Am I an activist?

Posted on February 26, 2014


Ben Shneiderman declared at CHI last year that “HCI is an activist discipline”.      We’re  trying to work out the implications of this – what would it mean for computing to be an activist discipline? (see also Hopeful Tourism Computing).    To find out, I’ve been trawling through the podcasts for where we ask every guest “do you consider yourself to be an activist?”.

Here’s what they said:  (you can find the backgrounds on each on sustainable lens).  I’ve worked back about six months,  there are some gems in here so I’ll keep going. My apologies to the guests if my transcription has mangled any of their eloquent quotes.

Rob Burton

You’re part of a society – what can you do?

(Are you an activist?) No, I’m not an activist. I’m a cynic, sometimes I’m a realist which is a cynic with a better cause than just being cynical.   But in my work I always try to do things that are important rather than unimportant. There is unimportant work being done out there that is pretty irrelevant – I don’t like doing that.  It’s not something that gives me a lot of satisfaction.  But I’ve never protested anything…no I don’t think I’m an activist but I do what I can… but like to be able to put a perspective across that may make people think a bit differently- or make a difference in the end, but I don’t really believe that going out there and protesting is necessarily the best way of doing it because people have been doing that for too long and governments are really too savvy on that.  They’ve got the spin doctors who are quite able to nullify any legitimate protest anyway.

Patricia Widener

(Am I an activist?). Yes, I’m a sociologist-activist.

We’re seeing the rise of the hyphenated activist…the professor-activist, the lawyer-activist, the farmer-activist, the grandparent-activist, the student-activist. A lot of people are doing both, and they’re doing both because these problems are coming closer to where they live, work, study and play. At that point, when you take a position on something, you have a multiple presence – you are what you are and you’re an activist, or advocate. Not against, but advocating for. For communities, for environment, advocates for – not against.

Be informed, to increase awareness about environment and community, take a position on that, and be heard with regards that position. Democracies rely on that.

Michael Daddo

(Am I an activist?).  That’s an interesting question.  More… I’m just a person with a conscience who can make a difference, well applied.   An activist for me implies someone who is more a lead agitator, I’m probably not that way inclined.   I’m probably more about someone who knows how to use my skills and organisational learnings…a track record of how to get a better outcome.

Inspiring people to make a change willingly and for good, the more we can do that the better.

The greatest thing we can do is change the world in some shape or form for the better. If we can all find ways to contribute to that, in whatever way we can, then we should do that and seek those opportunities.

No matter what role we have in life, we all have the ability to contribute to changing the world for the better – so we should always look for opportunities to do that and go for it as hard as we can.

Dolphin Research Australia

 Dr Liz Hawkins and Isabella Keski-Franti.

(Am I an activist?).    I don’t like labels to be honest because I think they limit us.   I like to think of myself as…everybody can make the changes, bit everybody has a right to be different.   You don’t have to either be one thing or another.   There is a place for everybody.

(I was very busy designing our dolphin education programme and someone asked me to a protest about oil seam coal mining)…I would like to be there, but I didn’t find it in me to be there because I was so excited about designing our programme, my insight was I didn’t have to be there – there is a place for everybody.   We need the role of all of us  – we do what our character strength is. 

If I am making the change through connecting with children, helping them shift the status quo of our society – the focus inter-generationally speaking, for the families and our future – I see this as an activism.  If others want to be more actively participating in manifests…I think that’s perfect we need all these ecosystems working together,

We create our world, our reality  is dependent on the changes we make.

(Isabela on challenges for the future) I find myself in a really good place. I am really doing what I love – what I feel connected with. I am an optimistic person. I live every day at a time. I have hope for the future, and I think my work with children helps a lot. And I’m working with people who are passionate about it. This helps a lot, and I’m blessed to be working with people that have great integrity, ethics and works as a team. So I can’t see challenge right now. Life is exciting.

Every little step, every little change that you make is huge. So don’t feel overwhelmed by the news or what is happening around you. Focus on every little change that you make on a daily basis.

Philippa Brakes

 (Am I an activist?).    I wouldn’t call myself an activist, I’m an advocate.  I’m a scientist who also works in the policy end of the debate.

