Florence Okoye interview

In August we caught up with Florence Okoye at Nine Worlds in London.

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How are you enjoying the con?

I loved how you get a proper introduction to everything when you come in. They’re so considerate of every single thing, from pronouns, to whether you want to be spoken to, whether you want to be photographed – like, every single thing! And also accessibility allies, which is a fantastic concept. So I’m actually very impressed.

I came fairly late, so I’ve only had time to get to one panel before the one I was on. That was ‘Let The Past Die: Sacrificing Sacred Cows in Star Wars The Last Jedi.’ It was a really interesting panel – a lot of unexpected connections being made by the panellists, some great questions being asked.

So tell us about Afrofutures UK.

It’s a very informal collective I started up in 2015 with some friends, back when I was living in Manchester. We were just like, ‘Well, we’re really interested in Afrofuturism, and nobody around us really talks about it … so let’s just do a thing about it.’ We started with a conference in October 2015, where over a hundred people turned up, which was amazing. It was just the power of Black Tumblr and Twitter at work to be honest.

Since then Afrofutures UK have done conferences and events, working with other organisations, trying to raise discussions at that intersection of race, technology, and speculative fiction from a variety of different perspectives. We tend to make sure that there are practical things like workshops – Arduino and programming or zine making workshops, for instance – really going for an approach that is intersectional, holistic, and creative.

Creating cultural infrastructure, as well as talking about culture that already exists. Awesome. So the theme of our next issue of Vector (#288) is economics. Would you like to talk a bit about Afrofuturism and economics?

I think at some point you realise how much everything is dependent on economic infrastructure. So you might say, okay, we want more Black people to be writers. Then you think, hang on, this is also to do with funding, this is also to do with levels of education attainment, this is also to do with just having spare time. I know plenty of creative people who have literally no time to do their creative work. So if the funding isn’t there, could Black communities provide funding ourselves? Oh, but we don’t have the money either, because we’re historically disenfranchised! And so very quickly you come back to this question of economics and the impact of institutionalised racism.

One thing I’ve found really interesting – really through Tumblr at first – was how Black people have been really good at taking advantage of digital infrastructure. So that might be someone using Patreon to fund their education, for example. And that can be a very practical quid pro quo: ‘You’re giving me money to help with my education, I’m going to make sure I write this number of books, and share them.’ Or that might be somebody using Etsy, and saying clearly, ‘Look, this is a Black-owned business, this is how we work, come and support us.’ So there are all of these interesting things that have happened through the internet. It’s really about people saying, ‘Okay, how do we support each other, in financial terms?’

Circumventing structures that might have systemic bias.

Well, yes, even though we’re still all using those systems in a sense. It’s about doing what we can. And maybe one day, as we have more amazing software developers specialising in financial software, maybe there will be like, say, a Black, co-operative version of PayPal. So we can be like, ‘Actually, yes, this is the right infrastructure to use to share our work.’ Personally, I like to think what you’re seeing now are prototypes.

Right, because the big tech companies that provide this infrastructure are still problematic. They’re still bound up in various ways in systemic racism. But the model is there.

Exactly. The co-operative model is there.

So tell us about what you’ve been working on recently.

I’ve been doing a series of talks and workshops, and really I’m at a point where I’m documenting everything. I’m really interested in critical design theory. As my day job, I’m a user experience designer and a service designer. So I’m really interested in how we can design tech that is truly accessible and ethical. It’s kind of impossible, but it’s something to aim for!

Sure. Now if we were to pretend, just for fun, that I know absolutely nothing about critical design theory …

Okay, gosh. To be honest, I think it’s just being difficult? It’s designers who want to be difficult. (Laughs). Critical design is about interrogating where design is done, and how it’s done, and who is doing it.

Ironically, given some of the stereotypes about designers, the design industry is incredibly male, heterosexual, and white. And not only are there problems with representation in design, there are also massive problems around what we’re actually making. We’re putting in a lot of energy to make stuff that actually a lot of people don’t need, that actually harms the environment, and only profits a few people. Design is done in service to business, rather than in service to the people who are using it.

These problems are widely recognised, so that’s where the critical aspect comes in. Some of my favourite designers are Charles and Ray Eames, and the furniture they make are these really beautiful, humanistic works of art. Even they were aware of the fact that, yeah, we’re making this humanistic furniture, and yet it’s being sold to sit in massive corporate buildings, and the people who are making it are being paid a pittance.

It’s not a humanistic factory, is it?

No! So I guess that’s what critical design is. It’s that tension. Something that’s meant to be good for humans, and yet actually when you look at the bigger picture, it kind of isn’t. I tend to draw on critical race theory, gender studies and queer theory, and intersectional feminism, really to rethink how we create technologies that are community-led, rather than business-led, as so many technologies are.

Can you give us an example?

Well, I’m really interested in smart cities. The closest big city to me is Birmingham, and there’s a lot of talk about making Birmingham the next smart city. I got a fellowship with Birmingham Open Media, and one thing I really wanted to explore was, ‘Okay, instead of the smart city agenda being driven by business, as it currently is, how can we empower communities?’ So for instance, there’s been a lot of 5G wi-fi that’s been planned and put into place around the city, and a lot of that is around areas where there are businesses, because it’s often the businesses who are driving this. 

