So now what?

So if liberals don’t have the tools to fight fascism, and fascism is here, what do we do? The below is hardly a comprehensive action plan – for a start we have no idea how exactly the next stage of this will shape up. We will need a hell of a lot more than this, and there are certainly other legitimate priority calls you can make. But I think these are things we all can do, right now, that may have an impact.

1. We need to realise the scale and scope of what’s going on. Charlie Stross outlines this here. There are a couple of things in there I could quibble with and a couple of things I think he’s missing but I’m not an expert on them either. Take this as a rough guide to how big and nasty this thing is. This fight is global. (Which is part of the reason I’m sitting here in the UK telling Americans what to do.)

2. I know I pointed you to Masha Gessen’s article and said institutions won’t help you. Past a certain point this is true, and we’re very close to that point in both the US and the UK. Other countries may still have a chance to stop the neoliberal erosion of democratic institutions, checks and balances, and individuals’ rights vis-a-vis the state that paved the way for what we’re seeing now.

For the US, I think there’s a couple of Hail Mary things that need to be prioritised. The one you have more control over is state legislatures. The Democrats must under no circumstances lose one because at that point the constitution is toast. I think it’s vital that some effort goes into this. The one you have less control over – but is definitely worth protesting, calling your representatives, etc. – is who Trump is going to put on the Supreme Court.

For the UK, our government has just passed the most extreme piece of surveillance legislation in a democracy ever. The companion piece to this, which would pave the way for censorship, is going through Parliament right now. It looks, for all intents and purposes, like a measure to protect children from online porn, hidden in the new Digital Economy Bill. In practice, it enables ISP blocking of websites hosting perfectly legal content. Today it’s porn. Tomorrow, it’s this blog. The day after, it’s Liberty and Amnesty International. We need to stop this.

Elsewhere, fight for the independence of the judiciary; resist legislation which enables surveillance and censorship (while being aware of how power operates in both these areas and especially on issues of free speech); if you have elections coming up, get involved, campaign, vote, make sure we don’t get more Trumps out there. The ones I can see coming in the near future are the Austrian and French presidential elections, and the German parliamentary elections. (My view is extremely Eurocentric and thus flawed. There will be others, equally important, around the world.) Do not let Marine Le Pen win. Do not let Norbert Hofer win. Find a way to stop the AfD from gaining ground. Germany and France in particular must not be allowed to fall, because if they do, the European Union does. And while the EU has many flaws, in the face of global fascism we’re better off with it than without it.

3. I can’t emphasise this enough: do not normalise this. Do not let others normalise this. It’s going to make for some very uncomfortable conversations with friends and family, and I think we’re all going to lose long-lasting friendships over this, but we have got talk to people, we have got to keep naming the problem for what it is: fascism, white supremacy. Hold people to account, do not let them weasel out, do not let them tell you that “it won’t be that bad”. It already is.

4. We need to start systematically dismantling the myths of our countries that have allowed us to get to this point. In the US, that’s the American Dream, the Protestant work ethic, and the discursive coupling of “America” and “freedom”, both historically and now. Let me go into that last one in detail. It is the most white supremacist of ideas, and it is baked into the consciousness of (white) America and the world. The idea that America is synonymous with freedom crumbles at the slightest challenge even if we centre whiteness. From the House Un-American Activities Committee to Freedom Fries, these are not things a “free country” does. The minute you decentre whiteness, it becomes absurd. It’s a country built on genocide and slavery that needs to reckon with its past. But that idea of the “land of the free” (and see Colin Kaepernick on that one!) is built into the very language even “progressives” use. From Star Trek’s “space – the final frontier” to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the frontier those “aspirational” words refer to is the frontier of genocide. Genocide so normalised that organisations campaigning for human rights see no problem naming themselves after it. America is not free. Has never been free. If we do not succeed in dismantling the myth of American freedom, will never be free. Cat Valente wrote something similar here from an actual American’s perspective.

In France, it’s laïcité, among other things, which is enabling brutal Islamophobia. In Britain it’s the idea of Rule Britannia, the cheerful waving of Union Jacks every summer at the Proms, poppies, and the failure to reckon with a history of brutal colonialism and Empire, the refusal to admit that slavery is as inextricably woven into British history as it is into American history. In Austria it’s the notion that you don’t talk about politics, and the idea that once there was an Austrian empire upon which the sun never set, and the handwaving of what happened between then and now and Austria’s role in it. In Germany, it’s the false sense of security that surely we have reckoned with our past and nothing like this could ever happen here again.

Look at yourself, at your country, at what you were taught in school. Find the most cherished idea about your country, the thing you think of as part of your nation’s essence. Unpack it, take it apart, and you will see that it has been corrupted, that it serves as a tool of oppression. Question it, dismantle it, destroy it, start again.

