The Refusal Conference - October 14 - 16, 2020

Conference Description: The idea of rejecting or refusing technology runs against the grain of the celebrated role tech has generally occupied in the West, wedded closely to the notion of progress itself (Marx 1997). By this cultural logic, refusal is cast as unwise because it is anti-innovation or it is cast as impossible because technological developments are presumed to be inevitable. And yet, this view is contradicted in practice. Research directions narrow the pathways of tech development through disciplinary logics, market possibilities, and life experience. In industry, projects are frequently cancelled when they cannot generate a profit. This financial logic is a kind of value that motivates refusal. What other values currently guide refusal or could in the future? What forms of justification are useful? What practices make refusal possible? At this conference we lean into the idea that sometimes making a more just and equitable society means refusing certain technologies or certain applications of technology.  

Day 1 – Wednesday October 14th, afternoon

Opening Remarks (1pm – 1:30pm)

Jenna Burrell & Deirdre Mulligan — what has been refused? A history of refusal. 


Panel 1 (1:40pm – 2:40pm): Feminist Data ManifestNo 

Panel Description: Why refusal? What is the power and potential of refusal? What traditions (academic or otherwise) does refusal build upon? As we think about refusal, what should we keep in mind (e.g., what did you learn putting together the Feminist Data ManifestNo that we should be sure to keep at the front of our minds during this conference?). What makes refusal part of a feminist analytic?

Panelists: Feminist Data ManifestNo Authors


Keynote Panel (2:50pm – 3:50pm): Indigenous Scholarship on Refusal and The Prospects for Remaking Tech

Marisa Duarte, Assistant Professor, Arizona State University

Kimberly Christen, Professor, Washington State University


Nostalgic Tech Futures / Casual Happy Hour (4pm – 5pm): Rotating breakout groups, activity with videos from the Prelinger archive


Day 2 – Thursday October 15th

Opening remarks (9:30am – 9:50am): Jenna & Deirdre, recap of the main points from the first day


Panel 2 (10:00 – 11:15): Refusal through Social Movements (focusing on facial recognition)

Panel Description: In this panel we will discuss the power of social movements and other forms of organizing and activism. We focus especially on recent developments related to resisting the use of facial recognition technologies. In Hong Kong, protestors have broken 100s of CCTV cameras and used umbrellas to subvert State surveillance of public protests. Cities including San Francisco, Oakland, and Boston have formally banned the use of facial recognition by city departments including the police. The ACM’s US Technology Policy Committee published a letter this past June that urged, “an immediate suspension of the current and future private and governmental use of facial recognition (FR) technologies” where human and legal rights are likely to be violated. Recently, firms including IBM, Amazon, and others have made public their decision to suspend or discontinue the development or sale of such technologies. What were the precursors to such decisions? What groups were involved in effecting these outcomes? This panel will focus in particular on how collectives are effective in shifting the discourse on what is acceptable in the use of tech by public and private agencies and in public space.

Panelists (confirmed):

Tawana Petty, Director, Data Justice Program, Detroit Community Technology Project
Tracy Frey, 
Google Director of Strategy, Cloud AI, Google Corporation
Lilly Irani, Associate Professor, Department of Communication, University of California – San Diego

Nicole Ozer, Technology & Civil Liberties Director, ACLU of California

Background reading – TBA


Panel 3 (11:25am – 12:40pm): Stories of refusal from within the corporate firm (turning down a market, gating a product) — resisting the notion that technology is inevitable and will/should be developed/taken to market.

Panel 3 Description: A panel centering around instances of refusal and the logic underlying them within corporate firms — tell us about a decision to refuse? What frameworks are useful? What evidence was available or necessary to influence key stakeholders (e.g., internal letters to the company, social movements, research papers in academia, scenarios illustrating realized or potential harm)? How do power structures within the org shape the possibility of refusal? What were the consequences? Individual vs. group (acting within sanctioned work role vs. unsanctioned employee activism)? Refusing an instance of tech implementation (i.e. a contract with a particular group), a domain (i.e. policing), vs. a type of tech altogether (facial recognition)? In what ways does the company’s business model (ad supported vs. contract based) shape possibilities of refusal? What role does corporate leadership play? This panel will discuss refusals large and small — that feature is a bad idea, that contract is not worth taking, that category of tech development should be closed down or banned 

Panelists (confirmed):

Alexandria Walden, Head of Human Rights, Google Corporation

Eshwar Chandrasekharan, Assistant Professor, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Dunstan Allison-Hope, Vice President, Business for Social Responsibility (BSR)

Background reading – TBA


Afternoon Break out groups (2pm – 4pm): discussion, workshop activity


Day 3 – Friday Oct 16th, morning

Concluding Keynote (9:30am – 10:30am): Mutale Nkonde, AI For the People

Discussion (10:45am – 11:45am): Why should we refuse? What should be refused and under what guidelines?

Discussion Description: Rubrics for thinking about refusal. Guidelines and tools for refusing. What would we like to see stopped in its tracks? What are some tech trends that we would like to see refused that will likely be especially hard to reverse? What is the justificatory basis? What are the specific values to uphold that should guide decisions about tech dev — privacy? Human rights? How do we apply these to new instances of tech — through what processes? At what decision points: research paper review? contract negotiation? code review? Where does legislation fit into the landscape of refusal? Technology non-specific guidelines — facial recognition vs. tech-enhanced surveillance practices. What is the purpose of refusal? Beyond the private sector, how to think about refusal in the public sector, in government (procurement decisions?)? How can refusal be implemented without professional bodies that have the power to censure members (i.e. disbarred, lose license, etc)?

Background Reading – TBA


Closing remarks (12pm – 12:30pm)Jenna Burrell & Deirdre Mulligan

Accommodation: If you require an accommodation for effective communication (ASL interpreting/CART captioning, alternative media formats, etc.) or information about campus mobility access features in order to fully participate in this event, please contact Zhanara Gallegos at (510)664-5261 or with as much advance notice as possible and at least 7-10 days in advance of the event.