As an eleven year old we visited a zoo in Thailand and saw an elephant in chains…..and I went on and on about it…eventually my father said, “If you feel so strongly about it, why don’t you write to the King of Thailand” so I did. And that was the beginning of my career of feeling that I needed to represent those who don’t have a voice.

Sarah Courbis

(Am I an activist?).    I wouldn’t say that.  I do have opinions.  But as a scientist it is really important for me to go into a situation and do my research without having a desired outcome – I just want to see what’s true.  Whether or not that supports my opinion, maybe I’ll need to change my opinion.   I don’t think activist is a good way to describe my approach to things, but I would say I am an environmentalist, and I do think that it is important that we do understand and take care of our environment – and I’m hoping to do my little part to help that.

Tara Whitty

(Am I an activist?).    The word activist has many connotations that I like to shy away from.  Let’s say that I am a quiet activist that prefers to influence things by hard work that provides evidence- and that is respectful of the people involved in the issue that I am protesting.

What I think to cheer me up, is at least we can learn from the failures.  That would motivate me each day – to learn what is working and not working.  To make sure we can save these species even if, and it pains me to say this, we have to lose some sub-populations.

Sometimes I would forget I was working on dolphins, because I was looking at very entangled issues of fisheries management, and those will take a long time to fix. Even if it doesn’t save the dolphins, it’s worthwhile doing it but you’re going to hopefully improve the ecosystem as a whole, including to improve human livelihoods. But realistically speaking I don’t think it is going to happen in time for these dolphins unless some serious triage efforts happen quickly.

I hesitate to distinguish between human systems and ecosystems. Ecosystem based management explicitly states that humans are part of ecosystems.

Andy Read

(Am I an activist?). Conservation is a normative discipline, we believe that the loss of biodiversity is a bad thing. We should do everything we can to minimise that loss of biodiversity caused by human activity and to restore it where we can. In way, yes I’m an activist, but I feel all people working in conservation are activists – it’s a normative discipline and we accept that part of our science.



Inaction is failure – the wickedness of problems is no excuse.

Tricky conservation problems keep you up at night – how to balance the needs of social justice and feeding 60 million desperately poor, with the ecological needs of 80 dolphins who are the last of their species.

Truly wicked problems are ones that don’t have answers, if they did they wouldn’t be wicked.

Jay Barlow

(Am I an activist?).

I’m not an activist. There are a lot of pathways to being scientists, advocates and fundraisers.   Every marine mammal scientist has to be a bit of a fund-raiser.  I shy away from the role of a pure advocate because it is really difficult to keep your scientific credibility if you appear too passionate,  and let your passions outrun your academic approach to the science.   But on the other hand, my passions drive what science I do.

Barbara Taylor

(Am I an activist?).

I guess I wouldn’t use that word, I would use the word conservationist.  I think there’s quite a fine line between being an advocate and being a conservationist, and scientists try very hard to maintain our scientific credibility.  But on the other hand, when you’ve worked like I have with vaquita and it’s something that you’re passionate about, you become an activist to some extent just by expressing how important it is to save these animals.  But on the other hand, it’s not the same kind of activist you see on whalewars.  It’s a very different kind of thing, I’m not going out and trying to destroy gear on small fishing boats.  Or something like that.

(discussion of her Vaquita art, clothing and jewellery).  All encompassing?  We’ve tried every angle we could to engage the public in this animal (Vaquita dolphin).

Ian Griffin

(Am I an activist?). No.

Not actually in response to question, but earlier:

I want to work in a museum because museums have the potential to change lives.

Museums are places where you come to help make sense of the world.

The museums job is to help you connect.

We’re not leading the science, we’re communicators of what others are doing.

The role of the collection is critical in understanding your part of the world.

A key part of what the museum must do is not so much is this important now, but asking could it be important in the future?

A key thing scientists need to do better is communicate the process of science – that’s a role for the museum. It’s almost impossible to come to a final understanding.

We have to communicate to our visitors that science is changing yet tell a simple story.

Henk Roodt

(Am I an activist?).  No, I’m not smart enough.  To be an activist you have to understand things, really clearly, (you’re pretty clever), yes, but I don’t understand things that well, I’m not clever enough to be an activist. (you’re inspiring and you drive change).   That’s not an activist.

