Opt Subject: Issues with modifier mechanism, UTS #52

Feedback submitted on Monday 2 May 2016, 09:00 CET to http://www.unicode.org/review/pri321/


Opt Subject: Issues with modifier mechanism, UTS #52

We are submitting these comments to the Proposed Draft UTS #52, Unicode Emoji Mechanisms because we think there are serious issues with the general implications of the modifier mechanism that was already introduced in Unicode 8 with Skin Tone Modifiers. We believe UTS #52 possibly contravenes both the mission and bylaws of the Unicode Consortium. We wish to identify issues that we hope will have an impact on decisions and future policies. We suggest a reconsideration of the underlying logic of the modifier mechanism as applied to emoji.

These comments were formulated by an international, multilingual group of researchers working in the field of software and media. We investigate and produce a wide-range of projects around the role of standards and the politics embedded in infrastructures of communication, and are using emoji intensively in our communication. We are thus deeply concerned about the directions that emoji related standards have taken so far, and are being proposed to take in the future.

The introduction of emojis into the Unicode standard shows a contradiction at the heart of the Unicode project, specifically if we consider the ways in which the precedent of Skin Tone Modifiers advance the reduction of types and attributes in the name of increased particularity. This lapse in logic exposes the inherent biases and considerable problematics that underwrites such a proposal and move. We want to emphasize that emojis are functioning in the realm of semantics rather than syntax. As a result they bring up radically other issues than those related to the domain of written characters.

We question the fundamental assumptions that diversity should be expressed through a “modifier” at all:

1. By positing a “normal” baseline against which difference is to be measured, the mechanism sets up problematic relations between the categories that act as modifiers and the pictographs that they modify. If we, for example, imagine what the consequences would be of adding “disability” as a modifier to future Unicode specifications, it is easy to understand this tension. Disability should never be conceived of as a condition of modification to a base-line standard. In practice however, it would have to be implemented exactly in this way, not unlike the way the Skin Tone Modifiers are now implemented and more importantly perceived as a “blackface” modifier to a “white” base.[1]

2. To express diversity as a “variant” is a reductive response to the complexity of identities and their representational needs. If we consider the implementation of gender variants (male, female, neutral) for example, we can foresee issues with expressing more complex gendered formations such as transgender or transsexuality. This issue would not be solved by augmenting the resolution of the variants, as the mechanism of varying between binary opposites itself is fundamentally flawed.[2]

3. The consortium should take into account how, once implemented, the modifiers will function in todays media environment. Should Unicode-compliant search engines differentiate results according to modifier categories? There is a documented case of Instagram searches that return different results depending on emoji with the Skin Tone Modifier applied.[3] We think that the responsibility for instituting such potential for segregation lies not (only) with the one who implements, but rather with the one who proposes and defines a standard. Unicode can not neglect to consider such consequences. Aside from impacting the equal access to information, the mechanism can be expected to be used in reverse, as a method to identify authors of content on the basis of their supposed race, gender etc.

4. The proposed modifiers for skin tone and haircolor are both based upon questionable external standards. In the case of the Skin Tone Modifiers, the Consortium has chosen to use the Fitzpatrick scale in an attempt to find a “neutral” gauge for skin tone. The argument was made that it ‘has the advantage of being recognized as an external standard without negative associations’.[4] In doing so, the Consortium has conflated and misunderstood a medical standard for the way human skin responds to UV exposure, with a scale that represents skin color.[5] Furthermore, the Fitzpatrick scale has a lineage to colonialism via the Von Luschan’s chromatic scale. To ignore this lineage is emblematic of implementing a standard without careful examination of its scientific, political, cultural and social context of production. In TR52, when discussing the options for haircolor, the consortium insists on a limited palette by referring to the “cartoon style” nature of emoji.[6] At the same time the proposal refers to the US Online Passport application form as the “standard” to follow when choosing this limited palette. The way the U.S. State Department chooses to view and categorize people is a particular expression of how the border control agency sees a person, it should not have to make its way into daily communications. Rather than suggesting a less “loaded” standard to follow, we argue that this is yet another example of the unavoidable and unsolvable problems that the Unicode consortium runs into with the logic of the modifier mechanism.