5. On a more practical level, start sorting out an anti-surveillance infrastructure that works for you. I know it’s neither cheap nor easy and so many privacy tools are a pain to use, but trust me, the surveillance capabilities of the state are something the Trump administration, the May government, and other incarnations of global fascism are going to make extensive use of. Here’s a starting point on that front.

6. If you are a member of a marginalised group start organising, finding community, working out what other people are doing to keep themselves safe. If you are in a position to help the marginalised with time, skills, or money, listen to what they need and give it to them to the best of your ability. Do not dismiss their concerns, do not silence them.

Your “Welcome to Fascism” reading list

It’s becoming increasingly unwieldy for me to keep track of good analyses of and calls to action with regards to the epic clusterfuck that is the rise of global fascism we seem to be experiencing. So here’s my masterlist of stuff I have found useful, thought-provoking, and terrifying over the last week and a half. I’ll probably keep updating it for a little while. A large chunk of the below come with content notes for discussions of racism, misogyny, queerphobia, violence.

The comprehensive exit poll data. (The Education by Race line speaks volumes.)

A very early Twitter thread by @yeloson on how profoundly some of our lives may change as a result of this. [discussion of cancer and death]

Let we forget, within hours of polls closing, this is what it felt like to be a Muslim woman in America.

Thread on the radicalisation of white men in online spaces by @SiyandaWrites. (The threading on this is somewhat messy and some of the responses are violent.)

Thread on what the left needs to do to create a powerful vision and message by Sunny Singh.

The Mary Sue’s Internet Privacy 101.

And the EFF’s Surveillance Self Defense.

A reminder from @ab_silvera that there are more victims of US policy outside the US. (Follow-up tweets.)

Charlie Stross’s initial analysis of Trump’s election. This man is scarily accurate in his analyses, to the point where’s written himself out of job.

The tactics we’re seeing global fascism use emerged during the break-up of Yugoslavia by @JasminMuj.

@flexlibris on operational security and securing your comms.

The feminist classroom as a safe space post Brexit and Trump by @alisonphipps.

Sunny Singh again on how neoliberalism has improved the lives of many around the world, at the same time as being exploitative. There are no easy answers here.

One for Americans, on how your political systems works and what the best ways are of influencing it.

@HarryGiles on how bad things are.

@pookleblinky‘s thread on how fascism is an exponential process.

Me on the importance of not normalising fascism.

@yeloson again on cyberpunk, racism, humanity and Trump.

Safety pins? Here are some things you can do to actually make people safer, by @siliconphospho.

@alwaystheself on how white supremacy socialises us to dismiss and minimise the terror it inflicts.

@UnburntWitch on the safety pin thing and dealing with constructive criticism in activism.

@scattermoon on the Jo Cox murder and how media has been minimising and dismissing the threat of fascism since before Brexit and Trump.

Masha Gessen’s rules for survival in an autocracy.

The 14 characteristics of fascism.

@aurabogado on Obama’s role in maintaining the good immigrant/bad immigrant dichotomy.

@ChiefElk on tech and social media’s role in enabling fascism.

@DNLee5 on racist selective memories of the Civil Rights Movement.

Flavia Dzodan on white feminism’s inadequacies and our desperate need for intersectional feminism.

@mxbees on privacy tools and digital rights for those who most need them.

We have got to stop devaluing black women’s knowledge.

Me on how liberals without a lived experience of a hostile state do not have the tools to fight fascism.

Roja Bandari on the the normality of living in a religious dictatorship.

Kali Holloway: Stop asking me to empathise with the white working class.

Me on the discursive coupling of “America” and “freedom”.

And among all this, Britain passes the most extreme surveillance law ever in a democracy.

Pookleblinky again, on how fascism quickly accumulates power by putting people through a series of obedience tests.

@mcclure111 on the bullshit that is “post-identity liberalism”.

@jpbrammer on how white working class Americans see themselves.

@AndrayDomise on what we should be calling the people who call themselves the “alt-right” – his recommendation is neo-Nazis.

Sarah Kendzior on how to be a light in dark times. Contains the most chilling paragraph I have read in the last ten days: “Write a list of things you would never do. Because it is possible that in the next year, you will do them.”

Cat Velente on American greatness.

Charlie Stross on the scope of the fight we’re facing.

Laurie Penny on bargaining, normalisation and mental health.

Me again, with an action plan of sorts for starting to fight this thing.

Mikki Kendall on why white working class voters need to be held accountable for voting against their own interests.

A thread live-tweeting FeministaJones’s talk at UPenn.

What the First Amendment Defense Act will mean for queer people in the US.

