There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can’t take part; you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies against the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers and upon all the apparatus; and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!
—Mario Savio, “Bodies Upon the Gears,” 1964
In what can be regarded as an incendiary prelude to the 1968 student movement, activist Mario Savio’s words invoke a redistribution of agency that both revolts against the hierarchical optimization of social production by means of knowledge acquisition and also reveals the individualistic subject-oriented techno-politics of the time. This is one of the many manifestations of a countercultural spirit that mobilized and connected important forces at the time. In 2022, a contemporary countercultural struggle perhaps needs to start by honoring, yet also mourning, these kinds of revolutionary and antagonistic attitudes by understanding that it is nowadays quite unimaginable, techno-politically speaking, to put any body against any gear to make “it” stop.
Formed as part of the 2021/2022 BAK Fellowship for Situated Practice, the Cell for Digital Discomfort (CfDD)—composed of Cristina Cochior, Karl Moubarak, and Jara Rocha—are the guest editors of this special Prospections focus “Digital Discomfort,” a compilation of newly commissioned and archival resources such as texts, interviews, and videos that allow for a collective exploration of sensibilities around an affirmative repoliticization and redefinition of compu-relational practice.
During their fellowship for Situated Practice, the CfDD learnt, dialogued, and experimented with ways to refuse compliance with what science and technology scholar and ecofeminist Donna Haraway calls the “informatics of domination,” and what could be referred to as “totalitarian innovation.” From within and beyond the fellowship, CfDD’s drive is to operate as an agitator of disobedient, practice-based, para-academic research on, across, and despite the techno-colonial establishment of BigTech. CfDD undertakes mundane but attentive experiments to collectively study non-Eurocentric white origins of computational paradigms and to propose instead trans*feminist infrastructural entanglements, anti-extractivist connecting cultures, and intersectional notions of hosting and hostility in the online structures we inhabit.
With “Digital Discomfort,” CfDD continue their collective study of cultures and practices of computation and invites other reflections, grammars, and actions that contribute to a plurality of inter-dependent, anti-colonial, trans*feminist, anti-ableist, and environmentally just worldmaking practices of computation. These contributions grapple with the complex distribution of agencies and stakeholders, even if it’s technically impossible to make the apparatus just “stop.”
In The Cultural Politics of Emotions (2004), feminist scholar and author Sara Ahmed proposes a definition of discomfort in which she theorizes its generative potential. According to Ahmed, this potential lies in developing possibilities of living that stray from the normative: “To feel uncomfortable is precisely to be affected by that which persists in the shaping of bodies and lives. Discomfort is hence not about assimilation or resistance, but about inhabiting norms differently. The inhabitance is generative insofar as it does not end with the failure of norms to be secured, but with possibilities of living that do not ‘follow’ these norms through.” Folding this conceptualization into the digital realm raises the question of what new “available scripts for living and loving” discomfort might lead to that allow moving closer toward a more situated, diverse, radical, careful, and attuned cohabiting of everyday digital space-times.
The urgency of CfDD’s inquiry is prompted by the contemporary stage of rampant global digitization based on the dominant logic of coercion, quantification, and the mass capture of all aspects of more than human existence: the lack of exteriority within cloud-computing, the imperativeness of hyper-availability, the apparently unquestionable “fixes” brought by agile flow-management, the solutionism of optimized planetary computing, and so forth. Digital discomfort is a mode of dealing with, resisting, attending to, and intervening into the sneaky moments of techno-capitalist innovation, linear solutionism, and ostensibly seamless operations of digital infrastructures. Activating the latent epistemic potential of roughness, “seamfulness,” and friction, digital discomfort builds with trans*feminist practices toward non-universalist propositions for computation and algorithmic practice—either through interventions in existing dominant infrastructures, such as The Institute for Technology in the Public Interest’s Counter Cloud Action Plan, or through the bottom-up building of infrastructure by communities, such as the endeavors of A Traversal Network of Feminist Servers. Here, discomfort is conceived as a generative space-time where the relation to norms of computing has the potential to be redefined.
Digital discomfort, like physical discomfort, can come from a politicized rearrangement of an environment: the agential trail toward the abolition of inherited structures in order for other modes of existence to emerge. Such rearrangement needs to entail a double move of, on the one hand, remembering and reactivating ways of doing that have stayed latent despite violent operations of techno-cultural erasure, and on the other hand, taking responsibility for the degrees of privilege in attempts to let go of cis-hetero-able-western-anthropocentric epistemic assumptions, oppressions, inertias, and all sorts of impositions for what it means to be technologically engaged in the complex realities of the contemporary mundane. As artist and educator Romi Ron Morrison puts it: “today . . . is not a time of futility but of radical reimagining and visceral reconnection.”