Opening up a social good category in Audacious meant they could put their emotions and their hearts into their businesses. They are mixing the social responsibility and the business – this is the edge that will deliver the social good.We live on an island. We have to live with our waste.

You have to make certain choices, and that comes down to ‘what are those guiding principles you have in your life that you are willing to live by?’. You have to set those up in your mind and listen carefully to that voice.

I ask myself: can I change things by applying my skills?

Wayne Mackintosh

(Am I an activist?). Absolutely I’m an activist, an open source, open education activist.

it’s (open education) mission critical for a more sustainable planet. We need to be using scarce resources more effectively, and respect the fundamental freedom of expression – freedom of speech- that we espouse to in modern democracies

Marcus Byrne

(Am I an activist?).  No, although now that you’ve said it I quite like the idea.  If we can make a difference through people listening to me droning on about dung beetles… then yeah, I’ll go for that.

Marcus is a science communicator:

We need to be saying to Joe Public, this is the world around you, we’re in it and we’re utterly dependent on it.  If we can demystify any part of it…then that’s an important thing that we can do.

Learning from the Ignoble: Science is not a creed – it can be bent, folded, stapled, beat-up in any way you like and it still works. It’s this self-correcting system that doesn’t need respect

We use crap as a vehicle for discovery

On making science accessible: We owe it to the public. We live in a society that allows us to do these crazy things, and it’s my job to give back, one: the knowledge and two: the process.

Robin Moore

(Am I an activist?).  I guess so, yeah, I don’t often use that word.  (You used it to describe the model you  worked with . She does consider herself to be activist?)  I think so.  I can from a background of reporting conservation and working with local groups, I didn’t feel that was activism so much.  Whereas Gabby really does focus on the messaging and getting the message out there, whereas my work with amphibian survival alliance, is also supporting habitat protection projects – which I don’t think of as activism.  Perhaps an element of what I do is activism, but not the whole suite.

We’re trying to scale-up amphibian conservation.

We’re trying to engage an increasingly broad range of people.


You can fit facts around your existing attitudes. Climate Change is a perfect example, the more facts you tell them they can dig in their heels.

Walking a fine line with maintaining scientific integrity, when you engage with the media you lose to a certain extent the control of the message. The story that gets picked up may not be the story that you want to tell.

You can’t not answer a 12 year old who is asking a question about her future.

Scientists are trained to be so objective, to remove human bias or emotional attachment toward study subject. But truth is, there is always a human bias, the fact that there are 500 times more studies on mammals than amphibians is a human bias towards mammals. Scientists always approach something with unique experience and perspectives

Naomi Oreskes

(Am I an activist?).  Not really, I teach classes and do my research.  Students often ask me…”what should they do?” and I always say you have to figure that out for yourself – based on who you are, what your temperament is,  what your personality is, what your talents are, what resources you have at your disposal…so I’m a scholar, and I love doing the work I do.  …. I feel like I’ve ended up in a place that has worked out being meaningful, and valuable, and I think the best thing I can do is keep on doing what I’m doing.

The naive vision of ‘we do the facts then hand it over to the policy makers and they act on it’. That would be great in a perfect world, and it worked for ozone so scientists could be forgiven for thinking that was realistic, but it hasn’t worked this time around.

The whole issue of climate change is now so political and so difficult that I think a lot of people in the scientific community are kind of spooked. And they’re nervous and they don’t really know how to respond. And I think a lot of scientists think that if they’re just very cautious and very careful and very conservative that that will preserve and protect their credibility.

Absolutely scientists should be conservative and should not make claims they can not support with evidence and high quality data…the question is once you have that data, what do you say about it? And if you don’t think the world is responding, if you don’t think the world gets it, then that tells me that you aren’t communicating it clearly enough.

How do we communicate clearly in ways that are effective and truthful and correct? It’s not an argument in favour of exaggerating the science or saying things that aren’t true. It’s about taking what we believe to be true and communicating it clearly.

(52:20 discussion of James Hansen’s arc from conservative scientist to civil disobedience)

Is there something more that scientists should do, short of engaging in civil disobedience? That would be a really useful conversation for science to have –because what they are doing now isn’t really working.