And a thread on FADA’s impact specifically on trans women. CN transmisogynist violence.

@Asher_Wolf on treating Trump & co. like cranky toddlers.

Dear liberal friends: you do not have the tools to fight Trump.

Hey liberal friends. Yes, you. You who’s been telling people frightened for their lives that “it won’t be that bad”. And you who keeps posting links to obscure constitutional loopholes that might make Bernie president. And you, who told me yesterday with a straight face that May was the British Trump (and I agree that a case can be made here) and then proceeded to talk about how to disentangle our message from that of more left-wing, more diverse campaign groups. We need to have a talk, because I don’t think you have even begun to realise yet how out of your depth you are. You simply don’t have the frame of reference: you have never lived in a state that was openly, actively, viciously hostile to you, there’s nothing in your set of life experiences to date to help you process this. And that is a problem, because your cluelessness and flailing is playing into the hands of fascism and doing damage to the rest of us.

Here are three pieces of reading for you to help you build a frame of reference:

Masha Gessen’s rule for surviving in an autocracy. She speaks from experience, she grew up in Putin’s Russia. Rules 1 and 3 in particular are what liberals seem to be struggling with. 1: Believe the autocrat. When Trump says he will deport 3 million people, don’t even for a second think that he doesn’t mean it, that it was just an election soundbite. Believe him, he will do it. Think about what you can do to resist this, to help those he is targeting. 3: Institutions will not save you. The electoral college is not going to swoop to the rescue. Neither are constitutional loopholes going to make Bernie president. Instead, Trump is going to stack the Supreme Court his way for the foreseeable future, and if the Democrats lose one more state legislature, the Republicans, already falling in line behind Trump like ducklings, are going to eviscerate the constitution. These are the stakes. You need to realise this, and accept it, and work out how you can keep people around you alive.

Here’s pookleblinky’s Twitter thread on how fascism is an exponential process. This, frankly, is a terrifying read. But honestly, I’d rather work on this premise and be wrong than keep going with the “it won’t be that bad” narrative and be wrong about that. Some key points: for most of its gestation time, fascism is basically invisible and seems like a joke; by the time you see the exponential ramp of its growth, it’s ubiquitous and overwhelming; you are always playing catch up – by the time you think of a strategy to deal with it, that strategy is no longer effective; the time window of effectiveness for each new strategy is shorter than the last; last time fascism reared its ugly head, it had horses and telegraphs – now it has instantaneous global communication, nukes, pervasive normalised surveillance, and biometric databases of close to the entire population. I honestly don’t have a good answer for this. I can only reiterate: start working out how you’re going to keep people alive.

And finally, just in case you’re still not convinced that what we’re dealing with is the real thing, just in case you still think the fact that Trump and his staff don’t know anything about the scope of the Presidency will save you, here are the 14 characteristics of fascism. Trump and those around him exhibit all 14. May… is getting close. Disdain for human rights, obsession with national security, protection of corporate power and suppression of labour power, disdain for intellectuals… If those don’t ring a bell, you have not been paying attention. We also need to acknowledge that liberalism has enabled many of these. Something to think about if we come out the other side of this.

So, liberal friends. You simply do not have the tools to fight this. Hell, most of you still don’t even believe that there’s anything to fight. You’d better start believing it, and fast. By the time it gets so bad you can see it, people and communities more marginalised than you will be wiped out. So. Listen to those people, to those communities. Listen to black and brown women. Listen to Black Lives Matter. Listen to queer people – and to trans women in particular. Listen to migrants, documented or otherwise. Listen to those of us who have lived experience of an actively hostile state. Take your lead from us. And start figuring out how you’re going to keep us alive, because without us you’re lost.

Do not normalise Trump. Normalise resistance.

I am, to be perfectly honest, still reeling from the act of violence that was the election of Donald Trump. My thoughts are not particularly coherent. I have retweeted many more coherent, more articulate people over the last few days – take a look if that’s what you’re after. But as I try to piece my life back together, what strikes me is how quickly normalisation has set in. From US domestic as well as foreign commentators urging us to “give Trump a chance”, to world leaders dutifully congratulating him on his election, to the host of (mainly) white men who have told me and others terrified for our futures, for our friends’ lives that “it won’t be that bad”, we’re already moving into “business as usual” mode. Angela Merkel’s language was the strongest possible within the constraints of diplomacy, but in the face of what awaits us it doesn’t feel like anywhere near enough.

