues but faux ideological bickering – PSOE has imploded – in both 1979 and 2016, Felipe Gonzalez in the thick of it, key to both – crisis caused by rapid ascent of youthful force from the left then and now (Podemos) – conflict between those who don’t acknowledge Podemos and those unsure what to do – Sanchez tried nostalgic return to old, pre-15M regime, wishful thinking about going back in time – though relatively young, his change discourse not persuasive, too contrived.
  3. Tamed, co-opted, corrupt trade unions (see above).
  4. New centre-right, neolib party Ciudadanos, led by Albert Rivera, Catalan but staunchly anti-secessionist. Presenting themselves as the equally youthful, non-threatening answer to Podemos, in reality they are just the old 1978 regime in new garb.

Cartoon credit: Pedripol

 

Creating and debating Harari identity over the internet

August 27, 2016

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/4/48/Harari_in_Ethiopia_(special_marker).svg/250px-Harari_in_Ethiopia_(special_marker).svg.pngThis is the tenth (10th) set of notes under the theme of media and change in preparation for the volume Postill, J., E. Ardevol and S. Tenhunen (eds.) forthcoming, Digital Media and Cultural Change. The notes are taken from a wealth of media anthropological research into this question over the decades that has remained to this date largely hidden from mainstream media, communication and internet studies. This research deserves to be read more widely.

Notes prepared by Fran Barone (my emphases)Flag of Harari Region
Used with permission.

Gibb, Camilla (2002) “Deterritorialized people in hyperspace: creating and debating Harari identity over the internet” Anthropologica (New Series) 44(1): 55-67.

The Harari (Muslim Ethiopians from the city of Harar) are “invoking a new language of nationhood in order to give shape to a now dispersed community” by using new media to create a sense of national identity via email lists and websites for people in diaspora. In 1991, Ethiopians abroad celebrated the revolutionary displacement of the socialist dictatorship (Dergue) that had ruled the country for 2 decades and committed many human rights atrocities causing mass population displacement (p. 55)

Hararis in Ethiopia are excluded from this technological process due to lack of access (p. 56)

This paper draws on 3 years of multisited fieldwork in Harar and Toronto (online and offline), including discussions on the email list H-Net. H-Net requires “nomination by one or more Harari ‘brothers’ or ‘sisters’, which means that to some extent, this virtual community is founded on real-world connections” (p. 57).

The process of Harari migration and political unrest in Ethiopia: p. 57-59.

Communication within the Harari diaspora community takes place via the Internet, at soccer competitions and cultural festivals. H-Net, est. 1996, is one of the most popular mailing lists among teenagers and young adults (p. 60).

Young people born and raised in diaspora feel little desire to “return” to Harar. “Young Hararis who have had limited direct contact with the actual city of Harar are engaged in redefining community and identity in the global and largely impersonal arena of cyberspace, a space which largely excludes both elders in the diaspora and Hararis in the homeland” (p. 60).

Many diaspora Harari find religion (Islam) to be the most important factor of identity (p. 60). There is some confusion over the key features specifically Harari identity in diaspora beyond Islam (p. 61).

“Where members of their parents generation see return to Harar as a moral imperative, the discussion of repatriation among youth on H-Net is voiced primarily as a response to the perceived fears of increased racism and anti-Muslim sentiment in the US [and] Canada” (p. 62) “The notion that their rightful place is back in the city of Harar is reinforced by the perceptions of racism against Muslims in North America” (p. 63).

Younger people find more support/ contemporary sense of community in adopting a pan-Muslim identity and dress within the US than a specifically Harari one. Through Muslim discourse, Hararis can take on simultaneous identities (p. 64). “While young Hararis in disapora appeal to the idea of Harari as a nation, it is at the level of the nation-states, Ethiopian, and American and Canadian that reconciling multiple identities appears to be problematic” (p. 64)

Image credit: Wikipedia

Notes on the 13th digital ethnography reading (Takhteyev 2012)

August 22, 2016

Update 9 Sep 2016. @Liberationtech wrote: Why Silicon Valley is having trouble exporting its best practices https://engineering.stanford.edu/news/lost-translation-can-silicon-valley-export-its-best-practices

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Takhteyev, Y. (2012). Coding Places: Software practice in a South American city. MIT Press.