Guy Harrison

(Am I an activist?).

I’m realistic but optimistic.

We are in reach of a overcoming racism, poverty, and disease. We can overcome these things and really do better. It is possible. Doesn’t mean we will, but it is possible and just that possibility should fuel one with hope. It is something to work for and reach for – it’s there, we’ve never been closer. And to get there we need scientific thinking, we need a world filled with good sceptics so we that don’t waste time on pseudo-science and superstition. We can focus more on real social progress, real economic progress, real technological progress for all and devote more time for each other.

For me sceptism is a moral issue. I care about people, I care about the world, so I feel I have to speak up about this. I have to encourage people to think more clearly – there’s so much nonsense out there that’s harming people.

Andrew Tait

(Am I an activist?).

(Do you make a point of staying out of the political?) For sure. (safe is a politically charged term, should scientists use such terms?).  To me is going beyond what a scientist should be doing,  but there’s a frustration for a scientist who wants to provide the best information they possibly can for a decision-maker to use and seeing that the information isn’t being used well. There’s a big frustration there, and I can understand why others, particularly if they’ve got a global soapbox will, and have got into this debate – that of why isn’t more being done?  From my perspective I’m not prepared to get into that area.  I want to help as much as I possibly can. … We’re such a small community of scientists that we do get involved in discussions with policy makers at all levels – and we can be at the personal level of talking to a minister, or a CEO.  But they don’t want us to be telling them what to do.  I don’t think anyone wants someone coming in from an ivory tower telling them what to do.  But people appreciate the effort that we make to try to connect with them – to say, if you want to making the best decisions you possibly can, then please take account of this information and understand how it was derived and what its implications are.  The scientist can do a lot to make that bridge.

I’m driven by the communication of science – how information is used – can it influence somebody? can it open people’s eyes to possibilities?

Tess Brosnan

(Am I an activist?).  I’m not an activist, I’m a packager, I can be more useful by remaining neutral so that I can be filter.  

I want to be living alongside it rather than contributing to degradation.

Neil Cossins

(Am I an activist?).  I think the best thing I could do was support activists.  Many of the best things have happened because of lunatics with fire in their bellies – I like to think I’ve been an animator of lunatics. 

Brendan Gray

(Am I an activist?).  Protaganist maybe.  I’m actively involved in some environmental-type things, I’m a volunteer at the wildlife sanctuary for example, and some other agencies…no probably not an activist but am an active pacifist.

My heart is not in a place that is focussed solely on making money, business has to be about more than that.

Mike Sammons

(Am I an activist?). In the days when I had longer hair…I’ve been on a few marches.  There’s a time and a place for activism.  (in the company?) Yeah, I’m certainly a proponent but I’m a strategist as well – I can see where I want to get to,  and I’ll decide on the best way to actually achieve that.   You use a variety of tools, skills and experience to work out the best way of doing that.  If being an activist will help where I want to get to, then great employ some of those traits but sometimes it’s about taking a more considered approach.  (Sometimes you have to play the long game)  Definitely.  I strongly believe that sustainability makes a really good business case for itself, and we’re in it for the long game.  I struggle to find new business initiatives that won’t deliver real business benefits.

We’re championing stores that are doing the right thing

we can make a massive difference – the programmes we’re implementing potentially affect millions of people within New Zealand.

I’m very aware of the of the responsibility I have – how good the research has to be, how tight the business case has to be, we’re potentially affecting 700 different businesses and millions of people

Barbara Hock

(Am I an activist?).  No.   I consider I’m more like leading from behind.  These are the things that are very useful for people, to know about and to able to access. I have skills in technical areas, and knowledge in social areas, so I can combine them to create this space that provides a better overall understanding.  And that can help people in whichever forum.  In the end we work towards better life and lifestyle – that’s a good driver.  Things that facilitate that, that’s great.

Practical application of science that includes people.

Jean Fleming

(Am I an activist?).  Not quite yet, I’ve got to retire first next year. (Alan Mark said he was an activist, a requirement of an academic), actually yes, I’ve been an activist all my life.  When I went to the royal commission on GM I had to suddenly wear a bra, and be like a judge, and so that really put the kibosh on me being  a real activist for quite a while – I’m just beginning to come out the other end now.  I was a great feminist in the 70s and 80s.  And that got knocked out of me but the dark is rising.