Here’s the thing. It absolutely will be that bad, and probably worse. But you (white, straight you) won’t notice. Not at first. Much like what we’re seeing with Brexit, the changes will be small, gradual, seemingly unconnected, and you will find other things to blame for them. Mass exodus of international banks from London? Well good riddance to those bankers, nevermind that the banking sector directly employs 4% of the UK population, with many others’ livelihoods tied to it. Sterling collapses? Damn those markets! Food and consumer goods prices rise by 10-20%? How dare Unilever not give us our daily Marmite for free?! And those are just the things Middle England sees and pays attention to. The sharp rise of violence against anyone who looks or sounds like they might be vaguely foreign, against LGBT people and other vulnerable groups; the complete collapse of any opposition, making the UK a one-party state for the foreseeable future; the steady, unstoppable progress through Parliament of a bill extending and legitimising mass electronic surveillance – those day to day horrors visited upon the already marginalised and the deep structural changes cementing this as the status quo don’t even register on the radar of white, straight Middle England. And this is precisely what awaits America too. (And frankly, America is too big to not have an impact on the rest of us.)

Here’s what the flipside feels like: the not cis, not straight, not really white enough side of this. A lot of us saw at least some of this coming. For us, this is just an escalation of the kind of violence that we’ve been living with for years. When I lost my shit back in 2010 over Gordon Brown grovelling to Bigoted Woman, it wasn’t because she’d called me a “flocking Eastern European”. It was because those words were being normalised and legitimised by the Prime Minister, and no one else seemed to think that there was anything wrong with that. When as a digital rights campaigner I’d been warning people of state surveillance for years, they always looked at me like they thought I should be wearing a tinfoil hat. Then the Snowden revelations broke and, honestly, nothing changed. When I spent the entire summer after the Brexit referendum waking up halfway to a panic attack every single morning, my partner’s father wrote me an email telling me it wasn’t going to be that bad. (Then Amber Rudd said employers should be named and shamed for employing filthy foreigners like me and I got a vaguely apologetic email, which still made light of things.) Resistance is othered. Questioning the status quo, warning of the pitfalls of fascism is ridiculed. Naming our oppression and the violence committed against us on a daily basis is dismissed. “Oh, don’t be hysterical, it won’t be that bad.”

There comes a point where this all adds up. Where it becomes a crushing weight. Where the thing you’re fighting begins to feel too enormous for you to tackle, because nobody else seems to even think that there’s a thing to fight. I am… closer to that point than I like to admit this publicly.

So here’s the thing. White people. Cis people. Straight people. Non-disabled people. Stop normalising fascism. Stop normalising Trump. Stop normalising Brexit. Stop normalising Marine Le Pen, and Norbert Hofer, and Farage, and the AfD. When those of us with a day-to-day lived experience of violent oppression tell you that that is what is happening, believe us. Listen to us. Don’t tell us it’s not so bad. Don’t question the language we use and dismiss it as hysteria and hyperbole. Work out what it is that you can do to normalise resistance, to protect those less fortunate, more marginalised than you.

Stand in the line of fire.

Nothing else is good enough.

Dear “I’m not racist” Brexiter,

Honey, I don’t look angry, I am angry. I am mostly angry at the people who duped you and other Brexiters to vote the way you did, like turkeys for Christmas. But I am also angry at you and other Brexiters for continuing to stick to your guns long after every single thing the Brexit campaign said has been exposed as a lie (and they’ve admitted to it), long after that vote wiped out a significant chunk not only of the UK economy, but of the European economy and the world economy, long after it became clear that we are headed for a social, political and economic catastrophe. I am particularly angry at anyone who claims to be left-wing and supported Brexit because there wasn’t a single grain of that argument that was rooted in reality and what was even remotely achievable – and it’s given the Tories a significant boost, and put in power an incredibly dangerous right-wing woman, who will ramp up austerity and the sale of state assets, who will cheerfully take away all of your civil and human rights, and make you thank her for it. I am angry because this vote has given voice and legitimacy to the racism in this country that has been bubbling and building for years now, and all Brexit voters have to say is “we’re not all racists”. I am angry because as an EU immigrant in this country my own future is now incredibly precarious and uncertain. I am angry because both my partner and I work in higher education and academia which is already getting obliterated by Brexit. I am angry because the government this vote helped put in power is going to be even more actively hostile to queer people and women (both of which I am). I am angry because as a result of this vote People. Are going. To die. Brown people, immigrant people, queer people, poor people, disabled people, women. You think the Tories are bad? Try the Tories with no restrictions from pesky human rights and EU regulations. Try the Tories in power for generations because Scotland will leave and they’ve got England stitched up. Oh honey, you have no idea what’s coming to you. But here you are, all worried about how you’re being perceived and whether someone asked you to face the consequences of your own actions.

[rape, rape apologism] Congratulations, you’ve been upgraded!