How do we change that?

The question I’m trying to explore through workshops, both at the University of the Arts London and at MozFest, is how can we get communities involved, so that we’re getting ground-up requirements, not just top-down requirements from the local council and business? To do that, I’ve been really looking at pre-colonial Igbo ways of designing as a community. So that’s very much combining a design thinking process with what you might call performativities: using the masquerade performances to interrogate how we depict user needs, and how we help people understand and communicate user needs. So that’s been quite fun.

It sounds amazing.

But it’s so difficult! You get cool stuff, and then you’re like, ‘Okay, how do I get business people to take this seriously?’ So there’s lots of really interesting stuff to dig into.

And there’s a democratic aspect to that?

Very much so. I guess that’s where the critical design came in. I was really interested by the way critical designers were interrogating technology, long before the technology actually came into common use. So they almost predicted many of the issues we’re facing today. Take television. They realised, actually, this could be a really good way of selling products. But then to do that, you’d need a context to sell things in. That led to the development of ad-driven TV storylines, for example. So they kind of already saw that …

They saw that coming.

… they saw that this would be coming. The Canadian technology theorist Marshal McLuhan talked about this. Ultimately, humans want meaning in their life. And all these other structures that used to give people meaning are disintegrating or changing or whatever. And actually the thing that gives them meaning is what surrounds them, and the moment …


… it’s advertisng, yes. So it’s interesting, because we also live in an internet which, despite the utopian promise of early cyberspace, is being driven and shaped by advertising.

And now the advertising is data-driven and targeted as well.

Yeah. It has the potential to grow and grow. Advertising is what makes money, and the money means that they can surround you with it. How do we resist or reshape that? Some of the critical design practice is also inspired by radical movements in theatre – Theatre of the Oppressed, for example, really inspired some of the service design techniques. So when we have stand-ups or check-ins, opportunities in the design process where users and people who are making it can critique and call out something in the product that’s being made. That very much comes from – I think it originated in South America, maybe Brazil. It was very much a Marxist theatre practice, this idea of getting communities involved in the plays they’re seeing. That made me think, ‘Hang on, what’s there in my own culture that we could use, that also acts as a critical perspective within the tech development process?’

That’s really incredible. I look forward to hearing more about how that develops. Do you have some recommendations of science fictiony things to read or to watch?

Let’s go from the beginning. Metropolis, the 1920s movie – partly because of Janelle Monae, who I’d also recommend – I’ve been re-watching that. I actually found Metropolis really interesting when I stopped looking at it as just, ‘Oh, early sci-fi,’ and actually really tried to think about it from the socialist perspective engrained in its envisioning. The way the masses are exploited and manipulated to do what they do. So Metropolis I found really oddly rich, actually. And that connects again to the Janelle Monae ArchAndroid video essay, I suppose. That’s what those albums are really, video essays.

Is that Dirty Computer, or is that …

No, it’s part of the Metropolis series of albums, that she did as Cindi Mayweather. So it starts off with Metropolis Suite I: The Chase, which has ‘Many Moons.’ And then it’s a whole arc through The ArchAndroid and The Electric Album. So I like those for the music, and thinking about humanity, and how groups come together and work.

Any more Afrofuturism recommendations?

I’m really fond of Pumzi, which is a short Kenyan Afrofuturist movie, set in the future where there’s actually no water, and it’s about this community that’s very very totalitarian. Then someone discovers something interesting, and off they go.

One of the weirdest ones – OK, so Sun Ra did this movie, Space is the Place which – I have to be honest, I actually don’t really like! But I think it’s quite helpful to watch. It’s really really long, it’s very much of its time. It’s got the pimps and the hos, and that kind of stuff. It’s quite surreal in a way. I like it as a piece of surrealism, but as a movie … mmph.

Then Crumbs, which is really intriguing. And that’s again – not surrealist, but – really dreamy. It’s set in this postapocalyptic Ethiopia. There are all these really interesting tidbits, like the way that what to us is tat gets used kind of like a currency. It’s funny actually, on the Star Wars panel, they were just talking about our love of memorabilia, and the crap that we buy that we don’t really need to. In this postapocalyptic future, it’s almost like the bottlecaps in Fallout, that stuff becomes imbued with value. And there’s this grand shaman who creates all these silly stories, like, ‘Ah, in the ancient times, this is what this meant.’ You’re just like, ‘That’s a plastic He-Man sword. That’s not what that was used for at all.’ (Laughs). So I’d really recommend Crumbs to watch.

Excellent. How about books?

In terms of books, Kodwo Eshun is a great writer. He talks about Afrofuturism, and he’s Black British. A lot of Afrofuturism is currently talked about from an American perspective. Eshun’s a great academic, with a really great use of language. Quite dense, but really fun actually, for me. And then Malorie Blackman – she’s basically our Octavia Butler, and I find it a real travesty that she’s not appreciated as much as she should be. Thief, I remember reading when I was eight or nine, and just being blown away by it. So I think those are enough to get you started on the journey.

That is awesome. Thank you so much, Florence!


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