Programmed Inequality, new book by Mar Hicks

A review of a new book on the history of women in UK computing industries. The book is called Programmed Inequality by Marie Hicks.

“By the 1950s, both government and commercial agencies were waking up to the huge potential of automated data processing. What could have been an explosive opportunity for female employment was marred by dangerously antiquated management. For example, the Civil Service had a growing need for punched card and calculating machine operators, yet by forming a class of “machine operators”, Hicks tells us, it sought to create a “job category designed to deskill workers and depress wages” – a population she describes as a “feminised underclass”.

Sadly, sexism in the computer industry did not end with the 1960s. As late as the 1980s, “professional” trade shows in the UK still used scantily clad young women as marketing gimmicks on their stands – where they were subject to a range of demeaning duties.”

Also, 20 years later the same thing was happening at SIGGRAPH. I worked at NVidia in 2002 and people would pass around renderings of naked fairy characters to demo the graphics card capabilities. Permanent state of ugh. -li

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Against “Bad Guy” Critiques of Capitalism

There’s a well researched New York Times article everyone is passing around on how Uber uses psychological techniques to get more work out of its workers. The headline is “How Uber Uses Psychological Tricks to Push Its Drivers’ Buttons.”

It is easy to imagine that it is Uber and Travis Kalanick in particular who is a particularly malicious actor. Let’s #deleteuber and #deleteexploitation, or at least reduce back to previously naturalized and tolerable forms.

Uber and Travis Kalanick are not the problem. They’re just the most scrutinized (now) and obvious manifestation of how capitalism combines with social science to “create value.” Create value is what we call it when we like how people use workers and resources to make nice new things we like. Extract value is how we talk about it when we feel like something about it has violated some other ethical barrier. Many, for example, consider it free consent when someone takes on a third job to make rent and pay for health care because wages are down and housing is deregulated. But the Uber seems to cross the line when it uses interface design to nudge overwork.

Welcome to the history of American Cold War social sciences.

There’s a long post-New Deal history of the social sciences working to get employees to work harder. The Hawthorne studies were famous for finding that simply being observed by researchers was enough to make people work harder — dubbed “The Hawthorne Effect.” (They thought at first that improving lighting would make workers produce more, but found it was instead the observation.)

The Tavistock Institute, from whom we STS and Informatics people get our socio-technical system language, were also how to manage labor relations to keep industrial peace — code for preventing strikes while maintaining or increasing output. They worked with Ahmedabad industrialists in the mills, as part of a raft of Cold War projects to keep India from going red. (See Productivity and Social Organization: The Ahmedabad Experiment by AK Rice, 1958.)

In the 1980s, Total Quality Management brought worker feedback into management decision making to improve assembly process efficiency and quality. It sounds participatory, but it also increased the intensity of monitoring and communicative labor demanded of workers. (I read this a few years ago, after being a bit of a Deming fan, and need to find a cite but it’ll take me some time.)

Over the last 10 years, well before Uber, Human-Computer Interaction researchers have led the charge on researching gamification and its possibilities as a way of creating non-monetary forms of motivation.

When we make it about Uber, we miss that this is actually both the long trajectory of much post-Cold War social science. Remember how HCI was trying to gamify the workplace 10 years ago? We have been totally complicit in this as a research community.

At Computer Supported Cooperative Work 2017, we had a panel on social justice. Cliff Lampe of U Mich came to the mic and succinctly asked, “Do you think CSCW has been on the side of management rather than labor?” My jaw dropped. Few of us talk about “labor” at CSCW. I said, “Yes.”

When we blame Uber, or even blame psychologists, we miss how sociology that doesn’t look at flows of value or distributions of injury has long silently assented or assisted creating the state of affairs that makes us want to #deleteuber.

The Dick Bubble

Yesterday I gave a talk at an all-day symposium, “Philip K. Dick in the OC: Virtually Real, Really Virtual,” the opening segment of the 2016 Acacia Conference on Dick. I had been looking forward to it greatly, and there were a good many informative moments, such as a talk by UC Riverside’s Lisa Raphals on Dick’s use of Asian characters and tropes, which mainly focused on his use of the I Ching. My own paper drew on my background in techno-arts and forgery studies to look at the relationship between art, techne, and authenticity in the writings of Dick and William Gibson.