A lot of people seem very surprised that I have a (mental) Probable Rapist list that I regularly add people to based on things they say about sexual violence. Probable Rapist is of course an upgrade from Schroedinger’s Rapist which, frankly, as a man you’re on by default. If you have a problem with that, your best bet is to work towards dismantling rape culture, not filling my Twitter mentions and blog comments with #NotAllMen.

Now, given that Schroedinger’s Rapist is a thing, I have to make decisions about my personal safety on a daily basis. Do I engage in conversation with this person or do I back away as fast as socially acceptable/least detrimental to my career prospects? Do I make arrangements to never be alone in a room with someone? Do I warn others that there’s a missing stair here? Unsurprisingly, I’ve developed some heuristics to help me make those decisions, many of them based on what people say about high-profile sexual assault cases, or about my work. Here’s a small sample of things that have got people upgraded from Schroedinger’s Rapist to Probable Rapist:

  • “Julian Assange is being arbitrarily detained.”
  • Brock Turner raping someone behind a dumpster was a “drunken mistake”.
  • Referring to a rape victim as a “victim”.
  • When I talk about consent, asking “But what about seduction?”
  • “You’re only accusing him of rape because he is Jewish/queer/an activist.”

See, the most charitable possible interpretation of any of the above is that your conception of consent is so far removed from mine (and that of other people who experience sexual violence) that you are likely to rape someone and not even know it. And maybe someone needs to educate you, and some days that someone is me, but it’s not my job to do it all the time, for every Probable Rapist, and I am increasingly disinclined to do so. Of course, the interpretations get less charitable from there.

So that’s the deal: people make up their minds about you based on what you say. This should not be a shock revelation. Do with that information what you will.

[rape, sexual assault] ioerror, TOR, and encouraging victims to report rape to law enforcement

[TW: This post discusses rape and sexual assault in some detail. In addition, several of the links lead to graphic descriptions of rape and sexual assault by survivors.]

First of all, all my thoughts are with the people who were finally able to speak out loud enough to be heard in the face of power. I hope they get whatever measure of justice, or closure, or healing they can and want from this. I also find it tentatively encouraging that, after some prodding, the TOR Project has chosen to deal with this publicly to an extent. The digital rights community has a long way to go, but I guess the reactions we’re seeing this week, and the voices we’re hearing, are better than those back in 2010.

There’s one thing that really struck me in TOR’s second statement though, which in some ways illustrates the depth, complexity and extent of the issues we as a digital rights community still need to get our collective heads around to make this a safe space:

People who believe they may have been victims of criminal behavior are advised to contact law enforcement. We recognize that many people in the information security and Internet freedom communities don’t necessarily trust law enforcement. We encourage those people to seek advice from people they trust, and to do what they believe is best for them.

Allow me to digress for a moment to another high-profile rape case that’s been in the media this week: the Brock Allen Turner one. This is pretty close to a classic “stranger rape” case, where there were two witnesses and a rape kit. This is one of the vanishingly small percentage of rape cases that not only got reported, and got to court, it led to a conviction. It is also the case where the rapist was sentenced to six months’ jail time because anything longer would have a “severe impact” on him. This is how law enforcement treats rape if you are lucky.

Here’s something else for you to consider before encouraging those Appelbaum attacked to go to law enforcement. This is a quote from River’s account over on jacobappelbaum.net:

I didn’t know until very recently that nonconsensual sex, by a friend, is rape.

This is not unusual among those who have experienced rape and sexual assault. Our society constructs sexual violence as “just sex” in a number of toxic and insidious ways. So if a survivor doesn’t know that what happened to them was rape, guess who else doesn’t know it: law enforcement. Let me be clear: nonconsensual, coerced, unwanted sex is rape, even if the person doing it is a friend, a partner, a spouse. This is certainly the case morally, and it is the case legally in many – not all – jurisdictions. Unfortunately, it’s not how law enforcement actually operates.

From what I’ve seen so far, most of these cases are historical cases of acquaintance rape: more difficult to prove “beyond reasonable doubt”, which is the standard for criminal conviction in most jurisdictions. This is not an issue with the cases, or the victims, it’s a structural problem of the way Western criminal justice systems approach rape and sexual assault. The best you can hope for here is a protracted, painful and humiliating investigation that is eventually declared inconclusive.

Another consideration is that the digital rights community that Appelbaum exploited is by nature multinational and migratory. At least one of the assaults (Forest’s account) happened in Germany. Germany’s rape laws are notorious as a carte blanche for rapists. Even if that wasn’t the case, by asking the victim to contact law enforcement, you’re asking them to deal with a legal system that is unfamiliar to them, in a language they may not speak. Depending on whether they’re resident in that country or not, you’re potentially asking them to put that at risk too.