The origins of emojis demonstrate a certain inventiveness on the part of users, but now ‘novelty’ has been subsumed into a template of standardised add-ons or modifiers circumscribing, in effect, the creative capacities of users. Language is a realm of invention and play in which the inherent ambiguity of meaning allows for the richness of human expression. The arbitary relations between signifier and signified is something that simply cannot be standardised without severely limiting creative possibilities for communication and expression across social and technical systems. We find that the difficulties originate in the fact that the semantic layer that the emojis belong to, needs to go beyond syntax which means it is not as directly computable. Semantics cannot simply be reduced to standardised implementations or understandings without being an ideological project at the same time.

To us, the Unicode project is important as a worthy attempt to develop universal standards that are cross-compatible technically and inclusive of cultural difference: ‘to enable people around the world to use computers in any language, by providing freely-available specifications and data to form the foundation for software internationalization…’.[7] We support this basic premise, yet we are deeply troubled by the tendency towards ideological presumptions that have been the subject of fierce debates in civil society, as for instance in the case of the civil rights movement in the US. Implementation of universal standards on this basis carries a danger of augmenting racist and sexist undertones.

We hope to have demonstrated sufficiently the problems that have arisen (and will further arise) when dealing with the issue of diversity through the modifier mechanism. We understand for reasons of backwards compatibility it is not desirable to revert the decisions made for Unicode 8.0. To prevent further irreversible contraventions to the mission and bylaws of the Unicode Consortium, we strongly suggest to refrain from implementing any further modification mechanisms for emoji.

  • Geoff Cox (Associate Professor, Aarhus University, Denmark)
  • Linda Hilfling Ritasdatter (PhD candidate, Malmö University)
  • David Gauthier (PhD candidate, University of Amsterdam)
  • Geraldine Juárez (MFA candidate, Valand Academy, University of Gothenburg, Sweden)
  • Marie Louise Juul Søndergaard (PhD candidate, Aarhus University, Denmark)
  • Helen Pritchard (Research Fellow, Goldsmiths, University of London)
  • Peggy Pierrot (Independent researcher, Brussels)
  • Roel Roscam Abbing (Independent researcher, Rotterdam)
  • Susan Schuppli (Senior Lecturer, Goldsmiths University of London)
  • Molly Schwartz (PhD candidate, Malmö University)
  • Femke Snelting (Constant, association for art and media, Brussels)
  • Eric Snodgrass (PhD candidate, Malmö University)
  • Winnie Soon (PhD candidate, Aarhus University Denmark)
  • Magdalena Tyzlik-Carver (Research Fellow, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK)

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/04/10/how-apples-new-multicultural-emojis-are-more-racist-than-before/
[2] http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2014/02/13/facebook_custom_gender_options_here_are_all_56_custom_options.html
[3] http://rhizome.org/editorial/2015/dec/08/uif618-your-ascii-goodbye/
[4] http://www.unicode.org/L2/L2014/14213-skin-tone-mod.pdf
[5] http://www.beauty-review.nl/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/The-validity-and-practicality-of-sun-reactive-skin-types-I-through-VI.pdf
[6] http://www.unicode.org/reports/tr52/tr52-1.html#Introduction
[7] http://unicode.org/

Libre Graphics Meeting 2016: Other Dimensions

December 3, 2015 Libre Graphics Meeting


The eleventh annual international Libre Graphics Meeting 2016 will take place Friday 15th until Monday 18th April 2016 in London, UK. This yearly event is an occasion for teams and individual contributors/artists involved in Libre Graphics to work together, to share experiences and to hear about new ideas. By Libre Graphics we mean Free, Libre and Open Source tools for design, illustration, photography, typography, art, graphics, page layout, publishing, 3D modelling, digital making and manufacture, cartography, animation, video, interactive media, generative graphics and visual live-coding. The Libre Graphics Meeting is not just about software, but extends to standards, file formats and actual use of these in creative work. LGM has become the place in which they can discuss their projects, coordinate their efforts and, crucially, to meet in person. Participants in the LGM include developers, designers, academics and activists from around the world, who are all passionate about Free/Libre graphics software and technology.