It must make them think about it.  We’re all basically animals, survival of the fittest, so we have  a mindset that we  get on and live our lives the best we can.

Jon Foote

(Am I an activist?).  I guess so, I wouldn’t paint myself with a full activist brush.  I’m passionate about the belief that we have a way out of the current situation and that we need to act on it.  Nothing will change without action, and action in a positive direction is great. I’m not a big protester or create…what most activists do, and chain themselves to trees…I did a bit of that in Sydney and realised, you know I’m not achieving a lot – I’d rather go out and teach everyone how to grow food.  The activist part of me says ‘you know if we grew our own food, and we had organic farmers, and lots of local systems going on, that in itself will bring down the industrial food system’.  So in a way I may be an activist, but I want to do it in a way that is positive so that people can work towards something that is actually beneficial – it’s not just grumping about things that are wrong.  So let’s do the things that are right.

Lloyd Davis

(Am I an activist?).  (professor of science communication) I’m a poet or artist – it’s the part of me that wants to combine the colour of the world with the black and white sketch we produce as scientists.  (But are you an activist artist or poet?) . People would say I’m neither. (an activist scientist then?).  Yeah,  I don’t know whether I’d call myself an activist, I’m a promoter more than anything.  And I’d like to think I had poetic leanings, not in the sense of being able to write poetry, but at least colouring the things I write about.

Nick Gerritsen

(Am I an activist?).  If it is being silly enough to have an idea and to be able to dedicate a part of your life to it, and be responsible for it, and back yourself on it, then yes.  All I’m trying to do is do the best that I can with the resources of time and energy that I have.  It’s exciting, stressful and enlightening all at once.

Society is putting a lot of pressure on the next generation without clear identification of the doorways and opportunities for them to work through.

It’s not about money, it’s about creating a dimension of change.

Henrik Moller

(Am I an activist?). (you said you were an activist when you were younger, are you an activist now?) I hope I’m not dead yet.  What is an activist? In the past I used to strut my stuff – yell my opinions, I had no shadow of a doubt that the system didn’t have the solution, everything from racist tours to environmental defense society – I was instrumental for taking 300 farmers in breach of discharges into a legal process – so I was very much interested in that forcing, amnesty, homosexual law reform.  At the root of this I’m a humanist, it’s about respect for people, because in the end that will lead to the big reciprocity of looking after plants and animals.  I was so puzzled then as an activist, I had a favourite Amnesty Poster – a typewriter with barbed wire – and I gave it to a friend and went round to his place a few months later and there was my beautiful poster scrawled over the top ‘but what about the environment?’.  And I thought that’s really weird, I had seen the whole thing as a power – power over people, power over environment.  They come from the same sour well, where very few lasting solutions will emerge.  So now I hope I hope I’m an activist but working in a more subtle and inclusive way, some might even say a more cunning way.   But this comes from a changed belief that the solutions are very much more about a patience and slow resolution and dialogue.

The central paradigm shift is accepting people as part of nature, as part of the contract.

We need to avoid a shootout between different constituents.   We could call it pluralism, let’s go for “and” rather than “or”.

We’re failing conservation-wise, you could point to a lot of things…species declining…but worse we’ve created this idea that to be a greenie is to be a leftie, radical and not very practical, and not embracing economics.   We’ve created a bit of a prison, the ideal would be if we could all see, not matter what we vote, that we’re all seeing the importance of environmental sustainability as sustaining us all, the platform on which we all stand.

We need to abandon war talk…if we carry on with fences between ourselves – saying that person is a conservationist and that person isn’t, we’ll be divided and fall….We’re all in this together.

Robert Wade

(Am I an activist?).  An analyst rather than an activist,

Ben Schneiderman

(Am I an activist?).  “we have”, he says “an enormous opportunity to make a difference…the very nature of Human Computer Interaction is an activist agenda”.

We should expect as mature adults and professionals to be engaged in making a better world

If someone is not speaking up then we should be worried

How do we create a language and metric of the human experience of technology that goes beyond bits and bytes and looks at human questions of trust, empathy, responsibility and privacy?