So here’s the thing, TOR: as a woman who is also a digital rights activist, my mistrust of law enforcement does not come from my involvement in digital rights activism. Yes, it’s exacerbated by that, and surveillance is something I have to think about on a daily basis. But in this very specific intersection of circumstances, my mistrust of law enforcement goes much deeper than that, and is much more visceral. You suggesting otherwise is insensitive at best, and shows a remarkable level of ignorance of the reality of the situation at worst.

At the same time we need to recognise that the fact that the people Appelbaum attacked are digital rights activists does make it even more difficult for them to seek justice through law enforcement. In this way we are a vulnerable, marginalised community, making it easier for predators like Appelbaum to operate with impunity. Saying victims should talk to people they trust and do what they believe is best for them is not enough. It’s not a how a community should operate. It undermines our work and our reputation on the issues we have come together to address.

We need to get better at this. We need to believe the first person that reports an assault, not wait until there are ten of them. We need to set up structures that allow us to deal with abusers in a timely and effective way. We need to support survivors. Your move, TOR.

[Elsewhere] Scrap the Kinsey Scale!

[CN: CSA mention in first paragraph]

As a young and impressionable undergrad, the first academic book on bisexuality I came across in my university library (I have carefully blanked both the author and the title from my mind) argued that being abused as a child led to women becoming bisexual as adults. Even as recently as 2011, researchers at Northwestern University in the US felt the need to “validate” the existence of bisexual men – a move which prompted much snark from said bisexual men.

The outputs of research on bisexuality are often questionable largely because the assumptions and methods behind them tend to be flawed. As an academic in a related field, I occasionally get a glimpse at how the sausage is made: Researchers often circulate their questionnaires on various scholarly LGBT mailing lists in the hope of attracting more respondents, and I have got into the habit of vetting them before inflicting them on my unsuspecting queer friends and acquaintances. Surveys ostensibly aimed at the LGBT community almost invariably will contain a question along the lines of “When did you realise you were gay?” (I tend to return essay-length responses on why I am not “gay” and bin the link.)

Read more at Bi Community News.

There are no magic fixes for academic publishing

Earlier this week, Rufus Pollock published a proposal for reforming academic publishing. I do agree with some of the basic assumptions behind this piece: that academic publishing is hopelessly broken and doesn’t serve anybody well except for-profit publishers, and that technology can play a significant part in the solution. (I have in fact said these things before.) But here’s the thing: this is a social problem, and social problems do not easily lend themselves to purely technical solutions. None of the problems Pollock’s proposed solutions address are the actual problems that need solving to make academic research widely available to the public at no cost at the point of use.

There are three factors we need to consider to better understand the problems we actually need to solve: 1. the traditional model of academic publishing; 2. open access both as intended and as implemented; 3. what academics actually get CV points for (which is slightly different to what we actually care about, but that’s a separate problem).

1. I’ll stick to the model for academic papers. Books are slightly different but similarly broken. Academic journals, which is where most academic papers appear, are traditionally run by one of a handful of academic publishing houses. Sage, Elsevier, Springer, Wiley-Blackwell and Taylor & Francis between them publish 50% of all academic papers. Their costs are fairly minimal. Most journals will have a paid editor and some production staff. Print distribution does happen but with the advent of electronic journals it’s in severe decline. Importantly, there are two big-ticket items that publishers don’t pay for: content, and quality assurance. Content is provided free by academics because that’s how we get CV points. Quality assurance (also known as peer review) is also provided free by academics because that’s how we get CV points/get to snark at our colleagues/arch-nemeses.

Getting hold of a single academic paper through this model costs the end user anywhere between US$30 and US$120. Subscriptions significantly lower the cost per paper, as do subscription packages – but most people don’t want to read every single paper in a specific journal over the course of a year, so subscriptions/packages only make sense for large institutions, mainly academic libraries. There’s another part to this system that Pollock picks up on, which is indexing, i.e. making papers discoverable. I actually don’t know how the indexing business model works but if I were to guess based on how broken the rest of the industry is, journals and libraries both pay subscription fees for anything other than maybe Google Scholar. (Google is in a different business and also only partially useful for indexing academic papers.)

2. It is a perfectly reasonable position to look at the above and declare it broken. It’s broken in several ways, but most glaringly in that both the people who create the content and the people who (indirectly, through taxes) pay for the vast majority of research to be done in the first place, can’t access the content without putting money in the pockets of large private corporations who have contributed, at most, a bit of branding and a bit of admin to the entire thing. And since we have the internet, it seems entirely reasonable to go “just publish it all online for free!” And thus Open Access was born. Except you still have massively powerful corporations in the system who aren’t going to keel over so easily and lose their nearly pure profit. So the first thing they tried was to discredit the system. “Oh, but if you have Open Access then who will do quality assurance? It’ll be a free for all!” And when that didn’t work well enough (it did do some damage to the credibility of Open Access unfortunately) they lobbied until Open Access got redesigned in a way that would still let them profit from it in much the same way as before.

