Author Archive

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.

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.

medievalpoc and critical archive production as spectacle (featuring a rumination on images of women in computing)

I’ve been following People of Color in European Art History ( this week. The experience of seeing very old manuscript paintings of Dante’s Inferno showing Virgil as a person of color just pulls a jenga piece out of the bottom of my white supremacist basic education from kindergarten onwards. According to an NPR profile, the tumblr started with an art historian sharing pieces she encountered in her own work and exchanging ideas with other academics. It seems to have spread like wildfire though. As a media / STS / informatics person, I don’t do research related to medieval people for the most part at all, but the tumblr has been powerful for me because these images of medieval Europe are so central to American education from grades 7 on. How many history classes did we have that showed images of an all white medieval West, except when interrupted by those Moors or when crusaders went a traveling? The tumblr shows mundane cominglings of people of different colors in medieval art, images purified away by dominant historical practices and pedagogy. The topic of this blog vividly, compellingly, simply puts a set of images out there and seems to have ignited people’s interest. People from different parts of the world send questions, send their own finds, or even go out and produce interviews and generate archives to contribute back. To top it all off, the production of the archive is itself a kind of spectacle — an evolving story that, as a follower, I watch with anticipation and excitement.

Then again, medievalpoc’s challenge is to place show that people of color have always been part of Europe. The public (including my) view of medieval Europe is so whitewashed, that simply the presence proof — the image — is compelling. This is the kind of text that circulates well through the dashboards of tumblr — the colorful image that catches your attention as you casually scroll scroll scroll. Once she has you, then the second argument — that people of color were actually erased follows on.

Zinc has been talking about generating archives for science and technology in the global south for a few years. Workshops and online networks of participants are one way to do it. FemTechNet has also been generating archives and materials for feminist science studies, but their efforts have been largely among networks of academics. Those academics have been working with their students to storm wikis, generate interviews, compile research. I’m inspired by the way medievalpoc seems to circulate more casually and broadly than femtechnet work and wonder if there is something to learn from medievalpoc. Medieval POC makes me wonder if tumblr can be used as one way of reaching wide audiences, collecting from many places, and making the production of the archive a spectacle and event in itself (rather than materials for the production of other events).

By analogy, maybe there’s a feminist STS project that could take similar form. Women in computing advocates (e.g. Anita Borg Institute) often use the presence of women in computing history as the exception that proves the possibility. I’ve been frustrated for a while about the way well-meaning computing institutions deal with gender in computing by simply attempting to include women (future, present, and past) in the already gendered mold of the contemporary computer programmer. Here’s a picture of Grace Hopper and some women who wrote Fortran; they could code so can you! This Google Doodle from Dec 2013 celebrates Grace Hopper by showing her as a coder directly manipulating a machine — the model of computing celebrated today as one of a person/craftsman/artist manipulating media as an act of creativity.

Grace Hopper types at a computer terminal.

Take the above Doodle, for example. It is anachronistic; during Hopper’s time and for the next few years, computer programming was considered women’s work lower in status than the  occupations of manager and scientist occupied by men. The word computer used to name women who would calculate, and even after machines were introduced, it was often those women who would manipulate them to do calculations, as Jen Light has shown. There were lots of “Computer Girls,” as Nathan Ensmenger has tracked, but they were displaced as computing professionalized as a male-dominated discipline. Let’s say nothing of how the concept of computer science was defined to exclude the computing work women were more likely to be doing — assembly, technical writing, building educational tools.

The Computer Girls do data processing on the machine, managed by men.

Is it possible to crowdsource an archive of non-men in computing in a way that also challenges the boundaries of what is considered computing? Interviews with secretaries who coded, pictures of ads recruiting women to assembly like the one found by DiffEng contributor Göde Both, scraps of evidence from information processing student in the 80s who witnessed the professionalization of Computer Science into a male-dominated Engineering bachelor’s degree course of study. Rather than women in computing, perhaps it could just be nobrocomputing. Why nobro? I was looking for a category that would let the project generate insights about the exclusions of women, people of color, queer people, and others in a concept of “computing” that privileges the participation of white men. Bro is not perfect, but it’s the most succinct I could think of for the moment. I’m happy for alternatives, please suggest!


When Colbert names it, it is a thing – makers not takers

“As a #maker, I’m sick of the low income takers out there always asking for more.” – Stephen Colbert

With a good laugh, this Colbert marks a trend we noted here at Difference Engines back in 2012 in “Mitt Romney or Silicon Valley Designer?”. There, we quoted Pinterest founder Matt Sharp as saying: “Work with really nice people whose goal it is to make things and not to take things. Because there are people out there who just want to take things.”

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Making is more than the proverbial putting labor into nature that supposedly creates value in classical political economy. This particular era’s American predilection for making marks some labor as more interesting, creative, and unalienated as the labors of those many manufacturing people in places like China. Creativity has become more than just a privileged name for everyday ingenuities. Creativity marks certain kinds of ingenuity as intellectual property and authorial attributions. Chinese hackerspace elites know this, as Silvia Lindtner’s work shows us; with the government, they work to evolve their country’s image from “made in China” to “created in China.” Creativity seems to have a race, and the sort of making that Colbert celebrates (and lampoons) is raced as well. What’s the difference between these makers and the makers who labor to create widgets? Makers doesn’t mean workers. Makers in these innovation discourses marks those who “build” whole new markets — or at least commandeer them by getting the intellectual property and commandeering the labor forces. Makers of markets — the blue ocean strategists and Schumpeterian creative destroyers — are are makers of the biggest rocks of all.