Peter Hayden

(Am I an activist?). I am a storyteller.  I am an activist, I have to be – there’s a hell of a lot to be activist about.

 Ann Pendleton-Jullian

(Am I an activist?). I’m designing ecosystems of change.

Liam Phellan

(Am I an activist?).   Yes.  Absolutely.  I feel that university is a place you can do activism.  You could also work at Greeenpeace, go to parliament, wherever you like.  There are real places you can do activism.  Activism is an activity, it is an active approach. (That doesn’t conflict with the objective, critical thinking role of the academic?)  Activism requires critical thinking – that’s how I came to be teaching at the university.  The privilege of being required to do critical thinking in the cause of activism…with civil society organisations…exposed all the time to cutting edge thinking, but sometimes without the time to spend thinking more deeply – theorising – these things are possible in academia. (You’re OK with wearing your heart on your sleeve?). Yeah, (Stanley Fish, critical thinking and nothing else).  That worked for a while, but those days are past.  The idea that scientific research, critical thinking can exist without some explicit normative basis is silly.

In terms of motivation it is wanting to do something, wanting this world to be different and making that happen.  And feeling that I can actually make a contribution in this – and feeling some responsibility to do so.

Some realism is important, but we also need the idealism so we know where we are going.

My primary research interest is sustainability and how to achieve it.

Questions of justice are always interesting.


Alison Phipps

We have never been so educated as to be released our need to be dependent on the material

Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu:  we must reflect on the fact that the material conditions of our educational systems in Western Universities are based on the fact that we are not required to grow our own food and make our own clothes.   And  that led me to ask the question, and what would they look like if we were?  And how might we grow and spin a university if it were. … the university is opening out from the days that it was theoretically an ivory tower – I’m not sure it ever has been an ivory tower but it certainly has been a place of the elite.  We are now seeing universities setting up communities and projects (community gardens etc) and it is being changed by that – new knowledges are coming onto campus.  This is very exciting as the university has to move its thinking around as people go to work in different communities.

(how much personal responsibility do we need to take).  The critic and conscience of society applies to the university and the people with in it.  The mantra ‘but there’s no alternative’ is far too easy. …invading Iraq…supermarkets…but actually there are alternatives being worked out all over the world by creative and courageous people., but often beginning in very small ways.  I draw real hope from that.   It’s important for me as an academic to try to live as an alternative, and to let people draw their own conclusions, and to decide for themselves to decide whether it is for them to live that alternative.   I cannot live otherwise.  But this was never a revolutionary action, yes I’ve been engaged in action all my life, but this wasn’t one huge enormous change, these were small steps.  I wonder what life would be like if I didn’t have a car…? What would life be like if I filled by home with people who would otherwise be destitute…? There are no answers to these, but with anthropological training I know what can be learned from experience.  So in a sense it is a new adventure to try and live in these ways and find out what can be learned.   What I’m learning, perhaps is the beginnings of an art of forgiveness, compassion, and possibly humility.

(Am I an activist?).  It’s a hard word, I’ve used it of myself, but I’ve always been a little shy of it.  Maybe it is because I’m a bit of a poet – maybe there’s too many consonants in the word.  I do.  But I believe profoundly in solitude and rest and quiet.  And the more I try and do, the more I know I have to not do.  And those are very contradictory dynamics. But I think I discover when I have been very active and moving very much, but it is important to sit and stop and think – watch and take stock and be restored by what is around me.   So yes I do and yes I don’t consider myself to be an activist.

(would your students describe you as an activist? Stanley Fish, critical thinking and nothing else).  Critical thinking is not enough.   If we really are going to create the conditions for action in whatever the world presents us, and we are going to do it with a degree of dignity, and in a way that we acknowledge that we are bound together, and that we are wholly dependent one on the other, then it is about more than thought – it is about action.   I would profoundly come back to the work of Paulo Freire and the work of bell hooks – it’s about love.

When anger can become all consuming, it is time for me to take some time out, to go to the garden to sit on a rock.

How do we live when we have created the conditions of our own destruction? And what is the role of the university with that? To teach dispositions to live with that knowledge.

talk entitled “When Learning is placed under Siege: Conflict, Creativity and Compassion in Higher Education”.