This is how Open Access works: there are two levels – green and gold. Some journals operate both, some only one. There might even still be a few out there that offer neither. Green level OA works on time: the journal has exclusive distribution rights for a given amount of time (normally between 6 and 24 months), after which the paper becomes Open Access and can be accessed by everyone for free (which may or may not be hosted by the journal – but most UK universities now have their own OA research repositories where stuff gets hosted). Add 24 months to the academic publishing cycle, which can take several years in the first place, and by the time the general public gets to read “cutting edge research”, it’s based on ten-year-old data. In physics, where the speed of light doesn’t change that much, this is mildly inconvenient. In computer science, which moves at the speed of Moore’s Law, this system is not even remotely fit for purpose. (Let’s not talk about the arts and humanities, that’s an entirely separate rant.)

Gold OA simply shifts which university department pays the publisher: if you want your paper to be published under Gold OA, you as the author – or your institution – have to pay the publisher for the privilege. Depending on journal, field and publisher, we’re talking US$1,000 – US$6,000 per paper. Now, the assumption here is that eventually all academic publishing will transition to full OA so libraries won’t have to pay subscription fees to access articles anymore, and therefore the money that’s currently being spent on that can be spent on on Article Processing Charges instead, and universities won’t be any worse off. There are about six million problems with this. For a start there is what is now looking like it’ll be quite a lengthy transition period. Between nuclear fusion and full OA, my money is on getting nuclear fusion first. During this transition period, universities are stuck having to pay both ways. The people this screws over most are PhD students and early career researchers, particularly the ones not funded by research councils. If you’re funded by a research council, there may be some money as part of your funding for dissemination and OA publication. If you’re not, tough luck, Gold OA is something you can only dream about. Other people this screws over are increasingly casualised researchers (often also early career) and independent scholars who don’t have an institution or funder behind them (who, unsurprisingly, are mostly from already marginalised groups). To add insult to injury, people who don’t understand the gory details of OA tend to view Gold OA as vanity publishing.

And yes, there are independent academic journals which run entirely not for profit on the Green OA model, making papers available immediately. They are few and far between, those that do exist have to fight hard to establish credibility and reputation (because of the work publishers did to discredit OA originally), and of course this model relies entirely on people wanting to contribute to their community for very little reward. Some examples of this working well are Transformative Works and Cultures which is a fan studies journal run by the Organisation for Tranformative Works, and the one where the entire academic staff of one of the biggest linguistics journals told Elsevier they could stick it and started an OA journal instead. But in the vast majority of cases we’re still stuck with the big publishers.

But what about arXiv.org I hear you ask! Which brings us neatly to 3: what do academics actually get CV points for?

3. (This bit covers the more or less gory details of research funding in the UK, but the broad principles of prestige, peer review, and funding being tied to publication applies, with minor tweaks to the exact metrics, to anyone wanting to pursue an academic career at a Western university.) Research at UK universities is funded in two main ways: by the research councils, which tend to fund specific projects, and (in England) by HEFCE which allocates generic lump sums of money every five years or so. I used to know the percentage split of how much money comes in from HEFCE and how much from research councils but I don’t anymore – either way, the HEFCE money is a significant chunk for many universities. How much HEFCE money a university gets is determined by an arcane process called the REF (Research Excellence Framework), where every five or so years universities submit their research output to a panel (by subject) and the panel decides how good the research output is, on a scale from one to four stars (four being world-leading). Every star on every paper means a certain amount of money annually for the university. A four-star paper is worth about £10k a year, which means that if you have four four-star papers in a given REF period, your salary is more or less covered by the HEFCE money that brings in. Which in turn means you might be able to get a/keep your job for the next REF cycle. (It’s more complicated than that, but that’s the gist of it.)

Theoretically the REF panel judges papers on their own merits, not on where they were published. Practically, the sheer volume of work they have to get through… Yeah. There’s a strong incentive to publish in established, high-impact-factor (don’t ask), for-profit journals. There is literally zero incentive to just chuck your paper on something like arXiv and run. The reason arXiv works for the community that uses it is that it’s a pre-publication archive: the papers, in slightly altered form, are still published in the big academic journals where they get their impact factor and REF eligibility etc. (Now, HEFCE has said that any paper published after April 1, 2016, to be eligible for the 2020 REF, needs to be in an OA repository. What this means in practice is that if your paper is still embargoed under Green OA, or is in a non-OA journal but is sitting behind a password on your institutional repository, your’re fine. Which is some great hoop-jumping for not a lot of direct benefit to the general public.)

