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The Art Of Co-Hosting

June 27, 2023 Spring 2023

Solidarity Infrastructures was a 10-week online course facilitated by Alice Yuan Zhang and Max Fowler with the support of Mark Hernandez Motaghy. Through workshops and seminars, participants learned how to install, operate, and maintain a self-hosted server in their communities. In this process, they applied concepts such as "computing in place" and "always already infrastructuring" to their locale. Participants came from various fields, including programming, cultural work, foraging, writing, social science, game-making, and organizing. Solidarity Infrastructures challenged the divide between service and art, providing an opportunity to rehearse technological autonomy and meaningful forms of solidarity.

Writing a blog post about Solidarity Infrastructures is proving to be a challenge for me because there is so much I want to share—the networked commons we speculated, the seed bombs we metaphorically set off into our futures, the class digital infrastructure we hosted from an Intel Nuc in Alice’s living room. As I’m sifting through our class notes, a tweet from sociologist Ruha Benjamin is returning to me: "Remember to imagine and craft the worlds you cannot live without, just as you dismantle the ones you cannot live within." The classroom was a container for this imagination-working and craft-making; for socio-technical imaginaries that are feminist and decolonial in nature. There was space for dancing in the ruins of Big Tech (shout out to Varia for their incredible guest lecture).

To help prepare for the course, I interviewed several artists and technologists (with the support of Solar Protocol) with feminist server practices. I took this opportunity to interview Alice and Max, of course. During my chat with Max while on the topic of alternative digital infrastructures, they asked me, “If we aren't going to have these hidden data centers, what other possibilities could there be?” The possibilities we oriented toward in Solidarity Infrastructures were not one-size-fits-all solutions. (Note how Ruha’s tweet, 'worlds' is plural.) Scaling up universal solutions by default, what drives innovation and activity in Silicon Valley, would only recreate the logic of The Big Tech Cloud. Therefore, we started small, at multiple centers of knowledge.

Collective Knowledge Constellation

We began the class with a knowledge constellation. This collective document, led by Alice, notes how "we are conduits of ideas, skills, and stories that come from many people, places, and circumstances." It highlights how feminist citations can help to "cross-pollinate so that we can better understand, connect with, and support each other across our ecosystems.” Higher education arrangements often make it seem like we must leave behind our communities the moment we step foot in the classroom. The nodes in this document question an alternative pedagogical approach. After all, to whom are we speaking? Nodes in the Collective Knowledge Constellation connect from Philly Community Wireless to The Kanap Kuahan (Tell The Truth) Coalition to mutual aid groups such as Mutual Aid Medford and Somerville (MAMAS). How might we place local knowledge in the service of our communities? Can we consider community networks as an operative and activistic space?

How To Install Yunohost On a Raspberry Pi Video by Max

We gradually became certified server stewards thanks to Max's illuminating instructional videos. We used the operating system Yunohost to run our servers. Its name is derived from internet-speak: Y U NO HOST (your own server). They outline four reasons for self-hosting: ethics (“You believe in a free, open and decentralized internet”), autonomy (“You want to have control of your data and services.”, demystifying tech (“You want to learn about how computers and the Internet work”), and self-innovation (“You want to explore new possibilities and customize things”). But Alice, Max, and I shared questions about what a server could do when we shift from self-hosting to collective hosting. How would the shape of a network respond to an elderly home, guerilla gardeners, or sex worker advocates? These various scales of being in-common with others are perhaps what Panayotis Antoniadis calls the “intermediate cloud options.” As he states in The Organic Internet: Building Communications Networks from the Grassroots:

In between the two extremes of a personal and a global cloud, there are numerous intermediate options, like a neighborhood, district or city cloud, or even a cloud shared between a certain group of people like a cooperative.

One week before class started, here are some questions we asked ourselves as we thought about these under-rehearsed collective server options and their respective rituals:

  • What are the poetic shapes and possibilities of server practice?
  • What are the ways of performing sysadmin tasks more communal or ritualistically?
  • What rituals can promote intentionality around server maintenance and solidarity?
  • How should the server be acknowledged?
  • Do we believe that a server is happier in a community-centric role? Re: Mark's video when the community in Kotagiri, India, referred to their server as a “server space.”

Ten weeks later — after covering topics ranging from unpacking the multistakeholder governance of the internet, to questioning new models of socially-engaged media arts practice, to working with a DIWO (Do It With Others) attitude and critically engaging with the labor of repair and collective stewardship — we had our servers running. We’re currently working on gathering the content and class projects for a public Wiki. (Be on the lookout for our launch at the end of Summer!) For now, I can share a project offered by Lillyanne Pham. First, words of encouragement from Meghna Mahadevan.

Secrets to working on a server by Meghna Mahadevan

  1. Lots and lots of snacks
  2. Recruiting a sister with more experience to help, entice with lots and lots of snacks.
  3. A positive attitude.
  4. Try stuff, break things.
  5. Everything, everything dies.
  6. Knowing how to look stuff up is the key to everything, that and compatibility.
  7. Maintain a positive attitude.
  8. Everything ends.
  9. Everything is reborn. Try again.
Lillyanne Pham, Server for a garden friendship portal

As one of three garden managers for a BIPOC, Immigrant, and Refugee community garden plot at so-called Knott Park, Portland, Oregon, Lillyanne created an offline friendship portal. As Lillyanne states in their Wiki entry, they wanted “something that could be accessed without data or wifi,” “something inter-local like the space itself,” and something to “connect the gardeners who all speak different languages. Lillyanne then got a solar-powered power bank and stored the configuration in a waterproof box buried in their garden plot. Lillyann’s Wiki breaks down this learning process and how it will grow if you want a friendship portal.

Lillyanne Pham, Friendship portal interface

During my interview series, Alice asked me how can we "reframe server hosting as a community endeavor, as an extension of radical organizing and care-based artistic practices?" We both found that "hosting" is a loose yet productive term that bridges community tech and conviviality. Hosting with and for others — online or IRL — is a slow and relational practice of (digital) attunement. Perhaps a digital intervention may not even be necessary (Architect Sandi Hilal's project Al Madhafah, where "guest" and "host" are subverted in a public living room configuration, was a solidarity infrastructure case study). Co-hosting is a dialogic practice of mutual designation rather than top-down managerial capital. Solidarity infrastructures shows us that the relational infrastructures of a community can be just as important as the servers and circuits. If a web server is a hammer, not every need in the community will be a nail. We started by listening to the needs of our communities. ⚘