Author Archive

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.

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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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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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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India leapfrogging again!

In my travels on the internet tonight, I stumbled across a small treasure: the magazine Radical Software, volume 1 issue 1 (1970) on The Alternative Television Movement. (See the issue over at

Among other things that caught my eye was a blurb on India by Gene Youngblood:

“In September 1969, the United States and India signed a pact which will bring direct satellite-to-village television for 5000 villages in India . Manually-operated generators in each vil se will provide electricity to operate one community TV set and a ten-foot dish antenna that will reach out 22,300 miles over the Indian Ocean to receive programs from two satellites. Next India hopes to have a TV satellite system that will reach directly into 560,000 villages by 1975, and for less than $200 million . Thus India has entered the television phase of the industrial equation considerably in advance of previous nations, having completely bypassed the ground relay stage and beginning with satellite television.” 

It reminded me of the discourse about India leapfrogging the modernization steps by going straight to cell phones without pervasive landlines (despite the broad distribution of village based STD stations that were more like group use, shared phone infrastructures). Here, television by satellite prefigures that same reading of the Indian leapfrog. How many times are Americans and Europeans going to be shocked that different groups of people may adopt arbitrary technologies in varied orders? Maybe one day I will be able to empathize with those for whom modernization proceeds as series of specific technologies in specific orders. Today is not that day. Perhaps you can help point me to where I can situate and understand this peculiar intellectual habit?

(I should point out that the Radical Software issue also has other passages in which people say things about TV that they will later say about the internet. For example, “the videosphere is a noosphere — global organized intelligence–transformed into a perceivable state.”)te

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Laura Portwood-Stacer on the Stakes of Media Refusal

This is one of the best things I’ve read on social media refusal. Lisa Nakamura made similar points informally many years ago, but Portwood-Stacer has gone a long distance in theorizing the stakes of refusal for those invested in care work, for identity, community, or wages.

To resist what we might identify as an exploitative labor relation by walking off the job—by refusing social media participation—would mean giving up at least two sources of value that settle on the workers themselves…Professional and Social Payoffs

Read Care Work and the Stakes of Social Media Refusal at The New Criticals

Afrofuturist speculation: an introduction

With the publication of Speculate This! and reverberations of Occupy, there’s lots of talk about futures as a method. Afrofuturism has been doing this for a while, and some DE fans have been avid readers of Octavia Butler and Samuel Delaney. For newbies like me, I’m sharing Alondra Nelson giving a 6 minute introduction to afro-futurism:

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nobrocomputing is alive!

After I posted about nobrocomputing to Difference Engines last week, some amazing things happened with other people on twitter. (All usernames here are twitter names.) JoshHonn tweeted about the post, ncecire (Natalia Cecire) retweeted that. deannaday also retweeted and cc:ed NEnsmenger (Nathan Ensmenger), a researcher on gender in computing history. @NEnsmenger responded by posting a bunch of amazing images from his research archive to his blog “Computer Boys Take Over.” ncecire and thesonginmyhead (Thomas Conner) have tweeted other amazing images at me. (Oh, and also thanks to the tumblr coders, janitors, power plant workers that make this possible.)

So I initiated the tumblr with the URL, but you can see it is already a seed generated through collective labors. Nathan Ensmenger has been co-moderating and posting more of his great images from the archive around The Computer Boys Take Over.

Volunteers wanted! You can submit images, submit ideas for kinds of images, or even submit interesting interviews and stories (though tumblr as a medium works best with a lot of images). Let’s make nobrocomputing a place where people can send images, documents, and sources that transform what counts as computing.

Paul Edwards on how to write an op-ed as an academic

“Somebody once told me that to get an op-ed published, the secret is to write 80% of it in advance and then wait for a “hook” to appear in the media. Then you write the first paragraph in the last paragraph, which has to be some kind of policy recommendation, and fire away.” – Paul Edwards in a comment on a Society for History of Technology blog discussion from October

I think I have one of these cooking that I need to write about efforts to get girls to code or celebrate women who hack. I just need to wait for the next time Google or Facebook launch one of these things. Probably a few weeks from now.