So these are the actual problems any review of Open Access or any other solution seeking to make academic research available to the public should be looking to solve. Pollock’s proposed model doesn’t come near it. From what I can see, it eliminates peer review entirely. Now, peer review is broken in several interesting ways, but unless we fix how research is funded and academics are employed, it’s one of the less bad ways of doing quality assurance on academic research. Because all three of Pollock’s filtering/selection models eliminate the double-blind aspect of peer review, the system automatically becomes even less accessible to marginalised groups (aka the “try hanging out on Reddit as not-a-cishet-white-dude phenomenon”). Because it doesn’t take into account any of how research itself is funded and what the key stakeholders in this process (researchers, their employers and funders) actually care about, the model is completely unworkable. And because it doesn’t take into account the vested interests which shape the current system (for-profit publishers), even if it was workable there’s no clear path to implementation.

All of which is why requirements engineering is an art, and why you shouldn’t try to fix complex social problems with technical solutions.

Purple Prose – Help us make something amazing!

[The Purple Prose crowdfunding page is here. Help us make it happen!]

A little over a year ago I came across a blog post or a tweet, I can’t quite remember. Someone wanted to put together a book. A book about the experiences of bisexual people in the UK, by the bi community, for the bi community. I have some experience with being bi in the UK, I thought. I can write some things.

I was in the process of quitting a job that had involved, among other things, working on LGBT workplace issues for over a decade. The workplace chapter poured out of me in a day: ten years’ experience, 5000 words, just happened. I was also in the process of starting a PhD all about the politics of culture, identity and representation. It made sense that I would compile a chapter on the representation of bisexuality in fiction. I contributed other bits and pieces: some thoughts on internalised biphobia, my coming out story, snippets on what my sexuality meant to me.

I followed the progress of the book on our mailing list as questions were asked and answered, other chapters were compiled, the wordcount slowly ticked up. Then we had a publisher, and a deadline, and now we have a crowdfunding campaign. But the most amazing thing is that this week I got my hands on a copy of the first complete draft. I was only going to check that my chapters were ok… and then I started reading. And I couldn’t stop. I laughed out loud on the tube, I cried in a cafe, I learned so many things.

There are so many different voices here, so many experiences. Some things are similar: most of us have experienced biphobia at times, or felt erased and invisible, or felt unwelcome in spaces that should have been safe. Most of us keep having to come out again and again, often to the same people. But there is also a huge diversity. Purple Prose doesn’t play respectability politics. It shows you the bi community in all its intersectional glory.

We have a chapter on gender and bisexuality, featuring among other things the experiences of many non-binary bisexual people, previously unrepresented. We have a chapter on bisexuality and non-monogamy, one on bisexuality, disability and mental health, and one on the experiences of bisexual black and minority ethnic people. We have a chapter on how bisexuality may intersect with other attractions and orientations, both sexual and romantic; a chapter on bisexuality and faith, and one showcasing the experiences of bi people of different generations. We have people who have found a home in the bi community, and others writing very frank and honest accounts challenging that community to do better by them.

Where we stand united is in challenging society at large to do better by all of us. To stop erasing us, to accept all of us rather than just focus on those who meet a certain “respectability” standard. To make sure that bi kids growing up today don’t have to deal with the kinds of crap that was thrown at us.

As I watched this project grow from Katy’s idea, to having a dedicated group of contributors, to actually putting words on the page, my main thought was that I wished I’d had a book like that when I was growing up. I hoped that this book would help young bi people trying to work out their sexual and romantic orientations and navigate a world that continues to be binary and monosexist. But as I practically inhaled the first draft, I realised we had produced so much more. I have been a bi activist for many years now, one way or another, and I thought I knew what being bi meant, to me and to others. And yes, I knew some things. But it turns out I had plenty to learn too, and I am immensely grateful to all the other Purple Prose contributors for sharing their stories, their thoughts, their feelings and experiences.

The thing is, we are now very very close to making this book a reality. It’s written and being edited as we speak. We have a publisher. But we need a little bit of capital to get us to the finish line. So if you are bi, if there are bi people in your life, or if you simply want to make the world a better place for bi people, head over to the Purple Prose Indiegogo page and help us make it happen. If you fund us to the tune of £5 or more, you will get a copy of the book. If you want to club together with some friends, or your work LGBT network and make a bigger donation, you can get me or some of the other awesome contributors to speak at your event. But even if all you can give is £2, you will have our sincere thanks and the knowledge that you have helped the bi community create something amazing.