Consent to Print at Transmediale 2013: The Problem of Silence

The series of Post Digital Publishing workshops at Transmediale 2013 kicked off today with three workshops on DIY Publishing, one of which was Consent To Print given by Dave Young and I.
Consent To Print participants
Consent To Print participants

Our workshop was an attempt to cross feminist theory, web-to-print tools and group decision-making to see what came out. It asked, is it possible for print publications to be democratically edited? What happens in a consensus-based system when a wealth of online content must be edited down into the limited form of a paper print-out?

The Processes of Collaboration

After a quick exercise in collective editing - the creation of a newspaper frontpage for the day - we analysed what had happened in the group. Clear roles had emerged, including an 'editor' with access to a laptop to whom suggestions were passed. Some people took an active role, some watched, and others seemed disengaged. My question is, how could these processes be reflected in the printed outcome? The rhetoric of collaborative writing, with its emphasis on consensus-building through web interfaces, results in auto-generated PDF or ePub layouts which give the impression of clear-cut agreement. How could the potential of print layout to reflect the shifting exchanges of collaborative writing be realized?

We begun by brainstorming what processes are at work in collaborative writing, which are currently left out of the layouts of standard web-to-print software like BookType or the Wikipedia Book Creator.

The need to capture conversations had about the text was raised, and the group sketched out a speculative system for semantically annotating texts in multiple layers. Comments relating to grammar would be distinguished from those about content or visual design, for example, and could be included in the print output as rich metadata surrounding the text.

The Problem of Silence

Consent To Print participants
I was impressed by the sophistication of this proposal, worked up in a short time by a group who for the most part had backgrounds in fields other than open source collaboration & version control. It was also telling, however, that the most prominent problem in our preceeding discussion was not addressed in this proposal at all. And that problem is silence.

I had expected 'disagreement' or 'multiple revisions' to be the most prominent issues raised in the discussion, but in fact we spent most of the time exploring this phenomenon of silence. It's relatively easy to imagine how you might design a modified web-to-print tool that visualizes diffs, log messages and conflicts [1] - but could a collaborative tool reflect the level of its participants' consent in a more meaningful way?

Consent To Print participants Just as feminists question how 'consensual' a social encounter is when those involved feel reluctant, passive or resigned, so the group discussed at length one of the primary problems haunting consensus (or indeed any democratic system): non-participation. Has consensus been reached if there are people in the group who say nothing, or who are indifferent? You are less likely to risk disagreeing, participants pointed out, with people you don't know or trust. Indeed, participants' presence in a workshop setting illustrated this vividly (as you can see in some of the photos here). Online, these silent observers are barely registered at all. Wikipedia editing policy, for example, equates silence with consent: if you don't like it, change it. This is possibly the best pragmatic policy available for dealing with the problem of online silence. However, this approach comes nowhere near a meaningful, feminist definition of consent. It awards the status-quo to those priviledged enough to be able and willing to speak, dubiously claiming the 'consent' of those too timid, tired, or confused to speak up. (We saw this in the recent debates about why more women don't edit Wikipedia: is it existing (male) editors' repsonsibility to make the site more welcoming, or womens' responsibility to 'Be Bold' or - as Wikivoyage puts it - 'plunge forward'? [2]). Sadly, many answers to this and related debates refuse to take into account the priviledge enjoyed by those who feel able to boldly plunge.

So how, then (besides urging silent observers to 'plunge forward'), can we approach this problem? Facilitating this workshop has inspired me to focus on the dilemma of silence as a graphic design problem for collaborative web-to-print tools. While it will never be a practical solution, an experimental web-to-print tool which takes some account of who has and has not spoken might go some way towards a more critcal invesigation of what really happens when we sit down together to reach 'consensus'.

With thanks to the Piet Zwart Institute and to workshop participants: Carola Briese, Beta Bruder, YinLai Choi, Claudia Dorfmüller, Katharina Köth, Alexandre Leray, Lucia Martinez, Shusha Niederberger, MyongJin Moon, Katarina Sevic, Stéphanie Vilayphiou, Sylvie Weber.

  1. Indeed there are some excellent examples by former Piet Zwart students, such as the Git-based Brainch by stdin, or Annemieke van der Hoek's Epicpedia.
  2. The phrase itself - and its accompanying photo of a jousting knight - acting as an unconscious but vivid illustration of the gender politics involved.
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