I thought I’d post about it here because in several respects it was unlike any symposium I have ever participated in. Overall, it was a strangely airless event in which few references were made to anything outside of what I came to think of as the Dick Bubble. Apart from my own talk, only one other addressed more recent writers or events—an interesting joint talk by UC Riverside’s Sherryl Vint and UC Irvine’s Jonathan Alexander on post-9/11 allusions in the TV version of The Man in the High Castle. I connect this restricted field of discussion with the fact that there was almost no direct criticism of Dick’s writing apart from Lisa Raphals, who brought up the superficiality with which Dick sometimes referred to Asia, and brief references by Sherryl Vint and myself to issues with Dick’s depiction of women. (At one point I touched on the link between female puberty and violence in Luba Luft’s murder in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and someone approached to me afterwards about this precise section of my paper—but only to ask why I had left out an extremely minor detail.) I am no specialist in science fiction, and I found myself wondering where were the science fiction scholars who could have upped the critical-historical-theoretical ante on Dick’s writing? Perhaps they’re attending the next phase of the Acacia Conference, taking place today at Cal State Fullerton; at least I hope so.

The whole event had a distinct aura of hagiography, which may have been partly due to the number of people present who had known and liked Dick—at least four by my count, and probably more. During the post-talk Q&A sessions, commenters often opened with some variation of “Phil Dick once said to me…”—and these tangential remarks left little space for substantive dialogue. The only women science fiction writers I can recall being mentioned during the entire day— James Tiptree, Jr., and Ursula Le Guin—were brought up in some context having to do with how they knew Dick rather than anything they wrote. It was as if science fiction as a field ended in 1982 with Dick’s death.

Just as troubling in a different way was the panel during which one of Dick’s former wives, Tessa Dick, and one of his former lovers, Grania Davis, shared friendly reminiscences about life with Philip Dick. Their remarks were fairly disjointed, and for the most part they steered away from discussing the writing itself, instead detailing patterns of daily life and sharing anodyne anecdotes. I could sense no real interest in the women themselves—both of whom are writers in their own right and have already published plenty of Dick reminiscences elsewhere. It was hard not to conclude that they were present as living databases that might, with luck, spew forth a hitherto unknown nugget of Dick lore that could be embedded in somebody’s thesis on Agoraphobic Constructions: Habitat in the Writing of Philip K. Dick (or whatever). At one point it was suggested that to reduce audience confusion over all the insider name dropping, a chronological list of Dick’s five wives be written on the whiteboard above Tessa Dick and Grania Davis—and that this would be a terrific photo op. Later someone reminded the audience that the two women would be speaking again today at Cal State Fullerton, saying: “I’m sure they haven’t used up all their gossip.”

So: if you’re a male academic/writer and knew Dick, you’re an authority on his life and work; while if you’re a woman who knew Dick, you’re a gossip?

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Dharma in California?


Do you love yoga, curry, and henna? Should you be worried about Hindu education in California? It depends. Who’s allowed to salute the sun? What’s cooking? Who’s teaching whom? And how?

A range of Hindu-centric religious groups have come together to make a gift of $8 million dollars, with several million more rumoured to be in the pipeline for the largest Indian Studies Centre in North America. The most vocal institutional support for this Sangh-affiliated push for a Hinduism-based curriculum reform seems to come from a small group of supporters of “faith-based” learning. Faith-based history is understood by its proponents as superior to a historiography of religion that draws from documents of conflict, hegemony, politics, and culture to craft an understanding of religion that places on par with other socially-shaped forces. The rise of faith-based initiatives accompanies a backlash against what the right wing considers the corrupting influences of Marxism, feminism, and post-colonialism.

In the first week of December 2015, UC Irvine students invited signatures in support of their request for review of these donations:

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Canon Politics

 “Hey hey, ho ho, Western culture’s got to go”

That’s a chant from the 1980s. Student protests on California campuses (at Stanford, most famously) brought national attention to the problems of Euro-centric bias in the literary canon, precipitating radical shifts in curriculum design. I’ve been thinking about the historical significance of that moment for a number of reasons. There have various cultural, political and economic shifts since the 1980s, and yet some challenges remain similar to the ones those Stanford students faced.

Here I muse – and invite your thoughts — on cross-cultural shifts, historical shifts, and challenges of canon-formation as the sites of canon-struggles migrate beyond the literary arenas of the 1980s protests.