Notes by Tresa LeClerc
Non/fiction Lab and Digital Ethnography Research Centre (DERC), RMIT University, Melbourne

See other posts under Digital ethnography reading group

In the August 2016 Digital Ethnography Reading Session (DERS), we discussed the introduction to Yuri Takhteyev’s book Coding Places: software practice in a South American city entitled ‘The Wrong Place.’ The chapter starts with a question “Why would you come from California to Rio de Janeiro to study software developers?” The group agreed this was a highly intelligent, well-written introduction to Takhteyev’s research. At times trained anthropologists can get paralyzed with the weight of the tradition, but he seems to be both aware of it and depart from it. Takhteyev showed an excellent balance between what he said about himself, his context, which was Brazil, and the theory. Several talking points were discussed in depth:

  1. Centre vs. periphery
  2. Ethnomethods
  3. Language in Coding

Centre vs periphery

Takhteyev’s research brings back the concept of knowledge being centralised as opposed to peripheral. His study takes us to Rio and centres in Rio, and how they have created their own niche in knowledge production. He discusses how culture is disseminated and thus brings back in the concept of diffusion rather than assimilation. Anthropology abandoned diffusion in the face of Malinowski’s fieldwork focus, and began to look at local ideas and cultures rather than cultural hierarchies. One problem could be the difference between dispersed practices and integrated practices. Takhteyev’s discussion of practice is quite general in the context of ‘worlds of practice.’ It is not clear that worlds of practices will travel better than single practices, which can diffuse more easily than an entire world. Is it even possible to have a global world of practice?

Ethnomethods

‘Ethnomethods’ was an interesting point in this introduction. Takhteyev learns, from within, things that work and don’t work within the Rio coding community. There is a point where he understands that the interviews aren’t giving him the full picture. He then starts running his own project on the Wiki, making himself useful to coders. After, there is a turning point where he becomes useful, a form of active participation, which provides him “with a partial solution”. It is interesting that he notes it is not complete access. We discussed this in relation to fieldwork and the way we understand things, first as researchers and then as participants. One of the group brought up the analogy of driving. “Until you become a driver,” he said, “it’s very mechanical. Then there is a point when you’re not thinking about it too much. Once you know how to do it, it’s very hard to bring up to consciousness,” noting that fieldwork can become more difficult to articulate once you get it. Following on from this, the argument that different types of engagement bring different kinds of knowledge was brought up, with the example of the Arab Spring and how the people that were on the ground did not know exactly what was happening because they were in a specific place, though the political scientists monitoring the situation had access to a range of sources of information and made different predictions. Thus, we discussed the differences between insider information, which runs the risk of being bound by empathy, and outsider information, with access to the big picture. As researchers we need to balance our empathy, for the experiences and perspectives of our informants, with other considerations such as other viewpoints and long-term consequences.

Language

Perhaps the most lively discussions of the meeting were sparked by the issue of language within Takhteyev’s observations of the coding community. Takhteyev not only learned Portuguese in the course of his research, but also the coding language. Lua, the program used by the coders in Rio, primarily uses English. However, the group wondered if this was representative of the entire coding community. Is all coding in English? If you read Kelty (2008), who talks about the global software movement and cultural significance of free software, you get the impression that this is global, that this ‘global community’ speaks English. Yet this is not true, nor is this discussed with reference to place (as far as we’ve read). This has reference to California being or considering itself to be the center of digital production and knowledge. Investigations and discussions, after the session, established that it appears to be true that majority of programing language use English syntax and keywords. Like, however, a number of other languages developed in non-English speaking countries, Lua has a smattering of the local language, i.e. Portuguese words. English may be the lingua franca, but non-English linguistic exchanges go on in smaller local developer circles. The danger is that this linguistic code-switching and -mixing goes on routinely can be overlooked when considering the wider uses of code.

