Abdo Hassan, PublicSpaces, Waag, 2023
2023 BY-NC-SA

Abdo Hassan on cultivating joyful resistance

The countdown has begun for The PublicSpaces Conference: For a Collective Internet, set to take place on June 27 and 28. Among the promising line-up of more than 50 speakers and visionaries, one name stands out: Abdelrahman (Abdo) Hassan, a software engineer, responsible AI ethicist, activist and poet.

Fresh off his panel discussion on responsible AI systems at the RightsCon in Costa Rica, Emma Yedema, editor and producer at PublicSpaces, sat down with him for an interview. They discussed his thoughts on navigating the intricate landscape of digital spaces and the interplay between technology, joy, and responsible digital engagement. Coming from and working in multi-faceted disciplines, Hassan’s unique blend of poetic sensitivity and technical prowess creates a harmonious coexistence of two seemingly disparate worlds. Through his poetic words, he involves the audience in building an alternate imagination, in situating the harms, while his critical algorithmic data approach strives to create a toolkit for a living archive of joyful resistance in the digital space.

Algorithmic harms and the need for meditation

On Tuesday June 27, Hassan will perform Gardens of Algorithmic Care at the PublicSpaces Conference, a poetic meditation on the harm caused by data and algorithms. In this ritualistic experience, Hassan aims to build an alternate imagination, connecting seemingly disconnected harms and fostering a sense of centredness amidst the fast-paced, often disenchanting world of AI and technology. What can we expect from him?

‘[The performance] is kind of a poetic intervention, because it’s somewhere between a poem and a rant,’ Hassan says. ‘It also has elements of meditation, where you involve the audience in building an alternate imaginary, in situating the harms.’ These harms, as Hassan explained in an earlier interview, are caused by practices like image and facial recognition algorithms, which have been proven to discriminate against women and people of colour, perpetuating social stereotypes and reinforcing damaging associations.

‘This idea of talking about AI without talking about digital space is also a mechanism for erasure'

Hassan stresses the need to consider digital space in discussing the impact of AI. ‘This idea of talking about AI without talking about digital space is also a mechanism for erasure, because AI is just an abstract thing, this nice, cool, abstract intelligence. People live, act and interact in a space. And one of the elements that could be in that space, that organises the space, or shapes the geography of the space, is AI. I think talking about healthy spaces or healthy ecosystems is much more tangible to talk about than AI on its own.’

In line with this perspective, acclaimed science fiction author Ted Chiang has advocated for reframing AI as 'Applied Statistics,' highlighting the importance of grounding AI discussions in its practical implications within real-world contexts. Hassan continues: ‘What I really like about the conference is that this is the standpoint. It is not just “let’s talk about generative AI”, but let’s talk about spaces, and if we have to talk about generative AI as part of how the spaces form, let’s then do that, but let’s be mindful.’

For Hassan, meditation becomes a collective re-centring practice, in which we take care of ourselves amidst all the negative feedback loops, and meditate on what really makes tech ours, and what building a different and transformative imagination might look like. He emphasises the inherent disconnection that often surrounds discussions of technological harms. These harms seem to emerge from obscure sources, leaving us pondering their origins. ‘Is it because they leech on our bad intentions?’ he asks. ‘Is it because there’s not enough regulation? Where does this come from?’ The need for deeper introspection becomes increasingly apparent as these questions arise. Through this re-centring practice, he believes we can cultivate a profound understanding of our relationship with technology and ignite the spark of a transformative imagination.

Radical optimism in a protopian society

After sharing his thoughts with the audience on day one of the conference, Hassan will go on to lead a workshop entitled ‘Everyday (H)acktivism‘ on day two. The workshop is a community research project that explores how ordinary people can engage in everyday acts of data activism. Hassan hopes it will ‘redefine the role of what being an activist in the data-driven age entails’. Participants will be interacting with a toolkit and engaging in a practice of critical making, adapting the cards of the toolkit to local contexts, and creating a shared manifesto that interrogates the idea of activism itself.

‘Each small action, each intervention, contributes to a broader movement towards a more desirable future.’

In today’s convoluted debates surrounding data-driven AI systems it is impossible to expect people to be ‘hyper-literate’, as Hassan puts it. The toolkit therefore offers participants an accessible way to talk about the impact and implications of these systems. By highlighting the importance of joyful resistance and community-centric approaches, Hassan’s perspective calls for a re-evaluation of our relationship with technology. It reminds us that progress and radical optimism can be achieved through a mindful and inclusive approach that empowers communities and utilises technology as a tool for positive change.

According to Hassan, this utilisation of technology as a tool for positive change is consistent with the concept of ‘protopia’, in which pro stands for progression. Rather than a society which tries to solve all its problems with ungrounded realism (utopia) or one which falls into moral decay (dystopia), a protopian society makes small incremental changes for an immediate future that is a little better than the one that exists today. By embracing protopia, Hassan argues, we recognise the value of community-centred practices and acknowledge the fact that positive change is a collective effort. Each small action, each intervention, contributes to a broader movement towards a more desirable future. It encourages us to engage with the tools, platforms, and systems at our disposal while actively questioning and challenging their impact.

In the end, it is clear that the power of Hassan’s interventions extends far beyond the confines of a single workshop or toolkit. Described as a ‘living archive of joyful resistance in the digital space’, the toolkit will never be considered finished. Hassan hopes people will relate the interventions to their own practices and instigate community-centred practices. ‘I think of these projects as plants or trees, and as long as you care for them, provide them with the right fertile ground for growth, they will grow.’

Visit the PublicSpaces Conference website for the full conference programme.