Special focus: Other Dimensions

In Toronto we celebrated the first decade of LGM, reflecting on the past and considering the future. For the 2016 edition of LGM we continue speculating and will expand Libre Graphics into Other Dimensions. We are looking for presentations and workshops that explore the dimensions of space and material: 3D modelling and animation, Libre architecture, Open Source product design and other fields of digital making and manufacture. We are also seeking contributions that offer reflections on the ‘other dimensions’ of open source communities and that engage with FLOSS tools in various contexts including but not limited to teaching, learning, practice and co-production. This represents a desire to address the future sustainability of the Libre Graphics movement, through a growth of the core projects and topics that will, we hope, allow us to welcome more and more FLOSS projects and participants to our community.

Read the call for participation: http://libregraphicsmeeting.org/2016/call-for-participation/
Submission deadline: 10 January 2016, content selection notification by end of January 2016.

In solidarity with Library Genesis and Sci-Hub

December 1, 2015 Memory of the world

Contact: little.prince@custodians.online

In Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s tale the Little Prince meets a businessman who accumulates stars with the sole purpose of being able to buy more stars. The Little Prince is perplexed. He owns only a flower, which he waters every day. Three volcanoes, which he cleans every week. “It is of some use to my volcanoes, and it is of some use to my flower, that I own them,” he says, “but you are of no use to the stars that you own”.

There are many businessmen who own knowledge today. Consider Elsevier, the largest scholarly publisher, whose 37% profit margin1 stands in sharp contrast to the rising fees, expanding student loan debt and poverty-level wages for adjunct faculty. Elsevier owns some of the largest databases of academic material, which are licensed at prices so scandalously high that even Harvard, the richest university of the global north, has complained that it cannot afford them any longer. Robert Darnton, the past director of Harvard Library, says “We faculty do the research, write the papers, referee papers by other researchers, serve on editorial boards, all of it for free … and then we buy back the results of our labour at outrageous prices.”2 For all the work supported by public money benefiting scholarly publishers, particularly the peer review that grounds their legitimacy, journal articles are priced such that they prohibit access to science to many academics – and all non-academics – across the world, and render it a token of privilege.3
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Her, Him, It

November 10, 2015 Possible bodies

Her, Spike Jonze (2013)Her, Spike Jonze (2013)

What if instead of a throaty Scarlett Johannson, Spike Jonze had dared to make Theodore fall in love with a synthetic voice?

It.txt (save file as It.sh)


June 23, 2015 Constant

Report delivered at the fourth gathering of the Posthuman Glossary series:

pattern.en.paternalism is a contribution proposed to Pattern, a web mining module initiated by the Computational Linguistics & Psycholinguistics research center at the University of Antwerp. The pattern.en.paternalism feature should allow one to detect if and to what extent a text could be considered ‘paternalist’.

We launched the experimental development of this feature in an attempt to understand the actual conditions, context and work of annotation involved in the practice of datamining. As we slowly got to grips with the way human actors are collaborating with algorithms in establishing patterns for future recognition, we realised how much the common-sensical nature of data-mining is geared towards producing predictable, conventional and plausible results. In other words data-mining avoids surprises while promising to let the data ‘speak for itself’. We started to wonder where to locate difference, ambiguity and dissent.

pattern.en.paternalism is one of the many ways that Constant, an association for art and media active in Brussels since 1997, has been paying attention to algorithmicity and its consequences. This report opens up some of Constant’s methods and tactics, and shows how the vectors of Free software, copyright alternatives and (cyber)feminism continue to orient our collective work.