Conclusion

We concluded that it would be interesting to read the book itself rather than just the introduction. We wanted to know more about the global world of practice, and the extent to which English influences communication in diverse situations across spaces and cultures – what does this mean for political worldmaking?

References

Kelty, C. (2008). Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Takhteyev, Y. (2012). Coding Places: Software practice in a South American city. MIT Press.

 

Islam, devotional genres and electronic mediation in Mauritius

August 4, 2016

MauritiusHere comes the ninth (9th) set of notes under the theme of media and change in preparation for the volume Postill, J., E. Ardevol and S. Tenhunen (eds.) forthcoming, Digital Media and Cultural Change. The notes are taken from a wealth of media anthropological research into this question that has remained to this date largely hidden from mainstream media, communication and internet studies. This research deserves, in my view, to be read more widely across this interdisciplinary area of scholarship.

Notes prepared by Fran Barone (my emphases)
Used with permission.

Eisenlohr P. 2006. As Makkah is sweet and beloved, so is Madina: Islam, devotional genres and electronic mediation in Mauritius. Am. Ethnol. 33(2):230–45.

Fieldwork in Mauritius [Indian Ocean] in 1996, 1997–98, and 2003.

Some scholars have argued that a global “return to religion” intertwined with modern forms of mass communication is taking place in the contemporary world (p. 230)

Recent work on Islam and electronic media focuses on discourses, inclusion and exclusion of different categories of actors. Arguing against technicist tendency to highlight media over social agency and “thus, push societies toward a kind of social change that can be read off from the material and formal setup of media apparatuses (e.g., Kittler 1997; McLuhan 1964)”, author emphasizes that local assumptions/traditions inform process of mass mediation. Need to avoid both technicism and excessive celebration of individual agency/self-determination (p. 231)

Investigation of the circulation of audiocassette and audio-CD recordings of the Islamic devotional genre na‘t and its role in shaping performances in religious speech events known as “mahfil-e mawlūd”. (p. 231)

“The significance of electronically mediated na‘t emerges in the ways in which practices of electronic mediation become part of a preexisting genealogical logic of Islamic authority” (p. 232).

Competition between Ahl-e Sunnat tradition that sees prophet as a spiritual presence and Deobandis (purists) who see this as illegitimate innovation. Na’t devotional performance genre is a key point of contestation between followers of these two traditions (p. 233).

1980s brought audiocassettes, followed by CDs from India and Pakistan and performers in Mauritius produce own collections of na’t supported by Ahle-Sunnat imams. People listen to na’t recordings on the radio to prepare for mahfil-e mawlūd on special occasions and transcribe the text, then photocopy the handwritten notes to distribute to event attendees. Local performers create printed booklets to go with their cassettes and CDs. Audio is considered the actual model to emulate (p. 234).

Imams used to be the main source of na’t in Urdu before cassettes, but audiocassettes have brought “a new popularization of na‘t, making the poetic genre accessible to people who lack the necessary reading knowledge of Urdu”. Authority of accomplished na’t performer is important, becaut na’t is a delicate genre that must be done properly: “The audiocassette recordings reassure many Mauritian Muslims that reciting and appreciating na‘t is not a matter of ignorance about proper Islamic conduct in the diaspora or an unwarranted perpetuation of the ways of ancestors who may not have been very knowledgeable about scriptural Islamic traditions when they arrived as indentured laborers in Mauritius” (p. 235).

Cultural influence: Contrasting proper and correct na’t performance with Bollywood film songs which have ubiquitous influence in Mauritius (p. 236).

Media choices have local meaning: Cassette tapes enthusiastically adopted because spiritual benefit of na’t performer increases with the number of times it is recited and listened to (p. 236). “Here, Mauritian Muslims reshape technology according to a genealogical form of Islamic authority centered on a “safeguarding” of textual and performative transmission through long successions of reliable interlocutors.” (p. 241)

Media change and culture: “Whereas the mass circulation and reproduction of art has been associated with a loss of aura and authenticity in some modern European aesthetic traditions (e.g. Benjamin 1968), here, in the case of electronic voice mediation of na‘t as a genre of devotional verbal art, an opposite dynamic seems to be at issue.” (p. 241). Introduction of new technology does not necessary create “new” fields of cultural and political debate; instead, “audiocassette and audio-CD na‘t in Mauritius demonstrate how new practices of mediation become part of old debates” (p. 242).