Reimagining means placing a focus on the experiences, aesthetics, and vernacular diversities of more exuberant techniques. This involves problematizing the individualized rigidness of the emergent subjectivity of the computer-user; cracking open the often false and mystifying fairy tales of telecom companies; adding categories of analysis to a big but simplistic quantify-all system; and reshuffling tactics of social movements to make them useful in relation to computational techno-ecologies that extend far beyond the actions of CfDD, into a network of networks.
The “Digital Discomfort” focus gathers voices, perspectives, and analyses that generate polyphonic imaginations and—always partial—definitions of digital discomfort. This is hence a proposal to do an exercise in the juxtaposition of—echoing philosopher Denise Ferreira da Silva—differentiated but inseparable sensibilities. Cultural agents, theorists, artists, and system administrators—some already known to CfDD and others floating in the not-yet-known area of potential relationality—are invited to bring their practices into conversation with digital discomfort and contribute to the many definitions that this term can encompass. Some materials are republished, some emerge out of more or less intimate exchanges, and others assume a dialogic response with what has already been circulating through BAK’s publishing and discursive archives. Contributions constellate around four thematized axes: “Conditions for Connectivity: On Infrastructural Interdependencies,” “Computing and Calculating Otherwise: On Decolonial Informatics,” “Intersectional Notions of Hosting and Hostipitality: On Trans*Feminist Serverhoods,” and “Seamfulness, Awelessness, and Underwhelmedness in Computational Practices: On Embracing Discomfort as a Transformative Aesthetics.”
“Conditions for Connectivity: On Infrastructural Interdependencies” makes space for observing, situating, attuning to, and “installing” a sense for how technological infrastructures are assembled today, populated by local telecommunication providers, network transfer protocols, domestic devices, improvised architectures, vernacular genealogies, and so on. Through these contributions, the aim is to address the hegemonic reach of techno-capitalism into the mediation of everyday life; recurrent negotiations around the accessibility of free, libre, and open source software alternatives, and the direct implications of infra-geopolitical bodies that mediate and limit connectivity—understanding infra-geopolitical bodies as the complex infrastructural reality of those modes of existence and governance affected by geopolitical distributions of power. For this thematic axis, CfDD interviews the system administrators of conferencing software meet.coop about the techno-geopolitics of Big Blue Button, which was a software CfDD tentatively tried to use with the entire BAK Fellowship for Situated Practice cohort at the beginning of the fellowship, and struggled to get it working for some fellows outside of Europe. In this interview, meet.coop also elaborate on their cooperative infrastructural financing model. The axis “Computing and Calculating Otherwise: On Decolonial Informatics” explores writings around the relations between informatic technologies and colonialism; the inherent non-western algorithmic origins of computational paradigms; and the ways in which we can use abstraction in computation and the arts—abstraction that remains close to computation’s complex origins, the structures of multiplicity, the flesh, and other materialities. What we get to abstract, where we abstract from, and with what incentive, matters (literally). The republication of software artist and writer Marloes de Valk’s 2021 study “A Pluriverse of Local Worlds: A Review of Computing within Limits-Related Terminology and Practices,” is therefore an important contribution to this constellation.
Serving and being served, being response-able and careful—computationally speaking or not—are relationalities which invoke, reproduce, and stimulate specific worlds. “Intersectional Notions of Hosting and Hospitality: On Trans*Feminist Serverhoods” asks: How can the cycle of serving and subalternity be broken by engaging in a thick number of semiotic and material relationships, and by activating a set of protocols and conditions for togetherness? Using this topic, CfDD expands on their own collaborative re-writing of the Feminist Server Manifesto (2013) into an unordered list of wishes for trans*feminist servers, which they initiated together with the entire cohort of fellows before revisiting it with contributors to the original text.
“Seamfulness, Awelessness, and Underwhelmedness in Computational Practices: On Embracing Discomfort as a Transformative Aesthetics” asks: Can digital discomfort be understood as a transformative aesthetics that disregards smoothness, agility, and generalized optimization as a desired path for an open-ended negotiation of always-already-complex modes of existence? Here, CfDD enters into conversation around digital discomfort together with the group ORACLES, who use their bibliomancy method to generate possible answers to these questions.
In embodiment of the digital-discomforting practice, this text, along with the ensuing contributions, hold a Collective Conditions for Reuse (CC4r) license, unless otherwise mentioned.