Algorithmic Cultures and Security: fourth gathering in the Posthuman Glossary series
@ BAK, Utrecht (NL)

With: Matthew Fuller, Maria Hlavajova, Rosi Braidotti, Luciana Parisi, Matteo Pasquinelli

Notes/slides: slides.pdf

The MakeHuman Bugreport

June 23, 2015 Possible bodies

blend_crouch MakeHuman is a popular open source 3D computer graphics middle-ware for the modeling of 3-Dimensional humanoid characters. The software is developed by a community of programmers, modelers and academics.

Our interest in MakeHuman was triggered during GenderBlending, an event where a participants from various backgrounds experimented at the contact zones of gender and technology.

A signature feature of the MakeHuman interface is a set of horizontal sliders, suggesting that by interpolating settings for gender, race, weight and age, any ‘human’ representation can be ‘made’. While the neat arrangements of parameters for operating on incomparable and interconnected properties is already troubling in itself, further inspection reveals an extremely limited topology, rendering the promise of infinite possibilities a mere illusion.

Despite the suggestion that the digital dis-burdens bodies from normative parameters, software like MakeHuman actually operates on problematic categorical divisions that are all-too familiar.

Aiming to address concerns and insights regarding the way the body and the human being are being co-constructed through technology, we have started to formulate a bugreport. In the context of Daemons & Shellscripts we would like to test out and discuss a performative lecture in the making, a ‘report on the report’.

Coming from different backgrounds (Femke from media-design, Xavier from animation-art and Adva from dance and choreography), our respective inquiries about the relationship between body and technology meet at times through our practices and perspectives. For The MakeHuman bugreport we will combine those to not only convey words, but actions and images as well.

With Adva Zakai and Xavier Gorgol, 28 June 2015 at Daemons and Shellscripts, MuHKA Antwerp.

Relearn 2015, call for participation!

June 14, 2015 Uncategorized


Relearn is a summerschool which welcomes persons, artists, students, teachers from all backgrounds and disciplines. Participants will gather to learn from and teach to each other, beyond the traditional paradigms of education.
Free, Libre and Open Source Software plays a fundamental role at Relearn, as it facilitates a different approach to the tools we commonly use in our practices and lives. For instance, it can allow us to understand the influence that tools themselves exert on the way they are used, or the different social relations and economies that are formed between who creates and uses them. Such a questioning approach to technology feels urgent, in a time in which more and more social, political and personal issues are addressed by solely technological means.
In continuation with the previous editions, Relearn will research convivial, experimental and deviant methods and means in the fields of design, computing and education, challenging the normal roles and separations in them (teacher/student, developer/user, art/life…).

On the website you can find additional information on some of the topics and sessions that will be part of the summerschool.

You are welcome to join Relearn from the 20th of August till the 25th. It will take place in Bruxelles, at Zinneke (http://zinneke.org).

To participate, please send an e-mail to registration@relearn.be before July 1st, including a few lines about your interest in the summer school, what you want to bring, what you hope to find.

Mondotheque: Manual for a Diffraction Machine

June 6, 2015 Mondotheque

Humanity is at a turning point in its history. The mass of available information is formidable. New instruments are necessary for simplifying and condensing it, or the intellect will never know how to overcome the difficulties which overwhelm it, nor realise the progress that it glimpses and to which it aspires”. (Paul Otlet, Traité de documentation, 1934)

mondotheque_detail_nb In 1993, the remains of Otlet’s extensive collection of documents were moved from Brussels to The Mundaneum Archive Center in Mons. Located in a former mining region in the south of Belgium, Mons is also right next to Google’s largest datacenter in Europe. Due to the re-branding of Otlet as a ‘founding father of the Internet’, and ‘visionary inventor of Google on paper’, his oeuvre received international attention. Simultaneously, local politicians are ceasing the moment, making The Mundaneum a central node in their rhetorical promise of turning the industrial heartland into a home for The Internet Age. Google — grateful for discovering their posthumous francophone roots — signed a collaboration contract with The Mundaneum in 2013. The archive center outsourced its digital archives to the search giant, allowing them to publish hundreds of documents on the website of The Google Cultural Institute.