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Kimberle Crenshaw on “The Charleston Imperative: Why Feminism and Antiracism Must Be Linked”

Kimberle Crenshaw’s The Charleston Imperative calls on feminism and anti-racism to be linked:

If the reaction to the Charleston massacre is to be realized as something beyond a singular moment of redemptive mourning, then neither the intersectional dynamics of racism and patriarchy which produced this hateful crime, nor the inept rhetorical politics that sustain the separation of feminism from antiracism, can be allowed to continue.

Decisions about where to live, how to identify a “safe neighborhood” or a “good school,” whom to police, and to whom police are to be accountable, also rest on a longstanding demonization of Black bodies. These choices, grounded in ideologies of Black threat, frame separation from Blackness as a rational choice.

Feminists must denounce the use of white insecurity — whether in relation to white womanhood, white neighborhoods, white politics or white wealth — to justify the brutal assaults against Black people of all genders.

Why Stand Your Ground laws, white masculinity, private property, logics of threat and security, human capital social mobility, and so much more are gendered and raced. I’m not sure what it means to sign the petition other than adding to a long list, but I thought it might both spread the message and make me available to them for further organizing efforts so I signed.

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What’s slowing down the slow computing movement?

flickr light Nathan Schneider’s article about the Joy of Slow Computing is a fantastic first step to the book the world needs on this subject! It’ll be like the Joy of Cooking or the Joy of Sex (definitive informative work on going deep on the topic in a way that is engaging and timeless). The brogrammer culture that further genders am already male identified dominate culture has made the tech/geek space hustle and unfriendly to folks” the learning curve as people like Lilly have already pointed out. There are of course other intersections of identity to consider in this quest such as race and class. Taking hours to switch your digital life over is something of a luxury for the middle to upper class who either have savings or one job around which they can work on such a time heavy hobby and endeavor. Similar to low income individuals being separated from the tech community because of the high entry price of time that folks need to work their jobs while going to school, etc. There is also the hegemonic nature of tech groups, thankfully changing to better reflect the population at large. But as a black woman, I’ve already experiences how I have to pay a black tax and a gender tax (work twice as hard to get half as much) in other areas of my life and tech spaces are very similar. The proving of oneself already inherent in such spaces is coupled with the surprise, shock, or distrust that a woman, a BLACK one no less can hold her own as a coder/programmer/gamer etc makes that learning curve more like a black diamond slope I’m at the bottom of (as a beginner) and have to schlep my way up to the top without one of those handy ski lifts. More of the culture, as ppl like me join and participate, is forced to change and hopefully together we can flatten the learning curve and lower the cost of entry to slow computing.

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The pleasures and gendering of slow computing

The fabulous Nathan Schneider has written a piece called The Joy of Slow Computing over at The New Republic. The piece’s URL and TITLE HTML tag reveals possible histories of the piece as “The Pleasure of Do-It-Yourself Computing” as well.

In the piece, Nathan describes the experience of switching over to open source tools as a way of forming a “consciousness” (he uses the scare quotes) about the infrastructures and political economies that make his digitally mediated life possible. Elsewhere, Nathan writes about religion, gleaning practices, activism, and capitalism. He gives an account of getting help to set up encryption, operating systems, and other infrastructures from fellows in hackerspaces and online.

My first reaction was to celebrate the way the piece foregrounds temporality of computing in this way — the slowness of moving outside of monopoly technology forms and the frictionfulness of tools that have more seams and rough spots.

Then, slowly, the latent gender of the experience Nathan describes came to me. I began imagining a small Dell netbook I hackintoshed 5 years ago and making it into a small linux book. I started to think through the process of learning to set it up, relying on others for help. And memories began to flood back of getting help in a culture where expertise and mastery is a source of pride and valor as well as a source of care. And the memory came of feeling condescended to when asking for help because I was seen as never quite a member of the gendered community of hard core techies, but rather as person they get to help.

As long as computing production communities celebrate code over affective labor, inscription over interpretation/use, I would fear that the hierarchy of value would generate microcondescension. (Do people get celebrated for submitting awesome bug reports, for example? Or teaching lots of people how to use open source tools?) I know there are lots of women linux hacker types of groups. I worry that they too celebrate the same hierarchy of value, but simply want to bring women into its higher echelons. Slow computing for me also needs to be a computing with a different hierarchy of labor and value.

