Patchwork Computing

This entry is part of rosa's Ecofeminist Dictionary from the project 'A Traversal Network of Feminist Servers' (ATNOFS) and is based on two discussions I had with Cristina Cochior, Alice Strete, Manetta Berends, Amy Pickles, and Julia Bande of Varia1

Varia prepared a server named rosa2 before the start of ATNOFS, during a series of Thursday evening get-togethers. During these meetings a lot of thought was given to what functionality would be needed, a careful selection of tools to accommodate ways of working together. It was clear that this wouldn't be a simple install party. rosa would not start from scratch, nothing ever does, but instead would be built using a patchwork of projects, scripts, and tools originating from Varia, XPUB3, Constant4, and the wider networks they are part of. This method made a point of showing the seams by not automating everything. This mattered because it made everyone more aware of all the moving parts. This seamful patching together of small tools, adapting them to a specific context to allow for meaningful engagement, is patchwork computing.

Varia approached rosa as a tool for documentation but also as a social space. The role language played in server interactions was a very concrete translation of caring for and claiming that space. Because for some Varia members it was the first time using a terminal, while others already had experience, the language was something that they could all engage with. Varia recalls the language of the fresh Linux install was determining a certain hostility in the environment. This started with the “lecture file” that popped up after running the sudo command5 for the first time. The tone of the text just felt so out of proportion with what they were doing: they just had dinner, they were having a nice chat... and then — they got lectured. "Suddenly this other voice comes in that is taking over the space from a place we didn't know was even there." Changing certain texts, such as the sudo lecture file, renaming commands and tweaking welcome messages, was a way of making it more comfortable to move around rosa, through small scale interventions. The realization that you don't have to take these wordings for granted was very inspiring and kept playing a role throughout the project.

This reclaiming of the space by making it speak in a voice that was ours (the participants’) also happened through other means. One very risky but interesting move was giving everyone root privileges, erasing the power differences between users and administrators. This made room for other ways of doing, for instance, in dealing with errors and error pages. Normally, when someone tries to load a page that doesn’t exist or is run by a service that is currently not running, the server loads an error page, a dead end for the visitor. Because everyone had root, these pages could be rewritten to include instructions on how to fix the problem. There was a conversation about automating this process, for instance restarting etherpad-lite, but it was decided that this was not a desirable thing to do. Automating it makes it invisible, you lose a level of understanding. It's one of the ways the seams of the patchwork are made visible and it transforms moving and replugging the server into a type of ritual: you plug it in, you start it and you manually start the services: "like you make the coffee, open the blinds and you welcome everyone inside."

Even though there wasn't a specific environmental focus in how rosa was prepared, the server ended up quite lean because of its limited computational capacities. At first they were too limited, which meant the donated machine had to be replaced by a second-hand one because etherpad-lite needed a little bit more power when many people were working on documents at the same time. Using second-hand hardware was an environmentally significant choice, making do with what is already there, and working within the limits of the machine as well. Varia mentions that working with such a modest device was possible because rosa is thought of mainly for the role of documentation, allowing for more flexibility, also in terms of availability. rosa went offline every time they traveled. This adaptation to the context, this situated way of serving, challenges certain paradigms that cause environmental harm, such as expecting 99.999% uptime and expecting servers to have the latest Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) and Central Processing Unit (CPU) no matter what the task at hand is. Certain tasks are essential and require this, but many more services could be approached in this flexible and situated way.

Something Varia intended to do, and something that could help in keeping computationally heavy processes in check, was to monitor all the processes on rosa and make them more visible. They wanted to look at which things take up the most space, and if that space can be justified, to make the space more equal for all the other processes. This idea was triggered by a cron job6 that was executed very often and started slowing everything on rosa down. Although they didn't have time to work on this visualization, rosa did gain a voice, even several voices, in Graz. Listening to the server made them more present in the space. Pushing this idea further, the making of space for other processes (computational or other) could mean slowing down a cron job to once a year. We started thinking about seasonal computing, something that doesn't need to happen all year round, but only on one particular moment in time, in one specific location. Could computing be less like a 24/7 supermarket thing and be more seasonal — like you would go to an orchard to pick fruit once a year, you could go to this space where one special computational task is happening which would be dormant the rest of the time?

  1. Varia is a collective space in Rotterdam focused on everyday technologies. They believe technology shouldn’t be the exclusive domain of specialists. It affects everyone and should enable, rather than preclude, diverse ways of living. Focusing on everyday technology means questioning the hierarchies in place within technical objects and therefore the valorisation of skills needed to design or use these objects. This means reconsidering the hegemony of high tech: cheap, artisanal solutions are their method of choice.
  2. rosa is a small yet significant feminist server that travelled to six communities in different European cities in 2022, as part of the project A Traversal Network of Feminist Servers (ATNOFS).
  3. XPUB is the Master of Arts in Fine Art and Design: Experimental Publishing of the Piet Zwart Institute. XPUB focuses on the acts of making things public and creating publics in the age of post-digital networks.
  4. Constant is an association for arts and media run by artists, designers, researchers, and hackers based in Brussels, Belgium. Constant works to systematically create collaborative situations that engage with the challenges of contemporary techno-life. At Constant, they develop projects at the intersections of art and technology in which, for them, it is important to make connections between intersectional feminisms, free software, and copyleft approaches. Together, these allow them to imagine webs of interdependencies, infrastructures of solidarity, poetic algorithms, conflicted data processing practices, and principles for multi- and/or fuzzy authorship. For them, generating puzzling questions is a strategy that offers openings for profound, complex, and playful research. These questions are stumbling blocks that help them realize that the technologies they are interested in are not about fluency, smoothness, optimization, and efficiency, but are instead full of assumptions and problems that demand our continuous attention.
  5. The sudo command can be run via the command-line interface of Unix-like operating systems (such as Linux) if the sudo program is installed. It allows users, if they have been granted sudoer rights, to execute commands which require system administrator privileges, without having to enter the password of the system administrator.
  6. A cron job is a scheduled command which will be executed periodically, automating certain recurring maintenance tasks on a Unix-like operating system.