Bringing the ever expanding entanglements gradually to light, a band of artists, archivists and activists formed. Wanting to make a difference from how geographically situated histories are meshed into generic slogans, concerned by faltering local governments pushing cultural infrastructures into the hands of global corporations and perplexed by the apparently still undigested dreams of universal knowledge, we decided to appropriate Mondothèque as a frame of reference. Imagined by Paul Otlet in 1934, La Mondothèque was to be a ’thinking machine’: archive, link generator, desk, catalog and broadcast station at the same time. The dreamed capacity of Mondothèque to combine scales, perspectives and media started to function as a diffraction device, as a platform to envision our modest but persistent interventions together.

Presentation in the context of the Public Library, Multimedia Institute – mi2, Zagreb (Croatia).

With: Dušan Barok (Monoskop); Anthony Davies & Rosemary Grennan (MayDay Rooms); Kenneth Goldsmith; Sebastian Lütgert & Jan Gerber (Open Media Library); Alberto Manguel; Marcell Mars & Tomislav Medak (Multimedia Institute); María G. Perulero & Celia Gradín (Platoniq); Noa Treister (The Ignorant Schoolmaster and His Committees); Dubravka Sekulić; Što, kako i za koga / WHW.

The Annotator

May 10, 2015 Constant
The Annotators at work (Photo: Nicolas Malevé)

The Annotators at work (Photo: Nicolas Malevé)

Machine-learning algorithms that partially automate data processing still need to be trained for every new form, or every new kind of topic the algorithm might deal with. (…) Such work of alignment is not a bug — it is the condition of possibility for keeping humans and automation working in the same world.1

During Cqrrelations (“poetry to the statistician, science to the dissident and detox to the data-addict”), we developed the pattern.en.paternalism feature.

From the start we were interested in how a Gold Standard is established, a paradoxical situation where human input performs truth, but is simultaneously made invisible. Annotation here means the manual work of ‘scoring’ large amounts of data that can than be used for ‘training’ algorithms. This scored data becomes a reference against which data-mining algorithms are trained and tested.

Read the full report: http://www.cqrrelations.constantvzw.org/1×0/the-annotator/

Exquisite Corpse

May 8, 2015 Uncategorized


The first piece in this series was written and then sent to the next contributor, and each subsequent person was only allowed to read what the person prior to them had written.

Looking outwards, what are the boundaries of gendered inclusion and exclusion in digital spaces? Looking inwards, who are the ‘we’ of cyberfeminism? Who participates? How should they participate?

Histories of the Feminist Server(s) is a contribution to Lady Justice (“Reconsidering gender and technology in the age of the distributed network”), a feature for New Criticals (“New criticism of all that exists”), produced by Tamsyn Gilbert. With: Steph Alarcon, Christina Dunbar-Hester, Seda Gurses, Jara Rocha, Femke Snelting, Sophie Toupin.

Beyond the first decade

Back from the tenth edition of the Libre Graphics Meeting in Toronto:

Pictures: Peter Westenberg. More at: http://gallery3.constantvzw.org/index.php/LGM-Toronto

Cultures Numériques

April 21, 2015 Ustensile


Surviving many flavours of chaos (thanks to a possibly over-ambitious plan to offer 90+ students a random selection of 3 out of 9 modules plus 3 lectures, taught by 10 different tutors, interfered with by numerous administrative constraints, on-going national strikes and a healthy resistance to anything involving discipline), we managed to celebrate the finale of Cultures Numériques. This experimental course at erg (école de recherche graphique, Brussels) was initiated by a group of tutors that wanted to develop a common vocabulary of the digital between students and tutors, criss-crossing through various ways one can engage with it’s cultures. The course was obligatory for all first years and gravitated around contributions to a common wiki.


The graph was collaboratively written in Graphviz .dot markup. It plots connections that participants saw between the 9 modules: Stick to standards, Digital bodies, Sound, Camouflages, Archives, Object-Oriented, Alphabet, Weaving/textiles and Editorial platforms.