(I actually posted these thoughts to Nathan over at his diaspora page, to which he responded “Yes yes yes this is so right” and that he had been thinking about the gender dimension as well. I post it to Difference Engines to extend this conversation beyond the diaspora page into the community I know lurks and reads these pages.)

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Whose right is it anyway?

This is more of a knee jerk reaction/revelation that occurred to me after I attended a colleague’s dissertation talk about Mechanical Turk, crowd work, digital labour and the future of work. What they essentially spoke about was a deeply intimate account of their encounter with Mechanical Turk (the crowdwork platform run by Amazon), their intervention to build Turkopticon (a platform from which ‘Turkers’ talk back) and finally, their thoughts on alternatives to top-down economies such as MTurk, Uber and others where workers are relegated to independent contractor positions without benefits or redressal rights and work for extremely low wages (10 cents an hour on MTurk). What troubled me, I guess, is the falling back on the imagination of co-operative models and unions as well as the evocation of the term solidarity, assuming that the publics constructed around such economies have any commonalities or larger affinities to the collective identity of being a Turker or an Uber driver.

Across my research on Uber and readings on taxi drivers (as done by Sarah Sharma, Biju Mathew and others), the questions of immaterial labour, emotional and risk labours associated with taxi driving are very much highlighted. As I go through realms of academic material on taxis and yellow cabs before ridesharing disrupted the market, it’s a striking realization that the issues haven’t changed at all! In that sense, they make my research on ridesharing slightly less exciting for novelty purposes but very sobering because they point to continuities, something that theorists of technology are not often thrilled to reckon with.

Coming back to the crowd work talk, a member of the audience asked a question about the publics of crowd work at large – the recruiters, workers, mediating companies. The speaker also briefly addressed the variety of workers on Mechanical Turk (Americans but also many Indians) and then moved on to say that not all conversations in the Turker community are positive or solely dedicated to knowledge building about Turking. To me, it seemed like they conflated ‘crowds’, ‘publics’ and ‘community’ – which all have different connotations for me. While crowds maybe incidental and accidental, publics may unsuspectingly form around patterns of consumption and conditions of production, communities definitely carry a more deliberate, aware and empowered meaning.

My question (echoed by the responses that I have been getting from Uber work) was that how do we start talking about assembled publics – those assembled by conditions of production and capital accumulation, not as innocently and naturally in alignment or solidarity as citizen subjects of different physical socio-economic contexts ? Surely, the Indian Turkers or the Indian call center employees (as Winifred Poster’s work shows) are being exploited because their wage expectations (as determined by their physical/national lifestyle and salary structures) are lower. But it is also the truth that 1) having lower wage expectations isn’t necessarily a bad thing (because it depends on what you define as good wage and the particular configuration of social support within which it is framed) and 2) platforms like MTurk and Uber are havens for those who do not fit within or have lapsed out of ideal citizen-making projects of different countries (as Sarah Sharma shows with immigrant taxi driver troubles and something that I am grappling to address in Uber work). For instance, Sharma narrates the story of an immigrant driver who came to the United States to become a doctor and started driving in a bid to settle down before starting education but never managed to return to education because he always had some bills to pay, visits to make back to his homeland and finally, no time left after driving. Mathew highlights the fact that in order to get a TLC (Transport and Limousine Company) hack license, which is a necessity apart from the regular commercial license, drivers would have to undergo compulsory 80 hours of driving, language and etiquette training, making their initial investments too big to just move on. An Uber driver I spoke to had migrated from Libya a few years ago before the 2011 Civil war because he was simply lucky to get a refugee visa but upon arrival, since he had to start afresh, get certifications that could allow him to be absorbed into regular full-time jobs, he has been driving for a while till he can get back in. What many other interviewees said is that they loved ridesharing because you don’t need a degree or expertise to drive and there was always space for more drivers.

They are not just in-between jobs or transient employment because economic demands change but also because as a trickle down of who has the right to be employed in an economy in crisis, immigrants, those with foreign diplomas, those without the language skills and cultural knowledge to stake claims to jobs will definitely start preparing to blend into the citizen/worker crowd.