Image credit: Maa Ke Shan Muhammad Umair Zubair Qadri Mahfil e Naat In Mauritius (daily motion)

 

 

Notes on the 12th digital ethnography reading (Lane 2016)

July 30, 2016

harlem.jpgLane, J. (2016). The Digital Street: An Ethnographic Study of Networked Street Life in Harlem. American Behavioral Scientist, 60(1), 43-58.
doi: 10.1177/0002764215601711

Notes by Jolynna Sinanan
Digital Ethnography Research Centre (DERC)
RMIT University, Melbourne

See other posts under Digital ethnography reading group

In this month’s reading group, we interrogated the idea of the digital street as posed in ‘The Digital Street: An Ethnographic Study of Networked Street Life in Harlem’ by Jeffrey Lane (2016). The article argues that the contemporary street life of Harlem teenagers is characterised by the integration of online and offline communication, and is difficult to comprehend without participating in both contexts.

We noted that contemporary street ethnography can’t simply be conducted face-to-face; we also need to consider multiple forms of social interactions, ‘online’ and examining social media networks and discussing more private communication such as within the home as well phone calls and private chat over platforms such as Messenger. If Facebook is a visual representation of extended networks, does it necessarily translate to meaningful engagement between those in the actual networks? By considering these different forms of communication, we can then better understand how public and private spaces are formed and the norms of conduct in these spaces.

We also discussed the power dimensions of contemporary street ethnography by questioning the role of the pastor, or ‘gatekeeper’ in accessing research participants and the implications of street life as monitored by police officers described towards the end of the article.

The most significant aspect of the article for the reading group was how ethnography and ethnographic writing of ‘the street’ was developed as the idea of the ‘digital street’. For example, in Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson’s edited volume Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-War Britain, Paul Corrigan’s chapter ‘Doing Nothing’ is an ethnography of street corner culture, which presents data as reporting conversations, describing context as gesture, language and movement as part of the street’s social ecology. We question to what extent, do we lose some of these contextual elements when discussing chats. We pose that other digital ‘gestures’ may be at play.

Lane also employs boyd’s theorisation of ‘networked publics’ to “explore both the net- working of space and the spatiality of the network” (2016, p50) but perhaps not enough is made of the networked elements to bridge the gap between the data presented and the analysis.

We concluded on the subject of how the street may be conceptualized as an ethnographic place in relation to digital technologies and social media. How can we think about how people perform or navigate sociality on the street to effectively analyse how Facebook and private messages compliment or extend these dynamics and interactions? To appreciate the potential social media has to transform the street, we discussed if the street and social media should treated as separate components, to better understand the relationship between the two.

In our next reading session (Wed Aug 10, 2016 12:30pm – 2pm, B9-4-31) we will be looking at the introductory chapter of Yuri Takhteyev’s book “Coding Places: software practice in a South American city”. Available from http://codingplaces.net/

References

boyd, d. (2010). Social network sites as networked publics: Affordances, dynamics, and implications. In Z. Papacharissi (Ed.), A networked self (pp. 39-58). New York, NY: Routledge.

Hall, S. and T. Jefferson (eds), 1993. Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-war Britain. London and New York: Routledge

Lane, J. (2016). The Digital Street: An Ethnographic Study of Networked Street Life in Harlem. American Behavioral Scientist, 60(1), 43-58. doi: 10.1177/0002764215601711

Takhteyev, Y. (2012). Coding Places: Software practice in a South American city. MIT Press.

A planet afflicted by a high fever

July 22, 2016

Essential reading on our current global predicament by the anthropologist Thomas H. Eriksen.

