By Veronica Thomas

On May 23, 2022, the DISCO Network held our “Summer Launch” and our Co-PIs gathered to discuss the “Futures of Race, Gender, Disability, & Technology.” Weaving through our Co-PIs talks was the optimistic theme of “seizing the moment.” Ray Fouché, who was recently appointed Director of Social and Economic Sciences at the National Science Foundation, reflected on his own appointment amid several important government hires. He argued we are witnessing a fundamentally unique moment for POC scholars to shape tech policy. Two years away from the 2024 presidential election, he reminded us that “timing is everything;” we have two years left to make the most of progressive democratic appointments and funding. At this point, we cannot talk about democracy without talking about the digital.

Stephanie Dinkins, lead PI at Stony Brook’s Future Histories Lab, uses creative technology to collaboratively define care and asked, "how can we create datasets of care and generosity?" It echoes Fouché’s question about baking diversity, equity, and inclusion into productive research and policy instead of sprinkling it on as an afterthought; both speculate about a future where the tools—social platforms, datasets, the constitution—are guided by a set of new values defined by the people. Dinkin’s art further contextualizes this unique moment; the collaborative nature of digital culture has the potential to make our democracy more equal. When we accept technology hasn’t changed the fabric of our democracy, but rather amplified the ways in which it’s always malfunctioned, we can seize the opportunity to reevaluate; tech policy becomes much more than holding big tech accountable, it becomes a tool for collaboratively redefining how we want to relate to each other. "Technology is an artifact, practice, and belief,” according to André Brock’s definition, our constitution, our democracy is technology.

What does the DISCO Network bring to this moment?

“We need scholars to speculate, to radically assess the present moment; they help us imagine other ways to do things, other ways to live,” noted, Lisa Nakamura, who opened the Super Panel looking at the Metaverse as a digital diversity workplace through the history of women of color’s digital labor. Nakamura’s work encourages us to value people and their stories first in order to speculate a different trajectory for the internet. André Brock’s vision for the Black Mundane, a publicly accessible archive of Black mundane twitter does just that through archiving moments of joy and repetition, rather than trauma, resistance, liberation, or innovation. Remi Yergeau looked at social access tech and disability accommodations to reimagine relationality outside compliance-based theories of communication—accessibility policies, as they currently stand, are an arm of institutional control.

Catherine Knight Steele, discussed the importance of collaborative public scholarship, driving home that the DISCO Network’s existence is a part of a unique historical moment. She discussed naming wicked problems or root issues and how collaboration gives us a path forward. Scholars give us a blueprint for what will happen so, that “we don't have to view a problem as brand-new simply because we encounter it through a new technology.” Through DISCO’s research, we hope to fundamentally reshape interdisciplinary public scholarship. How can we streamline academia and legislation? How can we build a diverse pipeline of scholars who more than influence proactive tech policy, and lead the country? We are fortunate to ideate on these questions with other Mellon-funded projects who supported us at the launch. We met throughout the inaugural year of our grant to discuss best practices and opportunities for collaboration. This Mellon funding cycle is unique in that there are multitudes of projects led by BIPOC focused on tech and the digital humanities, so we’re seizing the moment to work in tandem, something humanities and social science scholars rarely get time to do.