Conversations about legality, rights and payment are anchored to physical geographies for good reasons and when unanchored, what can a universal discussion mostly emerging from the First World do for those who are inextricably employed and oppressed by the platform they work for? For example, if we start talking about minimum wages for hundreds of independent contractors that form the backbones of such economies, we cannot simply rally for minimum wage or some sort of a right for universal recognition because the seamless ‘digital’ nature of these enterprises fundamentally changes how we can talk about the right to be employed or paid.

Starting a conversation, then, about worker unions, solidarity and economic protections from within First World geographies, then,  may not really change the terms of work and employment for the real underbelly in the Global South. I think the argument can be extended to the (legitimate yet problematic poverty porn of) sweatshop discussions. Indeed, sweatshops are terrible because they function on uneven financial geographies but we must simultaneously interrogate those who think they are horrible. I guess what I am broadly trying to signal at is that in conversations on ‘minimum wage’, and what constitutes respectable thresholds of worker treatments, unless we find ways to include those who are employed by MTurk, Uber etc without having to uncritically fall back on the ideas of unions and cooperatives as universally good, we might find ourselves (as academics and activists) working against those who we seek to speak for.

To elaborate, Shannon Liss-Riordan, a prominent Boston lawyer has filed a class action lawsuit for independent rideshare contractors in the U.S. to be recognized as employees – a move that is widely being criticized and feared in driver communities because salaried employment status will land them in conflict with their existing and potential full time jobs, business enterprises or the windows of leisure that they have flexibly created by driving for Uber. Even further, the wage conversation appeared irrelevant to some of the Uber driver and passengers I spoke to in India because they had no conception of minimum wage with regard to taxi driving. What they wanted is to break even and get better returns. They reminded me of pirate modernities, subaltern urban forms and informal arrangements outside the legal structure; basically telling us that the State/Market-citizen/worker relationship is not either the German (pro-welfare) or the American binary (free market) but a lot of in-betweens. In which case, what citizen/workers expect from work itself needs longer and wider engagement.

In both cases, a blanket critique of the existing work configuration (and a work present/future) because it does not sync with how “we” imagine fair work and welfare is dangerous as it seeks to erase the work public (bound by temporal and financial needs) in search of the work community unicorn. What is also at play is that such theorization flattens the otherwise uneven landscapes of digitally enabled work because when it starts to locate the entire MTurk public or Uber public as a digital public, we gloss over the race, class, gender and citizenship etchings on bodies and at the same time, we also turn unions (or any other alternative to current crowdwork systems) into universally understood categories, which they are not.


Lilly pointed me to a bunch of readings that might benefit everyone:

Life Support by Vora and Cultures of Servitude by Ray and Qayum. Priti Ramamurthy’s work on feminist commodity chains: “Why Is Buying a” Madras” Cotton Shirt a Political Act? A Feminist Commodity Chain Analysis.”

I would love to hear more thoughts on this and if any writing has already been done 🙂


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Can the mad mathematical woman speak?

I just watched Proof, a 2005 Gwyneth Paltrow movie, after an elder mathematician recommended it as a film that gets math and math culture right. He rightly recommended it because gender, voice, conviviality, and time anxiety are at the center of the film.

A famous mathematician is mentally ill and spends years in his house writing in notebooks as his daughter, also a mathematician working her way through an undergraduate degree, drops out to take care of him. During these times, she labors in her room on her own mathematical work but when the work is discovered, she meets only with others’ disbelief that she could have done it. She claims authorship; her sister wonders if she is lying; another friend wonders if she is mad like her just passed father; neither the sister nor the friend (nor the audience, in many cases) can quite believe that a young woman could have done much work. I say the audience doesn’t believe it because the suspense of the film is about the question of who really wrote the proof. The movie editors themselves assume that the woman’s claims to authorship are not really claims at all.

Like in Helene Mialet’s Hawking Incorporated, Proof depicts the social milieus and distributed labors by which mathematicians live and sustain who they are. The film, like Mialet, offers an “anthropology of the knowing subject.” Proof goes more in the direction of books like Lawrence Cohen’s No Aging In India, in that it looks at how social location mediates one’s ability to become a knowing and self-possessing subject.

Like for Mialet, authorship is an accomplishment achieved by creating networks around oneself. But unlike Mialet, the film also brings into plain sight the way authorship is a claim that must be accepted — an attribution by others. Some people seem like more plausible authors than others. This process of attribution is shaped by discourses of gender and mental illness, and mediated through the ethos and everyday practices of a culture of mathematical guys.

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