A Letter from the Editors: Why Multiplicity?

Alia ElKattan and Team | Aug. 18, 2020

In recent months, those of us privileged enough to have internet access have had to access it at seemingly exponential rates. COVID-19 physical distancing measures prompted a switch to online learning, remote work, and countless virtual events, while friends and families stranded on different continents or simply a few blocks away relied on the internet to connect and socialize. As the phrases “Zoom fatigue” and “can you see my screen?” became regular occurrences, the internet’s influence and importance in our lives became even more obvious — not that we needed a pandemic to notice that. While the internet facilitated much of the adaptation and harm reduction required, the increased reliance on it for essential purposes shed a greater light on how it can exacerbate inequities and further the digital divide.

Multiplicity, however, started before masks and pandemics joined our daily lexicon. It started when, in December 2019, Lujain texted me that we should discuss an idea after final exams. Both of us had already been invested in the impact of technology on society, and were constantly following research, news, and tweets about adjacent topics. As two undergraduate students (we’ve since graduated) digging into far deeper and wider fields than we’ve been exposed to, reading and getting inspired by many writers, reporters, and academics, we were impressed by the amount of learning we are yet to do. Yet as we traversed this world through our respective lenses, we rarely saw work that reflected our own backgrounds and experiences. Last year, I was working on an educational game on artificial intelligence (AI) bias supported by Mozilla. Throughout the process, I learned a lot about algorithmic bias and fairness. But, I often had to pause and reflect on the fact that all the work I was reading, examples I was citing, and use cases I was referring to were not particularly relevant to my own country or region.

It was not just the geographic and national divide that was apparent, however, but so was an age divide. As Lujain pointed out when she finally told me what her idea was, we could not find enough internet-focused content, a) written by young people, or the generation we belong to, and b) tackling problems and proposing solutions that are not just US- and Euro-centric. Lujain proposed we put together our own article curation that takes a small step forward in filling precisely these gaps. Having gone to school at NYU Abu Dhabi, our classmates and friends were already from all over the world, and have widely varying backgrounds, interests, and perspectives; a great place to start.

We reached out to peers with an outline of an idea and asked them to help us color in the details. We considered Multiplicity a holistic curation from the start, meaning we had general themes and regions to keep in mind, yet left most of it for writers to tell us what mattered to them most. The prompt was relatively broad: how has the internet impacted you growing up, or the societies you grew up in, on a socioeconomic, political, or personal level? The goal was always for our backgrounds, identities, and experiences to inform the topics we discuss, while maintaining a high standard of credibility and research.

Growing up online has profoundly impacted our upbringings, morphed our identities, and spearheaded our passions in ways we seldomly acknowledge. And in the spirit of the connectedness, information access, and diversity of the internet, we wanted to contribute to conversations on the internet and society by acknowledging the diversity of our own experiences, and of course, that many do not have internet access at all.

As a curation, we wanted to discuss and draft all these articles simultaneously, before any of them went live, and have them benefit and grow from each other. Topics like exile, injustice, surveillance, and climate change meant we were discussing a lot of overwhelming problems. As necessary as these problems are to tackle and learn about, more problems often feels like the last thing we need in 2020. We thus decided to adopt a critical yet forward-looking perspective, rather than a technophobic, utopic, or counter-productive one, by trying to discuss solutions and ways forward without trivializing complex issues. We decided that, in addition to the many works already cited throughout, we would include a further reading section at the end of every article, consisting of five to eight resources compiled by each writer to encourage greater learning, prompt discussions, and share works that have inspired us (there’s a more general list at the end of this one, too.)

These were all decisions made by us, a group of undergrad students and recent graduates, not bound to institutions, advertisements, or industry standards. It’s true we’re working on a curation of articles which discuss not-very-fun problems, but Multiplicity has also been about us having as much fun with it as we could. We made decisions like including a reading list, but also including all the snippets of animation, interactivity, and gifs throughout the website, different colour palettes for every article’s webpage, and building an error page before the rest of the website was actually complete. Led by Tom’s bold designs and many colors, we wanted Multiplicity to look and feel as diverse as the people and issues it represents, but tried to do so in ways that don’t impede the reading experience. This process in and of itself became a testament to what we love and want to continue to protect and cherish about the internet. It’s the idea that a group of 20-something-year-olds can work after hours driven by passion, friendship, and a degree of hope and love projected onto the web to put a project that means a lot to us out into the world. The idea that we can build a [very colorful] website that looks just how we want it to — given time and womanpower constraints, of course — with $7 and simple HTML, CSS, and for the most part, vanilla JavaScript (our admittedly disorganized repository is on GitHub).

After all, what we’ve put out so far is just seven articles, eight if you count the one you’re reading right now. These do not, and frankly can not, come even close to representing all we’d love to talk about and explore; limited time, effort, experience, and freedoms are all still relevant on a passion project. Even before going live, we were pleasantly surprised by people reaching out and letting us know of topics they’d want to talk about in future issues. We also recognize that with the flexibility offered by a side project there are many limitations, and so you may find flaws and shortcomings in both the writings and website that we hope you share with us.

Multiplicity is not meant to be the be-all and end-all of issues outlined above: diversifying conversations about the internet, incorporating youth perspectives, and encouraging greater learning and reading beyond our writing. It is meant to be, however, a small representation of how we want to respond to and interact with the internet. Lujain, Tom, Grace, Jihyun, Tona, Munib, and Rastra all had thoughts they wanted to share about how the internet impacts their lives and societies, from translating Arabic literature in Lebanon to observing digital monopolies in South Korea, so they did what one does on the internet: they shared them with us. In doing so, all of them have shared a little of their lives in hopes of involving their communities and furthering conversations that seek to build a web that is more inclusive, just, equitable, and fun to be on. I hope we take this spirit forward, far and wide beyond what Multiplicity can be, and hope you join us in the process.

In the spirit of expanding conversations, here's a list of articles, projects, and organizations that inspire us. You can find more specific recommendations at the end of each article.

Selected Readings

1. Algorithms of Oppression | Safiya Noble
2. Mozilla's 2019 Internet Health Report
3. Ethical OS Toolkit | Institute for the Future & Omidyar Network
4. The Youth Issue | MIT Technology Review
5. What Can a Technologist Do About Climate Change? | Bret Victor
6. Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization | Alexander R. Galloway
7. Black Software: The Internet and Social Justice from AfroNet to Black Lives Matter | Charlton D. McIlwain

Publications & Organizations We Follow

1. The Markup: investigative journalism on how powerful institutions using technology are influencing society
2. The Pudding: digital publication explaining ideas in debated culture through visual essays
3. Future Says: a newly launched global collaboration tackling policy, empowering workers, and reimagining tech
4. Access Now: non-profit working to protect digital rights woldwide
5. Mozilla Festival: a participatory conference dedicated to building an open, healthy internet for all
6. Electronic Frontier Foundation: non-profit focused on digital privacy, free speech, and innovation
7. Pollicy: a group of technologists, data scientists, creatives, and academics looking to innovate government service delivery across Africa
8. Internet Freedom Festival