The Pluto Press Blog - Independent, radical publishing

The world is ‘overheated’. Too full and too fast; uneven and unequal. It is the age of the Anthropocene, of humanity’s indelible mark upon the planet. In short, it is globalisation – but not as we know it. Leading anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen is the author of a new book Overheating:An Anthropology of Accelerated Change, which is linked with an international anthropological project, centered at the University of Oslo. In this post, he introduces the themes of the book, and the importance of the project.

‘What do the fateful Brexit referendum, the epidemic spread of Nintendo’s ‘Pokémon Go’ game, theOverheating escalating death of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and the fivefold growth in tourism since 1980 have in common? The short answer is that they all express symptoms or outcomes of global accelerated change, or ‘overheating’, as I call it in my new book.

It is as if modernity has…

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Benjamin Peters’ (2016) superb essay on the keyword ‘digital’

July 20, 2016

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Update 15 Nov 2016. I’ve just realised Tom Boellstorff has also developed a Peircean, indexical theory of the digital, see Boellstorff, T. (2012). Rethinking digital anthropology. In H. Horst and D. Miller (eds) Digital anthropology, 39-60. It may be worth comparing the two.

A physical copy of the brand new book Digital Keywords (2016) has just arrived through the post. On first inspection, it looks fantastic, and I’ve got the feeling I will be making frequent use of it in my research and teaching. Here are some quick notes on Benjamin Peters‘ intriguingly Peircean essay on the keyword ‘digital’, freely available here (PDF).

p. 94. Digits do the same thing as index fingers: they count, point and manipulate. They count symbols, point or index the real, and manipulate the social world. It follows you cannot understand digits only computationally (as things that count).

Counting the symbolic: the triumphs of digital computing

p. 95. In 1946, Von Neumann’s cybernetics: all signals can be made into digital format via binary code of ‘discrete, symbolic thresholds’: 0 to mean below level, 1 above level. ‘All real signals can be reduced, with certain loss, into digital symbols’.

But careful with digital theorists’ hype, warns Peters, now exacerbated by big data fans: not everything that is, is countable. Computer uber-nerds may see promise of total convergence, but this will never happen, as we’ll see in the remainder of this essay.

Indexing the real: how digits point elsewhere

Digits don’t only compute, they also point (index). Indexing is not an exact science. Digital media incl. fingers, coins, piano keyboards, filing systems, typewriters, electronic telegraph, etc. All are digitally interfaced (via human fingers).

p. 98 Pragmatist and semiotician Peirce distinguished 3 types of signs (icon, index, symbol) unlike ‘Saussurian signifier-signified binary behind the postmodern turn’. ‘Digital media have long indexed the world’, e.g. index in a book sends you to rough – not to exact – location on page.

In Peircean scheme, ‘smoke signals fire by saying, roughly, “Follow me to an ongoing combustion process”. From Austin to Wittgenstein et al meaningful relations necessarily exclude, i.e. structure of meaning is indexical. ‘Digital media… have meaning insofar as they index the world’. An index finger is not the same thing as the object it refers to.

Because they point elsewhere, digits are ‘fundamentally analogic’ (p. 100). Shannon in 1948 info theory launch (strictly computational approach to communication) said real-world meaning irrelevant to the engineering problem of communication, so long as we ‘understand digits as only those things that count’. (p. 100).

… but in fact, argues Peters, analogue and digital not at loggerheads, they ‘coexist quite happily’ (p. 100), e.g. probabilities have indexical relations with a space of possible outcomes, that is to say, ‘all digital messages… are part of a possibility index’.

Manipulating the social: the discontents of digital power

Big data has big data brokers. Social network sites transform ‘our many different selves into one [composite] persona’. Digits ‘manipulate our many social worlds’ (103) and the power to do this is highly unevenly concentrated.

Conclusion

104. To understand digital age it is not enough to understand only numbers handled by digits, as ‘digital media can point to or index all possible worlds, not only our real one’.

104-105. Human hands were first digital medium ‘to don real-world units that apply with probabilistic, and never precise, degrees to all possible worlds around us’. Much work needed ‘to model more equitable and sustainable worlds’.