Collectively and tentatively, “Digital Discomfort” broaches a number of definitions and political positions for the urgent widening of techno-political imaginaries and imaginations in a contemporary momentum. Through this Prospections focus and beyond, CfDD hopes to articulate attentions together with any agents who potentially could position themselves in non-alignment with the overarching patriarchal-colonial regimes of contemporary technocracy—back and forth along genealogies, operative logistics, speculative forkings, and surprise onto-epistemologies to widely share a tentative-yet-critical field for radical engagement.
—Cell for Digital Discomfort (Cristina Cochior, Karl Moubarak, and Jara Rocha), autumn 2022
Formed as part of the 2021/2022 BAK Fellowship for Situated Practice, the Cell for Digital Discomfort—composed of Cristina Cochior, Karl Moubarak, and Jara Rocha—continue their collective practice of digital discomfort. Their website Digital Discomfort is forthcoming: https://digitaldiscomfort.run.
This publication of the “Digital Discomfort” focus on Prospections as well as the research leading up to it—conducted as part of the 2021/2022 BAK Fellowship for Situated Practice—has been made possible with extra financial support from the Programme for the Internationalization of Spanish Culture (PICE) granted by AC/E–Acción Cultural Española.
 Mario Savio, “Bodies Upon The Gears” (speech on the steps of Sproul Plaza at University of California, Berkeley, 2 December 1964), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xz7KLSOJaTE. See also: Robo, Your Bodies (tu barco) (2012), https://esunrobo.bandcamp.com/track/your-bodies-tu-barco.
 “Informatics of domination” is a term coined by Haraway and then retaken by artist and writer Zach Blas. See: Zach Blas, “Informatics of Domination: A lecture series organized and introduced by Zach Blas,” in e-flux (January 2017), https://conversations.e-flux.com/t/informatics-of-domination-a-lecture-series-organized-and-introduced-by-zach-blas/5890.
 Totalitarian innovation is “a provocative shortcut which calls to mind the rampant hegemonic continuities between sovereignty, domination and absolutism, and how they play together in the ongoing naturalized acceleration of technologies and techno-ecologies. Innovation assumes a particular one-directional relation to futurity, and relies heavily on solutionism, optimization, techno-fix and limitless growth. Totalitarian innovation actively imposes ‘developmentalism’ as the only option, and technically prohibits emerging experiments with organizing life in ways that are complex, renegotiable or non-aligned (c.f. Informatics of domination). Totalitarian innovation leads to the persistence of mono-cultural forms, and paves the way for the elitist formulas of eco-fascism. This term fires up a public conversation on the need to disinvest innovation, and to instead organize with the latencies, discontinuities, recursions and absences of techno-nature entanglements.” Entry by Possible Bodies (Jara Rocha and Femke Snelting), in Jane Prophet and Helen Pritchard, eds., Plants by Numbers (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2023), forthcoming.
 Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Edinburgh and London: Edinburgh University Press and Routlege, 2004), p. 155.
 Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, p. 155.
“Sneaky moments” is a term used by The Darmstadt Delegation to refer to moments of separation. See Miriyam Aouragh, Seda Gürses, Jara Rocha, and Femke Snelting, “Let’s First Get Things Done! On Division of Labour and Techno-political Practices of Delegation in Times of Crisis,” The Fibreculture Journal 26 (2015), https://twentysix.fibreculturejournal.org/fcj-196-lets-first-get-things-done-on-division-of-labour-and-techno-political-practices-of-delegation-in-times-of-crisis.
 Janet Vertesi, “Seamful Spaces: Heterogeneous Infrastructures in Interaction,” Science, Technology, & Human Values 39, no. 2 (March 2014).
 The Institute for Technology in the Public Interest, Counter-Cloud Action Plan (2022), https://titipi.org/pub/Counter_Cloud_Action_Plan.pdf.
 “A Transversal Network of Feminist Servers,” European Cultural Foundation, https://culturalfoundation.eu/stories/cosround4_atnofs.
 Varia and accomplices, “Digital Solidarity Networks,” 2020–ongoing, https://pad.vvvvvvaria.org/digital-solidarity-networks. See “latencies” section of the page.
 Romi Ron Morrison, “Voluptuous Disintegration: A Future History of Black Computational Thought,” Digital Humanities Quarterly 16, no. 3 (2022), http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/16/3/000634/000634.html.
 Denise Ferreira Da Silva, “On Difference Without Separability,” Incerteza Viva: 32nd Bienal De São Paulo, Jochen Volz, et al., eds. (São Paulo: Fundaçao Bienal De São Paulo, 2016), pp. 57–65.
 Collective Conditions for Reuse: “The CC4r considers authorship to be part of a collective cultural effort and rejects authorship as ownership derived from individual genius. This means to recognize that it is situated in social and historical conditions and that there may be reasons to refrain from release and re-use.” See https://constantvzw.org/wefts/cc4r.en.htm.