With: Madeleine Aktypi, Yves Bernard, Harrisson, Ludivine Loiseau, Stéphane Noël, Camille Pageard, Stéphanie Vilayphiou, Laurent Baudoux and Alexia de Visscher.

Download graph: cn.png

Support de Fortune

[W]hat then, would become of it — this context — if transferred? — if translated? Would it not rather be traduit (traduced) which is the French synonyme, or overzezet (turned topsy-turvy) which is the Dutch one? 1

SdF-1aprilThis month, Kristien Van den Brande installed her research Support de Fortune in the vitrine of Recyclart, Brussels.

“How do supports of writing — a book or a single piece of paper, pencils, typewriters or internet pages — work on our thoughts? How do ‘chance supports’ (a train ticket, the back of an envelope, the margin of a book) challenge common ideas and practices of archiving, binding, displaying, reproducing, translation?”

With Jonathan Lahey Dronsfield, Nick Thurston we contributed artist talks and performative readings, adding to the rich collection of material (books, references, ideas) that Kristien had brought together. It was a welcome opportunity to revisit many familiar themes, an occasion for a re-take of A Romance of Many Dimensions and a first try-out of Technical Writing.

The Internet on paper

February 16, 2015 Mondotheque

In 1934, documentalist Paul Otlet wrote: “Humanity is at a turning point in its history. The mass of available information is formidable. New instruments are necessary for simplifying and condensing it, or the intellect will never know how to overcome the difficulties which overwhelm it, nor realise the progress that it glimpses and to which it aspires”. Otlet considered radio, cinema, micro-fiche, phonograph and television all worthy substitutes for the book as information carrier. He envisaged them interconnected into a ‘radiated library’, an intellectual multi-media machine that would support the publication, consultation and creation of knowledge.

From industrial heartland to the Internet age (screen-capture). Video published by The Mundaneum, 2014

From industrial heartland to the Internet age (screen-capture). Video published by The Mundaneum, 2014

Since 1993, the remains of Otlet’s extensive collection of documents are being cared for by The Mundaneum archive center in Mons. Located in a former mining region in the south of Belgium, Mons is also right next to Google’s largest datacenter in Europe. Due to the recent re-branding of Otlet as ‘founding father of the Internet’, and ‘visionary inventor of Google on paper’, The Mundaneum has called international attention to his oeuvre. The Internet giant thankfully accepted the gift of posthumous francophone roots, and adopted The Mundaneum in return.

‘The Internet on paper’ traces various narrations of media in and around the work of Paul Otlet. It is a contribution in the context of Mondothèque, a platform for experiments by artists, archivists and activists concerned about the state of infrastructures for knowledge production.


Presentation March 18 in Bergen, Norway. Contribution to The extension of many, a seminar curated by Dušan Barok for BEK, Bergen Center for Electronic Arts.

Automatic Merge Failed: Differences that matter

February 10, 2015 Akademie Schloss Solitude

diffThe production of Free Software happens within a legal framework that guarantees all users the right to run as well as study, modify, and distribute source code for any purpose. It allowed a vibrant ecosystem of networked communities to flourish, forming what Christopher Kelty has described with the term ‘recursive publics’. Software consists of hundreds of individual files and interconnected libraries that are being operated on by many different people. For managing those multifaceted objects, Distributed Version Control helps to keep track of files, visualising ‘differences’ between subsequent versions. Distributed Version Control is a type of meta-software that has become the norm in managing code development, changing the understanding of Free Software production through its orientation towards ‘forking’ rather than ‘merging’ projects. Where the heightened attention for difference could draw collaborators together to discuss and merge conflicts, the mechanisms built into Distributed Version Control makes forking a code base an easier option. Automatic Merge Failed is a close reading of the way ‘difference’ is encoded into software, and insists on it’s centripetal potential.


Presentation February 20, 2015 in the context of the workshop Quotes & Appropriations. Automatic Merge Failed started as a contribution for the exhibition I Share Therefore I am in esc medienraum, Graz (2013).